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Turning the Muqtada Crisis into a Milestone for Iraqi Sovereignty

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Clashes in Baghdad and Iraq’s south involving the followers of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and coalition forces cast Iraq’s future into doubt. Dozens of Shias and 20 coalition troops have been killed in the past 48 hours.

By Sama Hadad in London and Adil Shalan in Baghdad

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Clashes in Baghdad and Iraq’s south involving the followers of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and coalition forces cast Iraq’s future into doubt. Dozens of Shias and 20 coalition troops have been killed in the past 48 hours.

Ten million Shia are expected to converge on the city of Karbala on Sunday for the Arbaeen celebrations. In the current climate, such a mass gathering has the potential to spark off a general Shia uprising.

However, at the same time, the US-led coalition has the opportunity to transform the situation into a defining moment that demonstrates to Iraqis their willingness to hand over sovereignty.

Both the Coalition authorities and Muqtada al-Sadr have been raising the stakes. Iraq is currently at the brink of needless bloodshed – a fact both sides seem to only realise now, with Muqtada advising his headquarters in the Baghdad district of Shuala on Monday to "try to calm things down”, and the coalition agreeing to one of the demands of Al-Sadr’s people, which was to leave Shuala. In the grand scheme of things, however, neither front wants to appear to be backing down, and it is clear that third-party involvement is requisite.

Al-Sadr`s Background

Coalition authorities have had difficulty understanding Muqtada al-Sadr, and even greater difficulty dealing with him. His status amongst his followers arises from his family lineage and this is key to understanding the current situation.

The Sadr family has a history of a long line of clerics held in prestige in Iraq. The family came to prominence through Muqtada’s great-uncle, Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr. Mohammed B. al-Sadr was a child-prodigy, attaining the level of ayatollah, or theological expert, by the age of 17. By the age of 30 he had authored ‘Our Philosophy’ and ‘Our Economics’, which are to this day the most authoritative Shia books in their respected fields. His contemporary views often clashed with the more traditional Shia clergy in Najaf, most notably on the issue of politics. The traditional view states that during the occultation of the twelfth and last Shia saint, involvement in politics is forbidden. Mohammed B. al-Sadr disagreed both with this view and with Khomeini’s radical notion of Wilayat Al-Faqih, or ‘Rule of the Religious Jurist’. Instead, he proposed the idea of Wilayat Al-Ummah ’Ala Nafsiha, or the ‘Rule of the People Upon Themselves’ – an early concept of Islamic democracy. In 1957, al-Sadr founded the Islamic Dawa Party which rapidly became a threat to Saddam’s Ba’ath regime. On April 9, 1980, Mohammed B. Sadr, along with his sister Amina al-Sadr, was executed by Saddam Hussein.

In the late 1990s, Muqtada’s father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, attempted to pick up where his uncle had left off. Unlike Mohammed B. al-Sadr who drew his support from Iraq’s educated middle-class, his nephew drew his support from the largely uneducated working class. Cautious of the regime, Mohammed S. al-Sadr avoided creating an intellectual movement and instead rallied people at Friday sermons on emotional issues. Some experts believed that this was part of a two-stage strategy – first gaining the support of the masses and then utilizing this to politically educate them. Within months he commanded the loyalty of millions of Shia from all over Iraq. Saddam Hussein recognised him as a threat and had him assassinated, along with his two eldest sons, in a street market in 1999.

After the fall of the regime, Muqtada inherited much of his father’s support. However, he lacked his father’s religious authority, political understanding, and foresight. He is locked in the first stage of his father’s plan, unable to intellectually progress his supporters.

Before the establishment of the Iraqi Governing Council he behaved himself very well, and appeared on Al-Jazeera in May speaking positively of the US presence. However, this affirmative attitude soon changed, when he was not included in the 25-member Governing Council. Feeling marginalised, he has grown progressively more hostile and critical of the US-led Coalition and Governing Council.

In the past year, Muqtada has found himself in a situation for which he does not have the capacity. He often contradicts himself from one week to the next, not really sure what he wants or how to achieve it. Close aides of Muqtada recognise his limitations but feel they have no alternative to him. His frustrations at being marginalised and the hardships faced by many of his supporters have fed into each other to create the conditions for the current clash.

Turning the situation around

The heavy-handed way the coalition has handled the situation has helped swell Muqtada’s following. The first mistake was to close the little-read Hawza newspaper on the grounds of inciting violence against coalition troops – a charge more pertinent to Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia news channels. Subsequent decisions have been ill-timed and ill-thought out, turning the situation from bad to worse.

If Ambassador Bremer continues to listen to over-zealous advice, on the eve of the Shia celebration of Arba’en when ten million Iraqis are expected to converge on Karbala, a Shia uprising may become inevitable. There are groups within Iraq that would like to see nothing else. On Monday two packed cars from Fallujah pulled up in the Shoula district of Baghdad to “fight” with their Shia brothers. Raising the stakes once more by arresting the troublesome cleric will strengthen his support and turn even those who don’t support him against the coalition.

However, a dramatic change in approach can change the situation from a potential bloodbath to a great steppingstone to Iraqi sovereignty. What is clear is the situation requires a third party to step in, and only an Iraqi body can successfully negotiate with Muqtada. Bremer should transfer control of the situation to the Iraqi Governing Council and give them far-reaching powers to resolve the Muqtada issue once and for all.

The Shia members of the Governing Council will then be in a position to strike a deal with Muqtada to put an end to the violence and to disband his Mehdi militia. In return, the Governing Council would reopen the Hawza newspaper; release Sayyid Yaqoubi on bail while he awaits a trial; and to secretly guarantee a seat for one of Muqtada’s representatives on an expanded Governing Council in June. This would be the only sure way of pacifying Muqtada’s opposition to the US-led coalition since he will be part an expanded Governing Council – which is what he has always wanted. By giving the Governing Council the power and independence to deal with this crisis it will demonstrate to Iraqis that the transfer of sovereignty is not a sham.

While such a strategy may appear unappealing at first, what is certain is that the current heavy-handed approach is only making the situation worse and has reached a dead-end.

What this incidence demonstrates is that the Governing Council needs to be expanded to be more representative of Iraqis. Marginalising significant sections of society will undoubtedly cause problems for Iraq’s transition period. Furthermore, it highlights the danger if, come 1 July and the handover of sovereignty to a new Iraqi government, the Shia feel somehow cheated of power.

Analysis brought to you by the Iraqi Prospect Organization

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Created by keza
Last modified 2005-01-06 06:44 PM

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