Monday, July 07, 2008

Profile: Muqtada al-Sadr

Muqtada al-Sadr

[An encyclopedia article I authored, forthcoming in the Encyclopedia of Global Terrorism and the War on Terror, Diversion Press. Do not cite or reproduce without permission.]

Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr (b. 1973) is the son of prominent Iraqi grand ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Iraqi Ba’th gunmen on February 18, 1999 with two of his other sons on the outskirts of the southern holy city of Najaf. Muqtada comes from a prominent Arab Shi‘i clerical family with strong roots in Iraq and is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, as his “sayyid” title denotes. Two of his father’s cousins were Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, an activist Shi‘i cleric in the 1960s and 1970s who was executed by the government in April 1980, and Musa al-Sadr, the charismatic leader who mobilized Lebanon’s Shi‘is beginning in the late 1950s until his disappearance while on a trip to Libya in 1978. Muqtada inherited control over the influential and widespread socio-political movement, Tayyar al-Sadr (Sadr Movement), originally founded by his father during the 1980s and 1990s. During his lifetime Sadiq al-Sadr was an outspoken critic of the Iraqi Ba’thist government and was the key rival to Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, the senior traditionalist and then-politically quietist cleric in Iraq. Sadiq al-Sadr built a large following due to his activism against government repression and his supporters took over hundreds of mosques, local religious centers, schools, and Husseiniyas, the buildings where commemorations of the life and martyrdom of the Shi‘i Imams, particularly the third, Hussein bin Ali, are held.

Mahdi Army members

Following the collapse of the Iraqi government in April 2003 after the invasion of Iraq by the United States, Great Britain, and their coalition allies, the Sadr Movement was well placed to take advantage of the resulting authority void. His followers moved quickly and re-established control over more mosques and local religious centers, notably across southern Iraq and in Shi‘i districts of the capital, Baghdad, namely the sprawling, two million-resident Sadr City, formerly Revolution City under the Ba’th. Initially, Muqtada publicly recognized the religious authority of Ayatollah Kadhim Ha’iri, an Arab Shi‘i cleric who resides in the Iranian shrine city and seminary center of Qum. However, in late 2003 the two had a falling out after the latter decided not to return to Iraq from Iran. Muqtada advocates a brand of religious Iraqi nationalism, one which is informed by Twelver Shi‘i Islam. He has been critical of al-Sistani and other senior clerics in Iraq such as Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad (an ethnic Hazara Afghan) and Bashir Hussein al-Najafi (a Pakistani) who are not Iraqi Arabs. He has called for a native Iraqi Arab leadership for Iraqi Shi‘is.
The Mahdi Army, the paramilitary wing of the Sadr Movement, was founded in the aftermath of the collapse of the Iraqi Ba’th in the spring and summer of 2003 and by the spring of 2004 reportedly had between six and ten thousand members and about 500 to 1,000 highly-trained elite fighters. Muqtada has been blamed for ordering the murder of Sayyid ‘Abd al-Majid al-Kho’i, a son of the late Iraq-based Iranian Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Abu’l Qasim al-Kho’i and a mid-level cleric, who the U.S. hoped would win over Iraqi Shi‘i support for the U.S.’s post-invasion nation-building project. ‘Abd al-Majid was stabbed to death in Najaf on April 10, 2003 by a crowd angry about his appearance with Haidar Rafa‘i Killidar, the Ba’th-appointed custodian of the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf who was killed with al-Kho’i. Under pressure from the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by L. Paul Bremer, an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Muqtada in April 2004. Muqtada has denied involvement in the murders of al-Kho’i and Killidar.
In April 2004, Muqtada and the Mahdi Army launched a revolt against the CPA, which quickly spread across southern Iraq and Shi‘i districts in and around Baghdad, following the CPA’s closing of the main Sadrist newspaper, al-Hawza, and the issuance of the arrest warrant. Fierce fighting continued until early June when the interim Iraqi government under the interim prime minister, the secular Shi‘i and former Ba’thist Iyad Allawi, and the Sadrists agreed to a tenuous ceasefire. Fighting broke out again in August 2004 when U.S. and Iraqi forces attempted to execute the arrest warrant in contradiction of this ceasefire. At the height of fighting, Muqtada and several hundred of his armed supporters took refuge in the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. The U.S. and Iraqi government siege of the shrine resulted in heavy damage to the old city of Najaf. Fighting ended in late August after Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani returned to Iraq from Great Britain after undergoing medical treatment and negotiated a ceasefire. On August 25, after meeting personally with al-Sistani, Muqtada and his followers left the shrine and turned over its keys to representatives of the grand ayatollah.

