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The Return of Moqtada al-Sadr

10/01/2011

Moqtada al-Sadr has returned to Iraq after a self-imposed exile of around four years. According to his movement, Sadr has been pursuing religious studies in the Iranian holy city of Qom. Though physically absent, the sayyid has cast a long shadow: this was by no means an i’tikaf, a spiritual and scholarly withdrawal. Pulling strings from Qom, Sadr led the renewal of a broad Shia bloc in the Iraqi National Alliance, joining with the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI) of the rival al-Hakim clerical dynasty, whose Badr brigades used to battle the Mahdi Army in the streets. His movement contested the March 7, 2010 parliamentary electionswith vigour, taking 39 district seats. Then he dexterously reversed his position to join al-Maliki’s coalition, helping to end months of post-election drift. The deal involved the release of hundreds of Sadrists from Iraqi jails and handed the movement a number of cabinet posts. Meanwhile, Sadr was no stranger to the courts and palaces of regional power, leapfrogging his native Iraq to pay a visit to Damascus in July. As all this unfolded, hands wrung in Washington as it became clear that one of the most implacable antagonists of the US presence in Iraq, the former leader of vicious sectarian and insurgent violence, was not, after all, going away.

Moqtada, who carved out a role for himself in post-Saddam Iraq through fire and brimstone, appears eager to project a somewhat different image this time round. His first stop was the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. In April 2003, the shrine had received another traveller returning home after a long exile. Like Moqtada, he was the scion of one of the great Shia clerical families. Abdul Majid al-Khoei, the son of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qassem al-Khoei, was murdered in a chaotic melee widely suspected – not least by the Iraqi judiciary – to have been incited by Sadrists. A very different set of manners was on display on Wednesday, however. In response to the tumultuous crowd that turned out to greet him, Sadr issued a writtenstatement:

I did not know you like that. Your indiscipline while I was performing my religious rituals bothered me and hurt me. I beg you to be disciplined, and not to shout excessive slogans. The stampede hurt me, and hurt others, and this will tarnish the image of our movement in the eyes of others.

Sadr’s first speech since his return would seem to reinforce this impression of a somewhat mellowed operator. After an obligatory – if comprehensive (“We are still fighters… We still resist the occupier, by military resistance, and all the means of resistance”) – nod to muqawama (resistance) against a “common enemy” identified as the US, Britain and Israel, Sadr denounced all violence between Iraqis, in the name of national unity:

Our hand will not touch any Iraqi… we only target the occupier, by all means of resistance. We are one people. We don’t agree with some groups that carry out assassinations…If the conflicts took place among brothers, let us forget this page and turn it forever, and live united in peace and security.

He also reportedly called on his supporters to give the new government time to secure a US withdrawal by “suitable” means, and appeared to emphasise non-violent resistance: “Our aim is to expel the occupier with any means. The resistance does not mean that everyone can carry a weapon. The weapon is only for the people of the weapons.” Interestingly, he also staked the government’s legitimacy on its ability to deliver services to the Iraqi people – as opposed to any particularly ‘Islamic’ credentials.

Not all observers have described a ‘new’ Moqtada. The Saudi-owned Asharq Al-
Awsat stressed continuity, covering the speech under the headline: “Sadr Exhorts Iraqis to Resist US”. David J. Ranz, spokesman for the US Embassy in Iraq, was also cautious: “We listened to the speech, but heard nothing new”. Still, for a man who used to routinely deal in violence in the cause of a theocratic order in Iraq, the moderated tone is striking enough, and bodes well for the stand-down that has prevailed since 2008, the direct product of US and Iraqi military pressure in Baghdad and Basra.

For some, Sadr’s return represents a consolidation of Iranian influence in the country. This is not clear. The Sadrist platform is strongly nationalist, and Moqtada has previously castigated rivals for being too close to Iran – even going so far as to taunt Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani over his Iranian origins. Under the US regency, Iran and Sadr were natural allies. But with the ‘imperialists’ apparently determined to leave by the end of the year, their interests may drift apart. Perhaps it has also not been entirely forgotten that, while Moqtada is himself a recent recipient of Iranian hospitality, his forebear, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, was not so lucky. In 1979, as the Ba’athist net closed in, the ‘first Sadr’ had his courteous request of asylum denied by the newly ensconced Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (this history has been vividly retold by Fouad Ajami).

As it stands, this developement presents one possible face of politics in a post-American Iraq: heavily religious, historically violent, anti-Western (or at least hostile to any special US privileges in Iraq as a legacy of the conflict); but at the same time democratically engaged, genuinely representative of constituencies, capable of compromise with former enemies and across sectarian divides, and at least tentatively non-militant and nominally subject to the rule of law. Only time will tell if this model holds.