Man Who Now Holds
Iraq's Future In His Hands
By Patrick Cockburn
12 January 2007
is a strange figure to be targeted as the number one enemy of the US
in Iraq. Four years ago, few had heard of the Shia nationalist cleric
Muqtada al-Sadr inside or outside Iraq. Even somebody as suspicious
as Saddam Hussein, who murdered his father and two brothers, did not
think he would play any role in the coming crisis.
Now he holds the future of
Iraq in his hands. He has far more popularity and legitimacy than many
of the pro-American Iraqi leaders cowering in the Green Zone. He is
seen by millions of Shia in Baghdad and across southern Iraq as their
spiritual and national leader. Rightly or wrongly, he is feared by Sunnis
as their nemesis, a physical symbol that they are battling for their
existence in Iraq.
He has now become part of
the White House's demonology in Iraq. At one time the US believed that
Saddam Hussein was responsible for all its problems in Iraq - problems
that would be resolved once he was overthrown. Today Sadr, a 32-year-old
cleric in his black robe with fierce, staring, dark eyes, is denounced
as the fomenter of sectarian warfare.
Many Iraqi leaders never
leave the Green Zone. Sadr has never entered it. He has a cult-like
following. He controls Sadr City, the ramshackle, sprawling slum in
east Baghdad which is home to two-and-a-half million Shia, important
cities such as Kufa and provinces such as Maysan. He can probably put
100,000 armed militiamen into the field. Much of the Baghdad police
force follows him. Army barracks where Shia units are stationed have
pictures of him pinned to the walls.
Once in 2004 he was wanted
"dead or alive" by the US forces and dismissed as "a
firebrand". They soon found that his movement had deep roots. He
controls 32 out of 275 seats in the Iraqi parliament. He is the most
important ally of the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. In 2004, the
US and its former exile allies paid a heavy price for trying to exclude
him from power. In 2005 and 2006, they recognised his strength. He became
part of the political process in Iraq while opposing the US-led occupation.
Now, astonishingly the US
may be about to confront Sadr and his powerful social and political
movement. This could lead almost immediately to a crisis for the US
and President Bush's new strategy for Iraq.
If the US Army, along with
Kurdish brigades of the Iraqi army, do assault Sadr City, they are unlikely
to win a clean victory. The rest of Shia Iraq is likely to explode.
A confrontation will convince many Shia that the US never intends to
let them rule Iraq despite their success in the elections. The US is
already at war with the five million-strong Sunni community and is now
fast alienating the Shia. For the first time this year, polls showed
that a majority of Shia approve of armed attacks on US-led forces.
An offensive against Sadr's
Mehdi Army will be portrayed as an attempt to eliminate militias. But
it is, in reality, an attack on one particular militia, because it is
anti-American. The Kurdish brigades in the Iraqi army take their orders
from the Kurdish leaders and not from Maliki. The US also has good relations
with the other Shia militia, the Badr Organisation, which is the military
wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
There is no doubt that the
Mehdi Army includes death squads targeting Sunni - but this is also
true of Badr.
Sadr first confronted the
US when he twice fought the US Army in 2004. Though militarily unsuccessful
the fighting established his credibility in his community. He attracted
supporters because of the prestige of his family, and his blend of Iraqi
nationalism and Shia religion. He is also seen as the voice of the impoverished
Shia while Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Hawza, the Shia religious
establishment, are more representative of the better-off.
His emergence as one of the
most important political figures in Iraq was one of the great surprises
after 2003. He is neither eloquent nor particularly charismatic, but
he has made very few political mistakes. His swift rise is explained
first by his family. He was born in 1974, the third son of Mohammed
Sadiq al-Sadr. He is a distant cousin of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr,
the Shia revolutionary thinker, who was murdered by Saddam along with
his sister in 1980. He had sought to develop a religious response to
Marxism and Baathism by advocating a politically and socially activist
Islam in contrast to the traditionally quietist Shia religious leaders.
Muqtada's father, Mohammed
Sadiq al-Sadr, became influential in the 1990s. At first he was given
leeway because he was an Iraqi nationalist and opposed to Iranian claims
to lead the Shia of Iraq. His sermons began with the words: "No,
no to America; no, no to Israel; no, no to the Devil." But it soon
became clear he was also opposed to Saddam. He was assassinated by Saddam's
gunmen with two of his sons in 1999.
Muqtada al-Sadr became so
powerful so fast because he was in the same tradition as his relatives.
His militiamen are generally not paid and supply their own weapons.
They are beginning to have a core of trained, paid professionals but
they were never as militarily effective as the Sunni insurgents, many
of whom were experienced soldiers.
A US attack on Sadr will
open another front in the war in Iraq. It would split the Shia coalition
into pro- and anti-American factions. It would disrupt the Shia-Kurdish
alliance. It probably would not conciliate the Sunni insurgents.
Sadr's movement thrives on
martyrs. The only certain result of an all-out US assault on the Mehdi
Army would be to deepen and widen the war in Iraq.
America's most wanted
Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri
Once one of Saddam's senior
commanders, Douri was swiftly named leader of the Iraqi Baath party
after the ex-dictator's execution. US accuses him of leading Baathist
insurgents and has placed a $10m bounty on his head.
Elected member of parliament
and leader of the Shia Badr Brigades, the military wing of the Iran-backed
Sup-reme Council for Revolution in Iraq. Brigades accused of running
death squads and have clashed with Muqtada al-Sadr's militia.
Abu Ayyub al-Masri
Also known Abu Hamza al Muhajir,
Masri was identified by the Pentagon as the most likely leader of al-Qa'ida
in Iraq after Abu Musab al Zarqawi's death last June. Little is known
about him and some have questioned whether he even exists.
The man charged with defeating
Widely regarded as the last
best hope for President George Bush's quest to end sectarian violence
in Iraq, Lt-Gen David Petraeus will nonetheless face the challenge of
his life in confronting the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Lt-Gen Petraeus, 54, has
been appointed by President Bush to take overall military charge of
the US campaign in Iraq as soon as he receives his fourth star to become
a full general and wins confirmation by the Senate. Already a veteran
of two command tours in Iraq, he is also recognised as the US military's
leading expert on fighting insurgencies. In 2004, he was in charge of
training Iraqi soldiers.
But he was also one of the
authors of an armed forces manual which appeared to cast doubt on the
strategy that Mr Bush is now pursuing. "The more force used, the
less effective it is... The best weapon for counter-insurgency is not
to shoot," read the document, which was christened FM3-24.
Some remain sceptical that
Lt-Gen Petraeus will fare any better than his predecessors. "Petraeus
is being given a losing hand. I say that reluctantly. The war is unmistakably
going in the wrong direction," said Barry McCaffrey, a retired
army general. "The only good news in all this is that Petraeus
is so incredibly intelligent and creative... I'm sure he'll say to himself,
'I'm not going to be the last soldier off the roof of the embassy in
the Green Zone'."
During the initial invasion
of Iraq in March 2003, Lt-Gen Petraeus was commander of the 101st Airborne
Division which was critical to the taking of Baghdad. He was promoted
to commander of the northern Iraq region around Mosul, where a degree
of peace was restored.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited
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