Although it did not formally participate in the December 2005 national elections, the Sadr Movement’s representatives won over 30 seats in the national parliament and gained control over four ministries, including the Ministry of Health. Despite allegations that Mahdi Army paramilitaries were carrying out sectarian attacks on Sunni Arabs, Muqtada was one of Iraq’s most popular leaders, among both Shi‘is and Sunnis who respected his resistance against continued U.S., British, and coalition occupation of their country. His popularity, however, was heavily damaged when his followers were blamed for carrying out widespread revenge attacks and killings against Sunni mosques and religious leaders following the February 22, 2006 bombing of the Shi‘i al-‘Askari shrine in Samarra, purportedly by al-Qa‘ida in the Land of the Two Rivers, then headed by the Jordanian Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi before his assassination in June 2006 in a U.S. air strike.
Beginning in 2005, the Sadr Movement began to splinter as some of its leaders and members broke away to form new Shi‘i political parties and local militias. Two of the most prominent of such leaders were Ayatollah Muhammad Ya‘qubi, who founded the Fadila (Islamic Virtue) Party, and Sayyid Mahmoud Sarkhi al-Hassani, who heads a millenarian movement in southern Iraq. Other former Mahdi Army commanders and members formed criminal gangs which carried out extortion, robberies, and kidnappings-for-ransom. Some formed armed Shi‘i groups which have probably been responsible for a large number of the sectarian attacks on Sunnis that have been blamed generically on the “Mahdi Army,” which has become a catch-all term for Iraqi Shi‘i paramilitary fighters, guerillas, and militiamen.

The ensuing Iraqi civil war has made it difficult to determine which groups are actually a part of the Mahdi Army and which are independent groups operating outside of the Sadr Movement but who may still use Muqtada’s name because of his continued influence. Muqtada and his movement in Basra came under intense pressure in April 2008 when the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, launched a U.S.-supported campaign against “militias” in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra. The Iraqi forces used in this campaign were reportedly dominated by members of the Badr Corps, the paramilitary organization of Muqtada’s the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the party headed by his chief rival, Sayyid ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Hakim. Despite claims to the contrary by al-Maliki, the campaign was directed almost solely against the Sadr Movement and Mahdi Army units in Basra. The government was reportedly attempting to weaken Muqtada’s movement before provincial elections, which are scheduled for 2009 and in which the Sadr Movement is expected to perform very well. In spite of the government’s campaign against him, Muqtada decided to renew a 2007 six-month ceasefire with U.S. and Iraqi government forces for another six months. He has announced that his movement will not run on its own ticket in the upcoming elections but will instead run on independent lists. He has also reportedly renewed his religious education in the hopes of advancing his religious clerical status, which in turn would increase his personal prestige and political authority among segments of the Iraqi Shi‘i community.

Further Reading:, Sadr Movement web site.

Cockburn, Patrick. Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for
. New York: Scribner, 2008.

Cole, Juan. “The United States and Shi‘ite Religious Factions in Post-Ba‘thist Iraq.”
Middle East Journal 57 (2003): 543-566.

Jabar, Faleh A. The Shi‘ite Movement in Iraq. London: Saqi Books, 2003.

Nakash, Yitzhak. Reaching for Power: The Shi‘a in the Modern Arab World. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

al-Sadr, Muhammad Sadiq. Web site of the Martyr, al-Sadr the Second.

Visser, Reidar. The Sadrists of Basra and the Far South of Iraq: The Most Unpredictable
Political Force in the Gulf’s Oil-Belt Region?
. Oslo: Norwegian Institute of
International Affairs, 2008.

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