Monday, May 19, 2008; 10:26 AM
Muqtada al-Sadr is a young, fiercely anti-American messianic cleric and the head of the Mahdi Army, an armed militia that has waged an intermittent insurgency against U.S. and Iraqi forces. Virtually unknown before the collapse of Saddam Hussein's government in 2003, Sadr has since emerged as one of the most important Shiite leaders in the country. Bolstered by a base of predominantly poor urban Shiites, Sadr has led a series of uprisings against U.S., Iraqi, and rival Shia forces. A series of violent clashes in Najaf, Basra, and Sadr City since 2004 depleted the cleric's forces, but experts say his influence as a military, political, and religious figure have climbed amid the U.S.-led occupation. In 2007 Sadr announced plans to attend seminary, and is believed to be in the Iranian city of Qom -- raising questions about Tehran's influence on the cleric. Born in the early 1970s, Sadr is the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a prominent cleric and early champion of Shiite social causes. Sadr City -- a vast Baghdad slum of 2.5 million previously called Saddam City -- was renamed for the senior Sadr after Saddam's fall.
A Cleric's Family Ties
Muqtada al-Sadr's familial lineage contributed to his meteoric rise in modern Iraqi politics. His father was among the most powerful Shiite clerics in Iraq in the late 1990s. One of his father's distant cousins, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, was also a leading Shiite activist (who, incidentally, was executed by Saddam Hussein's forces in 1980). Both men are credited with shaping contemporary Shiite thought and opposition to Baghdad-based regimes. According to a 2006 International Crisis Group (ICG) analysis, the theology and philosophies of both men "reflected dissatisfaction with the traditional role of religious scholars" (PDF), particularly their inability to participate in the political process.
After Sadiq al-Sadr and two sons were killed in a spray of gunfire in 1999 -- likely on orders from Saddam -- Muqtada inherited a network of schools and charities built by his family. But winning the allegiance of the elder Sadr's followers was not guaranteed. As the ICG notes, Muqtada was "by no means his father's natural heir." Indeed, when the Saddam regime fell, many former aides steered clear of the young cleric, put off by his inexperience and unstable demeanor. Muqtada's decision to form a government in the waning days of the Baath Party did little to sway the critics. "Many Shiites were shocked" by the move, a close associate of the Sadrist movement told ICG in January 2006. "They felt that he was too young, that he was nothing but a za'tut," or ignorant child.
Base of Support
Muqtada's movement did not grow out of an organized structure, and instead emerged as a loose coalition of young imams and armed volunteers rushing to fill a power vacuum. But political prowess and a penchant for drama -- along with a steadfast opposition to the U.S. occupation and his family credentials -- coalesced to reinvent the younger Sadr. As the Sadrist insider told the ICG in early 2006, "One hardly hears the expression za'tut anymore." Comprised mainly of young, impoverished Iraqi Shiites, much of Sadr's base lives in Sadr City, though he also has strong ties to Najaf, the holy city where the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, Ali ibn Abi Talib, is buried. Sadr's followers have also been active in Basra and other majority Shiite towns, including Kut, Nasiriyah, Karbala -- Iraq's other holy Shiite city -- and Kufa. Estimates of Sadr's support base range from 3 million to 5 million.
Despite its popular support, the movement's revenue stream remains inconsistent. Experts say Mahdi Army fighters have been left unpaid for months during Sadr's extended absences from Iraq, for instance. Cash is believed to be generated from a number of criminal enterprises, including petroleum smuggling, theft, and cash-for-services -- including armed protection of merchants and businesses.
Vali R. Nasr, a CFR adjunct senior fellow and expert in Shiite politics, says that by 2008 Muqtada had expanded his movement from being essentially a Baghdad street force into "a major Shiite movement, with parliamentary presence, political presence, as well as now a very large military presence on the street." Nasr says Sadr "now represents one of the two most important Shia blocs in the country." Yet Sadr is not alone in vying for the popular support of Iraqi Shiites. His chief rivals -- including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party -- command support from the country's more conservative middle class. Some experts say clashes between Mahdi fighters, Iraqi forces, and ISCI's Badr Brigade are essentially a class struggle.
Sadr's supporters have fought multiple bloody battles against U.S., Iraqi, and rival Shiite forces since 2003. One of the earliest occurred in Najaf and Karbala in April 2004, and again in Najaf in August 2004, where a standoff around the Imam Ali Mosque left hundreds of Iraqis and nearly a dozen U.S. soldiers dead. Sectarian clashes reached a peak in early 2006 after the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra. Some experts speculate Muqtada's tacit support for Shia death squads in the wake of the bombing fueled the run of violence. Experts say as many as 1,300 people, mostly Sunnis, were killed in the wake of the attack.
