By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 5, 2008
BAGHDAD -- The followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr once were powerful enough to do battle against the U.S. military, play kingmaker in choosing Iraq's prime minister and declare themselves the true defenders of the country's Shiite majority.
But parliament's approval last week of a security agreement that requires U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, a date the Sadrists consider far too distant, has underscored the movement's waning influence. Sadr's loyalists are on the defensive, struggling to remain politically relevant as the U.S. role in Iraq diminishes and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gains stature.
The day after the agreement's passage, anger lined the face of Hazim al-Araji, Sadr's top aide. Inside a gold-domed shrine in Baghdad's Kadhimiyah neighborhood, he railed against Iraq's lawmakers. "They ignored our ideas and thoughts when they signed this agreement," he said from his pulpit. "They paid no attention to all our martyrs who gave their blood fighting the occupation."
Araji, 39, stands at the center of Sadr's efforts to shape his followers into a religious and social movement that can maintain his popularity. In interviews across Baghdad and in the Shiite religious heartland of Najaf, where Shiite groups are vying for their community's leadership, Sadrists insist they still have the power to divide Iraq or keep it together.
Melding Koranic verse with political invective, Araji urged the crowd to resist the pact and their movement's foes. "Iraq has been killed! Iraq has been sold!" he thundered. "America is now the enemy of God."
The congregation of a few thousand was smaller than usual, a sign of the Sadrists' uncertain future.'I Took All His Power'
On a sweltering day in late July, hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims marched through the streets of Kadhimiyah to mourn one of Shiite Islam's preeminent saints on the anniversary of his death.
Araji's fighters had set up dozens of tents along the roads leading from Iraq's mostly Shiite south to assist pilgrims with food, water, housing and places to pray. In years past, the militiamen alone had provided security. This time, Iraqi security forces stood guard.
Near the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Khadim, the black-turbaned Araji held court in a small mosque. He sat on yellow floor cushions, facing the front door in case Iraqi forces burst in unannounced. He chain-smoked thin cigarettes and rolled green prayer beads around his fingers.
At a sprawling Iraqi base nearby, Maj. Gen. Kareem al-Khazraji, commander of the 2nd Division of the National Police, smiled triumphantly: His forces had arrested several of Araji's men, including his personal bodyguard.
"Now I control Kadhimiyah 100 percent," said Khazraji, who is from Dujail, a bastion of Maliki's Dawa party. "I took all his power from him. Hazim al-Araji cannot do anything right now in Kadhimiyah."
The brash, barrel-chested commander recalled how Araji's fighters had once taken over gas stations and demanded protection money from merchants. They had infiltrated the police; Iraqi army and police commanders had obeyed Araji's command.
Backed by U.S. troops and advisers, Khazraji's men arrested Araji's commanders and confiscated weapons. Many fighters fled. Araji said his men did not retaliate because of a cease-fire Sadr imposed last year on the Mahdi Army, his loose-knit militia.
Across his desk, Khazraji proudly displayed dozens of Sadrist identification cards. They read: "Brigade of Imam Moussa al-Khadim," the name of Araji's force.
Khazraji released Araji's bodyguard because of a lack of evidence that he belonged to a "special group" of Shiite fighters backed by Iran. The commander insisted he had accomplished his goal: "We want to show them we are able to arrest them anytime we want."
But he can't arrest Araji.
"He has the same power as Moqtada al-Sadr. It will become a political problem," Khazraji said. "The government wants the country to be quiet."
Earlier that day, two police officers had entered Araji's mosque and kissed his right hand. Sheepishly, they asked to have their photos taken with him.A Truce and Maliki's Rise
In April 2007, Sadr pulled his six ministers from Iraq's cabinet over Maliki's refusal to set a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal. For more than a year, the cleric has largely stayed out of public view, raising questions about his leadership. Top Sadrists say he is in hiding for security and strategic reasons, studying in the Iranian city of Qom to bolster his religious credentials. Some Iraqi officials and U.S. commanders contend that Sadr is under Iran's influence, which Araji denies.
Araji and nine other top loyalists oversee the movement and implement Sadr's orders. Born into a prominent family in Kadhimiyah, Araji studied theology under Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated, along with his two eldest sons, by Saddam Hussein's government in 1999.
After Araji came under threat, he fled to Iran, then Syria, before settling as a refugee in Vancouver, B.C., where he ran a mosque and learned halting English. After the collapse of Hussein's regime in 2003, the father of four returned to Iraq.
Amid a vibrant Shiite revival, Araji ran Moqtada al-Sadr's network of social services, organized anti-American protests, even directed frontline commanders in 2004 clashes with U.S. troops in Najaf. U.S. forces arrested Araji in September 2004 and held him in prison for nine months.
