Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Why is the storming of Muqtada al-Sadr’s base in Najaf and other locations in Iraq a major development? Is it a risky move, and why is it taking place? These are important questions to be raised as U.S. and Iraqi forces encircle the militant cleric in the Shi’ites’ holiest shrine in Iraq.

The stakes are indeed high, as a number of analysts fear a general collapse of the Allawi government’s power if the operation fails, and by ripple effect, the U.S. role in that country. The situation is also complex as observers are focusing on the real attitude of the Shi’ia community in Iraq. Who are they really with? Who are they really against? And what would they actually do if matters in Najaf turn badly?

Some wonder whether Muqtada is a real leader to reckon with or a stooge of greater powers. My understanding is that he may be both: a real leader of a faction heavily linked to a greater power in the region, namely Iran. In short, this young Shi’ite cleric — whose looks and gestures amazingly resemble the current leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah — owes his current career to two other men: his late father, Mohammed al-Sadr, and the latter’s Iranian friend, Imam Qazim el-Haeri.

The Sadrs are one of the most revered clans in Shi’ite Iraq. Imam Mohammed al-Sadr led a fierce opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime for almost two decades. But his struggle against the Ba’athist dictator was mostly inspired by the jihadist ideology in neighboring Iran. A classmate of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Muqtada’s father aimed at replacing Saddam’s Pan-Arabism with an Islamist Republic. In 1999, Muqtada’s father was executed by Saddam’s regime, leaving his followers, including his son Muqtada, on the run.

Thanks to the U.S.-led invasion and the toppling of the Ba’athist regime, the Sadrists made it back to Iraq from Iran. Muqtada was suddenly projected as the “new leader” of the al-Sadr clan. According to sources in Iran, Imam Haeri “lobbied” for the young cleric to become the man to be supported by the Khamanei power in Tehran, so that he would become the potential Hassan Nasrallah of Iraq. (Sheikh Nasrallah is the Iranian-backed head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.) Iran’s plans for post-Saddam Iraq — plans coordinated with Damascus — is to develop the local power of Sadr within the Shiite community and project the young cleric as the real strong man in the country.

The rise of Muqtada to prominence was rather bloody. Immediately after the removal of Saddam, a competitive clerical exile (who was just returning from Britain), Abdul Majid al Khoei, was assassinated by al Sadr followers in Najaf. In August of 2003, another important leader, Imam Baqer al-Hakim, was killed by a car bomb as he stepped out of his mosque. Other Shi’ite figures were assassinated too. All were Muqtada’s political competitors. He was able to move up the ladder by the elimination of all potential spiritual leaders, with the exception of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani.

On the ground, Muqtada and his advisers, from the Pasdarans (Iran’s Revolutionary Guards) and Hezbollah, formed a militia, the Jaish al-mahdi. The “Mehdi army” was essentially a tool of terror against fellow Shi’ites. To counter the mainstream popular force of the Shi’ites, the al Badr Brigades, the militiamen of Muqtada, deployed in the holy shrines, stated that they are “protecting them” and imposed embryonic “militia-rule” in the areas under control.

Hence, the collision between the pro-Iranian force inside Iraq and the coalition were doomed to happen. Tehran wants a vassal power in Iraq from Sadr City to Basra, and Muqtada al Sadr is her man. The main battles seem to be between Iraqi Shi’ites and American Marines. In fact, deep down, the war is between two forms of Shi’ism. The Khomeinists on the one hand and the moderates on the other. The United States is obviously on the side of the latter.

Walid Phares is a professor of Mideast Studies and an Iraq/Terrorism analyst for MSNBC and Fox News.

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