Despite reports that Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebellious clergyman who returned to Iraq this week after four years in Iran, has adopted a “moderate stance,” his speech at a mosque in Najaf on Saturday proved quite otherwise. He is, still, militantly anti-American, and he’s served notice on Prime Minister Maliki’s government that any deal with the United States to extend the American troop deployment in Iraq past the end of 2011 is out of the question.
Here, collected from a wide variety of news accounts, are a series of direct quotes from Sadr’s speech, delivered to thousands of enraptured religious Shiites who treated his return to Iraq like the return of the so-called Hidden Imam. (In fact, like many of his co-religionists of the extreme or fundamentalist persuasion, including Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Sadr appears to believe that he’s paving the way for the imminent return of the Imam, who is said to have vanished mysteriously thirteen centuries ago. Sadr’s followers plastered Najaf with posters proclaiming Sadr to be “The Preparer,” i.e., one who prepares the return of the Imam.)
Most of Sadr’s speech, however, was entirely earth-focused:
“We say to the Iraq government: Enough occupation and enough slavery! We heard that the government has pledged to get the occupation out, and we are waiting for the promise.... We’re watching you...
“This year, we have been overwhelmed with politics, so overwhelmed with politics that we have forgotten that we are an occupied country, and that our first objective should be to get rid of the occupation. It is a legal and religious obligation…
“Resistance, yes, resistance! But not everyone will carry weapons. Only those qualified will carry weapons.
“Let’s annoy the occupier.… What’s up? Are you scared of the Americans? [Crowd: ‘No, no to America!’] That’s better.”
What Sadr’s return means, exactly, for Iraqi politics isn’t completely clear. Some analysts, quick to underscore Sadr’s anti-Americanism, have pointed out that Sadr is a powerful enough player in Iraqi politics today that he can singlehandedly prevent Maliki from endorsing the extension of the American troop presence in Iraq, as advocated by the Brookings Institution and by Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador top Iraq. Indeed, last week, Maliki proclaimed his intention not to ask for US forces to stay past the deadline of December, 2011, saying instead that Iraqi forces could handle security challenges on their own.
Sadr does have clout, thanks to the forty seats his faction controls in the Iraqi parliament, and to the kingmaker role he played last year in backing Maliki and breaking the stalemate held over from the March, 2010, elections. But it’s also true that if Maliki were to decide, under strong pressure from Washington, to ask for an extension of the US military commitment, including the resupply of the Iraqi armed forces with advanced American weapons, aircraft, and tanks, he might be able to weather the defection of the Sadrists, even by bringing in other parties such as Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc.
More important, Sadr’s clout derives–to an unknown extent–from the backing he receives from Iran. The Sadr-Maliki pact was assembled late last year in Tehran and Qom, where the two men met for the first time since the attack on the Sadrists ordered by Maliki in 2007. That battle, which ended in an Iranian-brokered truce, forecast the Iranian-brokered deal between Maliki and Sadr in 2010. Indeed, last October, the Guardian reported extensively on the background of the Sadr-Maliki accord in Iran, which involved a meeting between the two men, along with a senior representative of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and General Qassem Suleimani, commander the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who arranged the 2007 ceasefire between the Iraqi government and Sadr’s Mahdi Army. (The Quds Force is the IRGC’s foreign operations unit, a kind of intelligence agency combined with Special Forces, and it has chief responsibility for Iran’s influence in Iraq.)
As US influence declines in Iraq, Iran’s is certainly rising. Acting Foreign Minister Salehi of Iran, who previously was Iran’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, visited Iraq last week, meeting with key players including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. And a big Iraqi delegation is in Iran this week, led by the prime minister of Iraq’s Kurdish region, Barham Salih, who met with top Iranian officials, including Ali Larijani, the parliament’s speaker.
What’s not clear is what Sadr has been doing in Iran for four years. Ostensibly, he was studying to advance in the clerical hierarchy, with the ultimate goal of becoming an ayatollah, though he’s far too young and unschooled to achieve that rank soon. According to Babak Rahimi, an Iran analyst, Sadr may been studying under Kazem Haeri, an ayatollah in Qom, Iran, who’s long been Sadr’s mentor of sorts, or he may have been studying under ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammed-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, the spiritual mentor of President Ahmadinejad, who is the hardest of hardliners in Iran. The Washington Post cited a Sadr partisan in Najaf who said that Sadr was studying under a clergyman “close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.” In any case, said Rahimi, Sadr was “trained under someone with hardline influence” and “therefore he has the backing of Tehran.”
The Tehran Times, a daily tied to the current hardline regime, headlined its coverage of Sadr’s return: “Sadr urges resistance to occupation.” It quoted Sadr urging Iraqis to “reject America.”
In the quotes from Sadr above, it’s clear that he’s holding on to the possibility of resorting once again to armed force if Maliki strays off the reservation. Of course, Maliki, too, is close to Iran and doesn’t want to do anything to incur Iran’s wrath, so American leverage on Maliki will become less and less as U.S. troops draw down. But it’s unclear just how powerful Sadr’s militia is at present. The original Mahdi Army, which was said to have had 60,000 men under arms in 2004-2006, has been dissolved, and it was replaced with a supposedly more elite force, the Promised Day Brigade, more disciplined and less likely to engage in the sort of horrific ethnic cleansing and mass-murder campaigns that Sadr took part in during those years. How strong, exactly, is the Brigade isn’t known. But Maliki isn’t likely to want to find out.