Last Saturday (Aug 14) negotiations to end the fighting in the Iraqi city of Najaf broke down, threatening to spark a resurgence of the fierce clashes between the followers of the Shi’a religious leader Moqtada Al-Sadr and a combined U.S.-Iraqi force that has plagued this holy city for more than a week.
The collapse of talks will likely negatively impact Iraq’s National Conference, which started Sunday (Aug 15), gathering some 1,300 delegates from all over Iraq.
Al-Sadr along with Sunni religious leaders refused to attend the Conference, saying that any political gathering of the type while Iraq is an occupied country does not represent the free will of Iraqis, and thus it is null and void.
Moreover in an extraordinary show of unity, religious leaders of both Sunni and Shi’a issued a religious ruling (fatwa) to say that it is treason, both religiously and nationally, for any Iraqi to collaborate with the occupiers.
Thus the Iraqi resistance, both politically and militarily is taking a new dimension, causing serious headaches to the Bush administration.
And on the ground in a show of unity the Sunni city of Falluja, under siege itself by the Americans in central Iraq, is supplying the Shi’a city of Najaf in the south with needed food and water.
But who is this young religious leader who is challenging the occupation forces of the most powerful military in the world? Who is this man, who was offered a leading government Minister job by the Americans, but turned it down?
To Iraqis, the young man, in his thirties is a hero in life and a martyr if killed or assassinated.
The young Al-Sadr is the fourth son of Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr, a pre-eminent Iraqi religious scholar. The young Al-Sadr, at age 25, saw his two elder brothers assassinated by the Iraqi regime along with his father in 1999.
Earlier in 1980 the young Al-Sadr as a child saw his father taking delivery of the corpses of his cousins, Imam Al-Sayyid Baqir Al-Sadr and his sister, after they had been executed by Saddam Hussein.
The young Al-Sadr found himself responsible for a family of widows and orphans — his mother, his brothers’ wives, his sister whose husband was also assassinated, and a large number of nieces and nephews.
This gave the young Al-Sadr a sense of power to change what came out of Iraq, and he pledged to speak out against oppression, aggression, and injustices committed either by fellow Iraqis like Saddam Hussein or later by the occupation forces.
He became a father, not only for his devastated family but for the people of Iraq who have been orphaned –” first by Saddam Hussein, then by brutal years of sanctions and finally by aggressive invasion and oppressive occupation.
Although the young Al-Sadr has not attained the position of a Marja’ (spiritual leader) among the Iraqi Shia religious hierarchy, following the American occupation he has found himself the spiritual leader of thousands of young Iraqis who resist the occupation.
The young Al-Sadr was and still is critical of religious leaders who do not speak out against injustice. Since 1997 Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who remained secluded in his home until he went to London last week for surgery, was most criticized by the young cleric.
Al-Sadr called Sistani’s Hawza (seminary) "the silent seminary" while he advocated a different type of seminary, Al-Hawza Al-Natiqa "the vocal seminary" which speaks for the people of Iraq, the orphaned.
The Al-Sadr militia does not pose any threat to the U.S. forces. But Al-Sadr made it clear that the Americans have to leave soon. His supporters are also becoming more popular, providing needed social services in the Shi’a cities of Najaf, Kufa and Karbala in the south and at the Al-Sadr city, a suburb of Baghdad.
And this goes against the Bush Administration’s desire for total domination in Iraq.
Listening to the young religious leader speak to his supporters or to the press, you cannot help but believe that this young man is telling the truth –” liberation, peace and justice for his people are his deepest aspiration.
Like Joan of Arc, Al-Sadr is a soldier and a saint.