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Muqtada al-Sadr's Power Grab | The Nation

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Muqtada al-Sadr's Power Grab

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In this report from Al Jazeera English, Nation contributor Mohamad Bazzi explains the impact of Muqtada al-Sadr's ambitions to become an ayatollah.

Quietism or Activism?

About the Author

Mohamad Bazzi
Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University, is a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday.

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I first went to Najaf in May 2003, a few weeks after the US invasion. In the warren of alleyways around the Imam Ali Mosque, fruit and meat vendors jostled with those hawking prayer beads, gold-leafed religious books and faded postcards bearing the stern photos of various clerics. It is a place of religious intrigue, where men speak in whispers outside the homes of Shiism's leading theologians. The rumors that emerge from Najaf's dusty alleys make their way to the rest of Iraq, and they are carefully dissected by the country's Shiite majority. This is the world of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Amid the euphoria that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime, clergymen debated their role in politics. Sadr and his supporters argued that they must fill the void left by the Baathist system. They also defied the US occupation and its plan to install an interim government made up mainly of exiled Iraqi politicians like Ahmad Chalabi and Ayad Allawi.

On the other side were the Najaf traditionalists and disciples of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered cleric in Iraq, who viewed political power as fleeting. One afternoon, I went to the home of Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Kharsan, who at the time was 42 years old and considered one of the best "young" theologians of Najaf. Like most Shiite clerics, he lives in a modest house, down an alleyway where sewage runs along the side of the street. The walls are bare, except for a poster of Sistani and a Quranic verse. "Politics involves getting ahead through tricks and deception; these are not the things that Shiite clerics should be involved with," Kharsan said as we sat cross-legged on a floor covered with faux Persian carpets, drinking sweet tea. But as a religious leader, he argued, you could ultimately hope to wield far more influence than a mere politician. "When you are a government minister, there is a prime minister above you. Maybe you can serve for four or five years, and then you are out," he said. "People trust us with their lives, with their money, with their spiritual welfare. We want to win the hearts and minds of people forever. That is not something that politicians can do."

Sadr wanted to be both: a respected cleric and a politician. Shortly after the US invasion, his followers took control of hospitals, schools and mosques in parts of Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. They provided social services in the absence of a central government. Posters of Sadr and his assassinated father lined the walls of Shiite neighborhoods. He drew tens of thousands to his rallies and Friday sermons. He created a militia, the Mahdi Army, which had several thousand fighters--most of them poor, young Shiites from Baghdad's slums and southern Iraq. In 2004 Sadr twice instigated revolts against US troops in Shiite sections of Baghdad and southern Iraq. The Mahdi Army was crippled in its confrontations with US forces, and Sadr's future was in doubt.

But the cleric's followers infiltrated Iraqi security forces and regrouped as local civil defense units across southern Iraq. In the towns where Sadr's fighters hold sway, they enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law. They have bombed liquor stores and movie theaters, and they harass women who do not wear full veils. They also run death squads that assassinate Sunnis and drive them out of Shiite neighborhoods.

During Sadr's first uprising, in April 2004, I often heard his supporters in Baghdad chanting: "No Sistani, no Hakim, Muqtada is our zaeem." It was a carefully chosen slogan, meant to avoid insulting Sistani or to challenge his religious authority, but also to portray Sadr as the best zaeem, or political leader, for Iraqi Shiites. "Muqtada stood up to the Americans from the first day they came to Iraq, while the other clerics stayed quiet," a 22-year-old fighter in the Mahdi Army once told me when I asked why he respects Sadr. "Muqtada is young, that's true. But he has a right to lead the Shiites of Iraq. And he never left Iraq like those other clerics who went to live in London while Saddam massacred the Shiites. Muqtada suffered like the rest of us."

By the time elections were held in December 2005, Sadr managed to turn his strength on the Iraqi streets into political influence, with his supporters winning thirty seats in the 275-member Parliament--the largest share of any single faction. Over the past year, US forces have again targeted Sadr's militia, and in protest he withdrew his ministers from Maliki's government. But Maliki still relies on the cleric's support in Parliament. In the end, Sadr proved himself to be a better politician than a militia leader.

Because Sistani and other clerics shun political involvement, they create a power vacuum in the Shiite community. Sadr's early challenge exposed how distant the senior clerics--especially those affiliated with the Hawza, the Shiite school of learning in Najaf--had become from the Shiite masses. "The question must not be, 'What is wrong with the Shiites who rally around Muqtada al-Sadr?' Rather, it must be, 'What is wrong with the grand ayatollahs who lose their constituents to Muqtada?' " wrote Abbas Khadim, an Iraqi Shiite who teaches Islamic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, in Al-Ahram Weekly in August 2004. "They cannot hide behind their theological jargon in the middle of crises. If they fail to act, someone else will pick [up] the pieces." In this case, Sadr was ready and waiting.

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