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[casi-analysis] Turning the Muqtada Crisis into a Milestone for Iraqi Sovereignty

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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

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.


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

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.


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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