Muqtada al-Sadr's Power Grab
Inheriting a Martyr's Legacy
In the struggle for power within the Shiite community, Sadr has two claims to leadership: He is the son of a revered cleric killed by Saddam Hussein's regime, and he never left Iraq to live in comfortable exile. His father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was one of the pre-eminent scholars of the Shiite world. Yet he had rivalries with other senior theologians--unlike Sistani, the elder Sadr argued that clerics should be politically and socially involved--and some of that enmity has been passed on to his son.
Muqtada has tried to model himself after his father's vision of an activist clergyman, but he has been hampered by his youth and lack of religious credentials. This problem will be solved if he becomes an ayatollah, even if he can never reach the same stature as his father. Sadr may not be capable of doing the careful scholarship required of an ayatollah, but he's clearly on a fast track to attaining the title. Once he reaches that point, he will have a firm religious standing to challenge Hakim and the Shiite hierarchy represented by Sistani.
Since he emerged in 2003 as the fiercest Shiite critic of the US occupation, Sadr has been remarkably adept at using religious symbols to position himself as heir to a long line of Shiite martyrs. By doing so, he has tapped into a central trait of Shiism: dying in defense of one's beliefs, as the sect's founding figures did in the seventh century.
During months of traveling around Iraq in 2003 and 2004, I saw the same poster hanging in homes and on walls of Shiite neighborhoods: Muqtada cradling his assassinated father, blood dripping from his forehead and chest. The elder Sadr is holding up a copy of the Quran, as the faceless shadow of Shiism's founding figure, Imam Ali, looms over father and son.
In reality, Muqtada was not with his father when he was gunned down by agents of the Baathist regime in 1999. The cleric's two oldest sons were with him, and they too were killed. But the painting is one example of how Muqtada has used his father's martyrdom to build support among Iraqi Shiites--and it helps explain why young Iraqis are willing to die for him, even as senior clerics urge them to avoid confronting US forces. "Muqtada has always tried to use his father's legacy as his claim for leadership of the Shiite community," Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitta, leader of a prominent Shiite family in Najaf, told me in the summer of 2004, as Sadr's militia battled US troops. "The senior clerics have not challenged him. He is really a disobedient child who needs to be restrained."
Sadr started out as a militia leader, with the populist appeal and credibility that comes from being heir to a family of martyrs. He then turned himself into one of Iraq's most effective politicians. The elder clerics watched from the sidelines, confident that their rarefied religious authority would be more enduring than the young upstart's fleeting political power. But now Sadr is working to enhance his political influence, claiming the heavenly mandate that comes out of being an ayatollah. The disobedient child is on his way to becoming a master teacher--and an even more formidable kingmaker in Iraq.