Monday, October 13, 2003

THE STREET-THUG CALLED AL-SADR: After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime there were three prominent candidates to lead the Shiites of Iraq: Muqtada al-Sadr, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim and Sayyed Abdul Majid al-Khoei. Both Al-Khoei and al-Hakim are killed and now there's one left: Al-Sadr. Unfortunately, he's the anti-American fundamentalist street thug.

Al-Sadra's popularity, which is growing by the day, owes everything to the reputation of his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Hussein's regime in 1999. (He, his two sons and his driver were shot in their car.) The residents of Saddam City, which houses around 2 million Shiites, renamed it Sadr City in memory of their murdered spiritual leader. Meanwhile, Al-Sadr quickly filled the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Baath party and the security vacuum left by U.S. forces. From his base near Najaf he sent his men around the country to set up neighborhood committees and control local assets. They took over hospitals, collected garbage, guarded warehouses, established roadblocks to deter looters, protected electricity and water stations and turned Baath offices into religious centers. (Read more about this smart move and who's puppet he is in this New York Magazine article.)

Al-Sadr announced on Friday that he would set up a shadow Islamic government. Juan Cole comments:

That young Shiite sectarian leader Muqtada al-Sadr has chosen this anniversary to announce that he will form an Iraqi government points to the millenarian beliefs of the Sadrists. (Milleniarian movements typically believe that the world as we know it is about to end through divine intervention.) Many Iraqis assume that the bewildering events of the past 6 months indicate that the return of the Mahdi is near. Some may think that Muqtada is the Mahdi. Mahdist movements in Islam have often turned violent, and several have fought against Western imperialism. Most Americans have heard of the Sudanese Mahdi, if only via the film Khartoum, who opposed British expansion into Egypt and the Sudan. But there were millenarian overtones to some Algerian revolts against the French, and among Muslims who revolted against the British in India in 1857. Also the Shiites produced the Babi movement, which threw Iran into turmoil in the 1840s and 1850s and had an anti-Western cast. Some of Khomeini's following was from millenarian Shiites.

The Sadrists don't need millenarian ideas to be militantly anti-Western, but such beliefs can bolster reckless violence. After all, if the world as we know it is about to be turned upside down by God, then what have we got to lose? Muqtada has instructed his followers to organize marches and processions in Baghdad and other cities in support of the new "government" once it is announced, according to al-Hayat.

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The Western press keeps saying that the extent of Muqtada's influence is unknown. I'd guess he has about 2 million followers in Iraq. It is a guess, but an educated one. The reporters are confused that they are told by mainstream Shiites that Muqtada is too young and inexperienced to have such influence. But he leads a sectarian movement, not a mainstream one. In American terms, Muqtada is more like David Koreish, and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is more like an Episcopalian bishop. Except that Muqtada has a huge following compared to any American sect I know of.

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Muqtada also plans to name ministers of Foreign Affairs, Finance, etc. He calls on his followers to support this 'government' with "peaceful" demonstrations. Al-Hayat newspaper says that Muqtada has claimed that his government would represent the Iraqi people, whereas the Interim Governing Council was merely appointed by a foreign power, the US, and was not elected in accordance with Muslim law. (Muqtada doesn't seem to realize the irony that his own proposed government is also appointed, only by him, rather than elected; though perhaps there has been informal consultation (shura) with his lieutenants).
Paul Bremer and his people need to do some desperate damage control. Earlier this week, thousands of Shiites came out in Sadr City to protest the arrest of a local imam, and than to protest the killing of two of their fellow Shiites. Ramadan starts in less than two weeks and unless you don't get things under control I expect things to get worse. Remember that in Shia Islam, there is a strong theme of martyrdom and suffering. You don't want Al-Sadr or one of his close friends in jail or, worse, dead.

Also, on Saturday, hundreds of thousands of Shiites came out in Karbala on Saturday, to commemorate the birth of the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi. A beatiful sight if you ask me. I am Sunni, and I think I would be the wrong person to be asked in detail about Al-Mahdi and the commeration. Aziz Poonawalla would be a much better candidate.

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