What exactly is so "radical" about Moqtada Sadr?

As US forces run amok once again in Iraq, faithfully aided by the puppet regime of Iyad Allawi, the spotlight has again fallen on rebel Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr. While the media cannot resist calling him "radical", it is in fact very difficult to find any basis for this description.

A consistent centerpiece of his policies has been his staunch opposition to the occupation of his country. "There can be no politics under occupation, no freedom under occupation, no democracy under occupation," he said this month. What is so radical about that? If his Mehdi Army were patrolling and bombing London, New York or Washington, I would be astonished to find media descriptions of US and British resistance as "radical".

His opposition to foreign occupation cannot be explained away as support for Saddam Hussein, who persecuted the Shias so ruthlessly. Sadr and his family were vehemently opposed to the dictator and his regime, and for this they paid a heavy price –” Sadr’s uncle was executed in 1980, and his father and two brothers were shot dead in February 1999, forcing him to go underground.

Although Sadr’s opposition to occupation has been consistent, he only turned to armed resistance over a year after the invasion of his country. During that time, his sermons called for non-violent resistance and he stopped short of invoking a jihad against occupation forces.

While death and insecurity have reigned in Iraq, when Baghdad fell Sadr supporters took control of many aspects of life in the Shia sector of the city and in the south of the country, appointing clerics to mosques, guarding hospitals, collecting garbage, operating orphanages, and supplying food and essential supplies to Iraqis hit by the hardships of war. I cannot imagine anything less "radical" than garbage collection, hospital security, the welfare of orphans or feeding the hungry, especially since the occupation authorities resolutely failed in their responsibility under international law to provide such basic and vital services.

Indeed, the media overlooks the fact – as it does with many organizations that happen to have a military wing, such as the Palestinian Hamas or Lebanese Hezbollah – that Sadr runs a network of schools and charities built by his father. What is he possibly thinking, providing impoverished Iraqis with education and social welfare as their country descends ever-faster and deeper into turmoil?!

Sadr was not provoked when a cleric associated with him was arrested in September 2003. When Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, formed the Iraqi Governing Council, Sadr did not turn to violence, but instead on October 10, 2003, announced the formation of an alternative government to replace those handpicked by foreign occupiers.

When coalition forces closed his Al Hawza newspaper in March this year, Sadr’s supporters staged peaceful protests against this blatant infringement of the media freedom the invaders claimed to be trying to foster. Peaceful protests also followed the arrest on April 3 this year of his senior aide Mustafa al-Yaqubi, and threats to arrest Sadr himself.

The response from the occupation forces was armed and fatal for numerous Iraqi civilians, after which the protests turned violent and Sadr proclaimed on April 4 that his peaceful means "have become a losing card" and that "we should seek other ways…terrorise your enemy, as we cannot remain silent over its violations." Bremer, whose administration undertook an illegal war against Iraq, called him an "outlaw".

Mike Whitney, writing for Counter Punch, put it well in an article on May 11, 2004: "His call to arms only occurred after he had exhausted the conventional democratic methods of expression. This being the case, the appellation of ‘radical cleric’ is just another of the ‘unproved assumptions’ brandished by western journalists to promote the overall goals of the occupation. It is another illustration of the manipulation of language to mold public perceptions. It is tantamount to ideological warfare."

Even through armed resistance to occupation, Sadr has stuck to well-defined limits. He has denied involvement in car bombings and assassinations; he denounced the August 2003 attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad; he had urged his followers not to attack Iraqi security forces, until their current involvement in US onslaughts; he is opposed to the taking of journalists as hostages, though when he arranged the release on August 13 of Daily Telegraph reporter James Brandon, the newspaper cynically called it a "propaganda opportunity" and has continued to describe him as "radical"; and in a sermon in July this year he condemned the beheading of foreign workers:

"There is no religion or religious law that punishes by beheading. True, they are your enemies and occupiers, but this does not justify cutting off their heads."

Sadr’s eventual use of armed resistance has certainly not been viewed as "radical" by his compatriots. In a June 2004 poll conducted by the CPA, 81% of Iraqis said their opinion of the cleric was "much better" or "better" after his first uprising than before. The reason for this, if any were needed, is that in the same poll, a whopping 92% of Iraqis considered the US-led forces as "occupiers" and only 2% viewed them as "liberators", while 55% wanted them out of the country immediately.

Sadr has condemned Allawi as an extension of the occupation, and has dismissed the June 2004 "handover of power" as a farce. He is simply stating fact –” the interim prime minister was appointed by the US, has wholeheartedly supported US acts of aggression in his own country, has had links with British and American intelligence services, and supports the continued presence of foreign troops in the newly "sovereign" Iraq. Allawi’s heavy-handed, compliant rule has not gone down well with the population –” the Financial Times reported a recent poll showing his approval rating at just 2%, tied with Saddam Hussein!

Sadr condemns those who cooperate with the occupiers, and has expressed solidarity with the Palestinians: "The fate of Iraq and Palestine are the same." While the US regularly threatens Syria and Iran, further destabilizing the Middle East, Sadr has vowed not to allow any attack on his country’s neighbours from Iraqi territory. He has called for unity between Sunnis and Shias, and Iraq’s territorial integrity. These policies surely meet with overwhelming approval from the Arab and Muslim worlds, war-weary Iraqis and others globally.

But the adjective "radical" still sticks, though this defies the widespread popularity Sadr has gained nationally and regionally. He has the allegiance of the followers of his late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadi Sadr, who was one of the most powerful clerics in Iraq. He is able to mobilize the masses throughout southern Iraq and the Shia sector of Baghdad, home to 2 million which was renamed Sadr City after Saddam’s fall. His armed resistance has drawn support from Sunnis and Shias throughout Iraq, the Middle East and beyond, as well as condemnation of US heavy-handedness, even from within Iraq’s interim government.

Despite this, Sadr has sought diplomacy. He agreed to a truce in June this year which ended his first uprising, and during the current fighting he has invited mediation from the Vatican, and expressed his willingness to accept a UN force in Iraq. Contrast this with Allawi’s uncompromising stance that there can be "no negotiation" with militias.

Sadr is also prepared to disband his army and form a political party to contest next January’s elections. Fuad Maasum, chairman of the committee organizing Iraq’s current national conference to which Sadr was invited, said this is "a positive step and his movement has roots in the country."

How far Iraqi leaders have been willing to accommodate Sadr is evident in the fact that they are ignoring a decree passed in Baghdad which prevents individuals from entering the political process unless they have been out of their militia for three years. Sadr, who does not fit this profile, is being invited anyway.

Calling him "radical" is not only a misrepresentation of his policies, it is an insult to all those who oppose foreign occupation and domination, religious in-fighting and regional instability. One does not have to be Shia, Iraqi, Arab or "radical" to see that.