He probably doesn’t see it that way, but he is. Why do I say such things? Because I saw this headline at CNN today:
As soon as I saw the headline, I said “Sounds like al-Sadr. There speaks a man who’s desperate to be liked.”
First, some background. Moqtada al-Sadr is the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr, who was murdered by the Iraqi Mukhabarat secret police about 4 years ago, which caused some fuss by his supporters in Saddam City back then. Saddam City (now Al-Sadr City) is a large poor neighbourhood in northeastern Baghdad inhabited by 2.5-3 million Shi’ites, where the residents are suspected for being responsible for up to 80% of the looting that took place in Baghdad immediately after the war.
Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr was the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq in the late 1990s. His uncle, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, was a leading Shiite activist before his execution by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1980. Muqtada al-Sadr went underground in February 1999 after a spray of gunfire—from Saddam’s agents, according to most accounts—killed his father and two brothers. He inherited a network of schools and charities built by his father, along with the allegiance of many of his followers. Only 30, Sadr lacks the decades-long religious training required of high ranking Shiite authorities. As a result, he bases his claim to authority on his lineage.
Moqtada al-Sadr, in short, is not an ayatollah. Not even close. What he is is a pretender and thug sent from Iran in the aftermath of the Iraq war to make trouble for the Americans and (hopefully, from the Iranian perspective) cause the Shiites in Iraq to flock to al-Sadr, who wants to set up an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy, and away from Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who is based in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Sistani, for all the migranes he’s caused the Coalition Provisional Authority recently, at least believes that the way to go for Iraq is some form of democracy where the mosque and state stay as separated as they ever get in the Middle East. Since Sistani is the heavyweight in terms of political and religious influence among Iraq’s Shias, al-Sadr resorts to inflammatory anti-American rhetoric to get attention and power. Probably the perspective that gets lost is that al-Sadr controls, at best, one large neighborhood in Baghdad. He’s a gangbanger, complete with a gang: an armed militia called ‘Jaish Al-Mahdi’ or Al-Mahdi’s Army. (This militia, along with others, has been outlawed by the provisional Iraqi constitution.) They dress in black,wear bands on their foreheads, and, to many Iraqis, have a creepy resemblance to Saddam’s Fedayeen. He even engages in turf wars, as many moderate Shi’ites accuse him of being responsible for Abdul Majid Al-Khui’s assasination in Najaf during the war and another instance where a fight broke out in Najaf between al-Sadr’s militia and Al-Sistani’s followers. Al-Sadr militants were trying to take over the two holy shrines in the city, so they could use their profits in financing Al-Mahdi’s Army. But they were surrounded in a mosque and other parties and clerics from the city intervened to cease the fighting. Meanwhile, for all of his rhetoric, he’s done precisely squat except for producing hot air and it shows in the lack of support he’s been getting outside of Al-Sadr City. Most Iraqi Shias distrust the fact that he hasn’t put in the time or training to support his pretensions to be the successor to his father’s authority, and that he gets instructions and funding from parties in Iran. The Sunnis and Kurds distrust him because of his goal of setting up a Shiite theocracy inside Iraq. Frankly, most expected the Americans to behave like Saddam at first and shoot al-Sadr. The fact that we haven’t has amazed many. Basically, the reason why is that the United States is using him as an object lesson in Freedom of Speech as well as an exercise in not borrowing trouble. As long as he just spouts his hot air, no matter how inflammatory, we’re not going to touch him. We’ve squashed plenty of his supporters when they’ve tried to move beyond mere words, as happened on October 16, 2003 when Sadr’s faction—whose challenges to U.S. authority were increasingly brazen—attempted to take over the building that housed the offices of the U.S.-appointed Sadr City neighborhood council and install its own leaders. U.S. forces moved in and kicked out Sadr’s men, arresting 12.
So there you have it: Moqtada al-Sadr. He’s a small man trying to whip up support for himself any way he can, as well as trying to grab as much power as he can, for the benefit of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Moqtada al-Sadr. He’ll say anything, do nothing, and generally try to make himself seem like much more than the petty gang leader that he is. It’s no wonder he’d say something like “”I seek the spread of freedom and democracy in the way that satisfies God. They have planned and paved the ways for a long time, but it is God who is the real planner — and the proof of this is the fall of the American Twin Towers,” then refer to the September 11 attacks as “a miracle from God.” The only thing that surprised me was that he’s trying to co-opt the language of his opponents by referring to his support for the spread of freedom and democracy, which gives an indication of how entrenched the concept has become in even the most loathsome contributers to Iraqi political discourse. The rest of the drivel was pretty predictable. Next prediction, he’ll make a pronouncement on how Iraq’s interim government is corrupt and illegitimate, that he hates the Jews, and that the Americans are the local equivalent of the Antichrist, followed by exhortations to throw the Americans out of Iraq.