Comeback cleric

As fighting broke out in Kufa and other southern Iraqi cities last month, Muqtada al Sadr became a far bigger name than even he’d ever expected. George W. Bush struggled to pronounce "Mugtadaa", but still singled him out; CNN, and all major media outlets led with stories about him, his Army of the Mahdi militia and their armed insurrection.

Yet just a few months ago, Sadr was a washed up political player. Unable to deliver a mass following, Sadr had relegated himself to being a troublemaker. New evidence suggests that even after he issued the dreaded call for Jihad, the battle fizzled. Sadr’s associates now admit that their Mahdi’s militia was outgunned and poorly managed. They simply couldn’t drum up the popular support they needed for a full-scale insurrection. Sadr couldn’t even pay for arms he attempted to buy from arms dealers.

At stake in the war of words and of bullets is the very future of Shiite power. As the center of gravity of Shiadom gradually moves from the holy city of Qom in Iran back to Najaf, the ensuing powerplays in the city may have a major influence on the future course of Islam’s minority sect. In the latest salvo, Sadr appears to have made some major inroads. "I can’t understand why the Americans did this, when al Sadr was losing support," said one aide to a Governing Council member. "He’s been given way too much legitimacy."

Legitimacy is exactly what al Sadr has been seeking. Ultimately, he is locked in a fight with the clerics who make up the Hawza, the Shiite equivalent of the Vatican. They include major figures like Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Bashir al Najafi, Mohamed Ishaq al Fayadh and Mohamed Taqi al Mudaressi. Collectively they are the four marjas or grand ayatollahs of the Hawza, a sprawling complex of schools and centers in Najaf that until the Iranian revolution was the heart of Shiite Islam. With the Iranian revolution, the Iranian government managed to move that center towards Qom in Iran. Now Sistani and his cohorts are working to bring Najaf back to its old glory. In the process, they may also be pushing to redefine the concepts of political Islam popularized by the Iranian Revolution.

In many ways the philosophical opposite of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Iranian Revolution, Sistani has long preached that the clergy remain out of Islamic politics and out of government. Instead, the Hawza would become a center of political influence. In that regard Sistani and Sadr are polar opposites in a dispute that dates back to Sadr’s father, Mohammed Sadeq Sadr. The two elders vied for the highest positions of the Hawza, the elder Sadr preaching a more pro-Iranian line, while Sistani preached "quietism" in the face of Saddam’s tyranny. The remaining orthodoxy lie somewhere in between. At stake for either side are billions of dollars in support from the Shiite khums, or the tithe donated by Shiites in Iran, Iraq, and–more importantly–the Arabian Gulf and the west. Government backing from Iran, Gulf countries and numerous other Muslim countries is adding even further resources to the fire.

Sadr, barely over 30, is backed by clerics in Iran and increasingly by Shiite leaders connected to Hizballah in Lebanon and has sought to prove that what he may lack in Islamic smarts, he more than makes up for in political and military might. In fact, by choosing Najaf to be his refuge this month, Sadr attempted to turn the war into a struggle between infidels and Shiites. So far that strategy has succeeded moderately well.

After announcing the formation of his Army of the Mahdi last summer, Sadr also brazenly stated that he would launch a shadow government to "protect" Iraqi interests and stand up to the Coalition. The shadow government was to be hand-picked by Sadr, and would have had everything from a foreign minister to an interior minister. But come the day of the unveiling last fall, nothing happened. Sadr simply couldn’t sell the idea, aides admitted, and he decided to cancel it at the very last minute.

Months ago, the failure was a clear sign of Sadr’s standing in Iraq. For all the noise and posturing, Sadr simply wasn’t managing to make a dramatic impact on Iraqi politics. Save a few localized areas like the dirt-poor Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City (renamed for his fallen father), Sadr’s brand of Shiite iconoclasm wasn’t selling. And soon, his flame was fading from the Iraqi political scene. "There is only one person who can bring out a million people into the streets," said one leading Iraqi politician. "That’s Ayatollah Sistani. All the others are just pretenders."

Sadr’s fervor was also too hot for most Shiites. His line has played well with Iraq’s most disaffected–poor young men, former military men and even Baathists disgusted by Shiite leaders’ willingness to engage the Americans. His fortunes plummeted after a firefight with Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s militias in Kerbala. Sources say such violence in one of the holiest shrines of Shiadom prompted his main backer in Iran, Ayatollah Kazem al Husseini al Haieri, to recall him. Sources say Haieri emphasized that Sadr had gone too far with the fight and rescinded his backing. Sadr soon began changing his ways. His media men attempted to repaint him as a politician ready to negotiate. He ceased decrying the United States as Satan. In an English-language open letter to the "American"–distributed in Sadr’s al Hawza newspaper–Sadr wrote, "Iraqi people love and intend not harm to you."

"The Iraqi people only want what is good for the Americans, because they are not the enemy," he told the London-based Arabic newspaper, Al Zaman. He even said he hoped to be "attending [the Americans’] meetings soon" to further the common goal of a stable Iraq.

But all that stopped when US troops showed up to shutter the doors of Al Hawza. By the time the Coalition arrested Sadr’s advisor, Yaqoubi, Sadr was able to whip the crowds into a frothy, fiery mass. But as events unfurled, his associates now admit, the Mahdi army was quickly outgunned. Muqtada soon gave the call to negotiate.

"Sayyed Muqtada al Sadr issued his order to fight the occupiers the same day the Polish and American forces used artillery shells to squash a peaceful demonstration in Kufa killing many innocents and preventing their delivery to nearby hospitals for treatment," said Sayyed Hazim al Arraji, Sadr’s spokesperson in Baghdad. That Jihad fatwa was issued directly after the "massacre" that happened in Kufa and Baghdad, said al Arraji. Sheikh Raad al Khadimi, another Sadr aide, said Sadr had actually called him in Kufa and called on him to fight. Both men now admit that Sadr entered negotiations with the Americans because, "grave mistakes were committed."

"Unfortunately, our munitions stores are outside Baghdad, mainly in Kut, and they were attacked and all ammunition were confiscated by the Americans after the start of the fight," said Khadimi. The Americans thus cut all military supplies for the uprising. "We were relying heavily on the stores outside Baghdad because they were well-equipped with weaponry and were difficult to find," Khadimi added.

"We were prepared to drive the Americans outside the city, but lack of weapons greatly affected the whole operation," conceded Adil al Kaabi, Sadr’s spokesperson in Sadr city. The task of quelling the fighting then came down to Sayyed Abdul Karim al Enzy, director of the main political arm of al Dawa Party, who has been entrusted with negotiating with the Americans over Sadr. For Shiites throughout the world, the outcome will no doubt have dramatic implications.