In 2006 Sadr's militia expanded its control of Baghdad and Basra, clashing frequently with U.S. and British forces. But in January 2007, President Bush announced a renewed U.S. military effort to wrest control of Baghdad amid an "escalating danger from Shia extremists." Sadr read Bush's statement like a personal warning. "I have transferred my family to a safe place," Sadr told an interviewer according to an account by veteran Iraq correspondent Patrick Cockburn, detailed in his 2008 book Muqtada. "I have even made my will, and I move around constantly, acting in such a way that only a very few people know exactly where I am." But by mid-2007 Sadr reappeared, and Madhi Army forces began a brutal civil war with rival Badr fighters. The internecine struggle culminated in late August 2007 when militiamen loyal to both clerics clashed in Karbala and Najaf.
Interspersed among Sadr's violent streaks, however, have been more calculated military maneuvers. The August 2007 Karbala fighting, for instance, ended when Sadr ordered the freeze of his militia's actions for six months, a tactic similar to a halt to hostilities he ordered in June 2004 to end fighting in the region. And while Sadr extended his latest truce in February 2008, clashes in Basra and Sadr City renewed questions about Sadr's intentions -- as well as his ability to control his coalition of fighters. Sadr supporters claim their army has as many as sixty thousand men. Kathleen Ridolfo, an Iraq analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, puts the number far lower. "In 2004, estimates ranged between three thousand and ten thousand armed militiamen. That number appears to have risen in 2005 into early 2006, but appears to now be trending downward."
Soon after clashes in 2004 Sadr turned an eye to the political realm, increasingly aware violence alone could not accomplish his goals. Sadr directed his Mahdi Army to increase its visibility and engage in social work -- essentially street politics. The Hezbollah-like model elevated the Sadrist movement's image, and it was elevated further after winning 32 of 275 parliamentary seats in December 2005 national elections. The victory gave a political voice to disenfranchised Shiites. It also turned Sadr into "a kingmaker," says Nasr, as Sadr played a prominent role in elevating Nouri al-Maliki to the post of prime minister. Sadr further extended his political reach by increasing his movement's prominence in socially influential ministries, including health, transportation, and municipal governorates. In a January 2006 interview with Al Arabiya news channel, Sadr explained his political coming of age this way: "The Sadrist movement first resorted to peaceful resistance, then to armed resistance, and finally to political resistance."
Cockburn writes that Sadr may have been underestimated by U.S. and Iraqi officials early on in the war. If so, that period is over. "Far from being the 'firebrand cleric' as the Western media often described him," Cockburn writes, Sadr has proven "astute and cautious in leading his followers." In a May 2008 article for the Independent, Cockburn concludes: "Muqtada al-Sadr is the great survivor of Iraqi politics."
But experts remain skeptical of Sadr's intentions, or his ability to maintain a grip on power. Mahdi Army fighters have reportedly opposed Sadr's embrace of the political system, and observers say the clashes with Iraqi forces in Basra, Baghdad, and elsewhere in early 2008 suggest Sadr's political hold may have become a liability. " Sadr's base of support appears to be weakening across the country, particularly because of the actions of rogue militiamen in recent years, but also because of the suffering experienced by the civilian population during recent security operations," Ridolfo says. The government-led crackdown "appears to be aimed at crushing support for Sadrist politicians across the south ahead of October  provincial elections."
Part of Sadr's grand strategy to maintain his supporters' devotion includes a renewed focus on religious credentials. Despite his father's pedigree, Sadr never completed seminary studies as a youngster. But in December 2007 he issued a decree calling on followers to devote more time to religious endeavors, and announced his intention to enroll in the conservative Al-Hawzah, or seminary, in Najaf. Babak Rahimi, an expert in Shiite politics and former fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, writes that Sadr's religious move indicate "a major change in the movement's structure that could have serious repercussions for the future of Iraq." Sadr's motivation may also be to "reinforce his Iraqi identity," Rahimi adds, although the cleric's whereabouts in mid-2008 may complicate that effort: Most experts believe he took his religious studies to the Iranian city of Qom -- raising questions about Iran's influence on the cleric and his militia.
Sadr and the Shiite Hierarchy
Five years after Saddam's fall Sadr has set himself up in opposition to senior Iraqi Shiite clerics, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Experts say Sistani retains the allegiance of most of Iraq's Shiites, but Sadr's growing support has made him a serious player on the national stage. Early on, experts say, Sistani supported Sadr's entry into politics as a way to keep a tighter rein on him. As Sadr's prominence has risen, however, relations between the two clerics have cooled considerably. This rivalry has serious national implications, experts say. Some suggest Sadr's decision to seek the status of ayatollah is aimed at circumventing Sistani's authority. In early 2008 an aide to Sadr publicly criticized Sistani (al-Jazeera) for staying silent as U.S. and Iraqi forces cracked down on Shiite fighters in Sadr City.
Sharon Otterman contributed to this Backgrounder.