In 2006, when sectarian strife exploded, Araji urged Shiites to kill Sunni Muslim extremists, according to three Mahdi Army fighters who attended his sermons. Araji denied he ordered attacks, saying he tried "to build a bridge of love with the Sunnis."
When Sadr imposed his cease-fire in August 2007 to restructure the Mahdi Army, Araji's committee enforced it. The group punished and purged rogue members whose brutal tactics had eroded Sadr's popularity and his aspirations as a would-be unifier of Iraq.
Khazraji and other commanders in Iraq's security forces have exploited the lull in violence to detain hundreds of Sadr's followers. Araji and other Sadrist leaders accuse their Shiite rivals in the ruling coalition of deploying Iraq's forces to weaken their movement. The government insists it is targeting only criminals.
Maliki came to power in 2005 because of Sadr's support, but this past March the prime minister ordered an offensive against the Mahdi Army and other militias in the southern city of Basra. The clashes, which spread to Baghdad, ended only after Sadr agreed to an Iranian-brokered truce.
Still, Sadr's fighters have mostly obeyed his cease-fire, which U.S. commanders say has been instrumental in helping reduce violence. But since Basra, Maliki's power has increased, seemingly at the expense of Sadr's. In an effort to derail the security pact, Sadr threatened to relaunch attacks against U.S. forces, but Iraqi lawmakers from all sects united with Maliki to approve the deal.
"Maliki was my friend in Syria," Araji said. "But when he became prime minister, he forgot all his friends. He started to attack us."Finding a New Path
In a quiet enclave of Najaf, Araji walked past puddles of sewage, crumbling houses and children playing with toy guns. He clutched yellow plastic bags of food. At door after door, residents greeted him with a kiss on his hand.
The bags contained tea, rice, beans, soap, plates, spoons, a plastic bucket -- better than rations provided by Maliki's government. After handing one to Iman Rahim, a frail, black-clad widow, Araji promised to provide a surgeon to treat her 3-year-old son's cleft lip.
"I will vote for whomever Sayyid Moqtada tells me to vote for," Rahim said afterward, using an honorific for Sadr.
In Najaf and Baghdad, posters of Sadr's white-bearded father have appeared on walls and in mosques. They promote a new religious, educational and social service campaign, called Momahidoon, or "Those Who Are Paving the Way." Fighters are expected to set an example for Iraqi society by practicing Islamic principles and engaging in social service. The ultimate goal is to create a disciplined movement, much like Hezbollah, the armed Shiite Lebanese organization. "We admire them," Araji said.
As it seeks to change, Sadr's movement continues to face internal challenges.
"There are some people inside the Mahdi Army who are not yet convinced of our new direction," said Salah al-Obaidi, a top Sadr aide. "They are not patient enough to withstand the government's aggressive actions."
This year, two moderate Sadrist leaders -- Riyadh al-Nouri and Saleh al-Auqaeili -- were assassinated, allegedly by disgruntled factions inside the militia.
Even Sadr's most loyal fighters are frustrated, saying the cease-fire is weakening them. "All of us wish to die as martyrs rather than obey this cease-fire," said Hassan Mohamed Khadim, the Mahdi Army's deputy leader in Diwaniyah.
In the provincial elections, scheduled for early next year, the Sadrists do not plan to field their own candidates. They will order followers to support independent candidates they can control.
It is partly a tactic for survival: Their rivals, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and its armed wing, the Badr Organization, and the Dawa party control key positions in local governments, as well as within the army and police. "They want the Sadr movement to disappear," Araji said.
The Supreme Council, led by cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, wants to partition Iraq into federal regions, which the Sadrists oppose. The south is rich in oil; controlling the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, both epicenters of Shiite Islam, would bring immense power and revenue.
Tensions are emerging. Maliki is creating councils of tribal leaders ostensibly to strengthen the central government. But Hakim's loyalists, as well as Kurds in the ruling coalition, have accused Maliki and his Dawa party of using the councils to build influence where he lacks support. The Sadrists see opportunity.
"The most important thing is to calm down in order to give the opportunity for the political parties to clash between themselves," Obaidi said.
Araji insists the Sadrists have no ambitions to rule Iraq. But as an influential counter-institution, they seek to guide the nation, perhaps ultimately inheriting the spiritual leadership of their community from Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. With Sistani frail and aging, many expect the struggle for Iraq's religious soul to grow in years to come.
The elections will be a test of the movement's attempts at reinvention.
"If they focus on politics and cultural matters, the Iraqi people will accept them more," said Barrak al-Shimirty, a lawmaker with the Supreme Council. "That will make them more powerful."
Others question whether Sadr can control his fighters -- and if his cease-fire will last.
"It is only a strategy to regain power. Their goal is to control the government," Khazraji said. "If they get any chance to reenter the government, they will revive their old style."
After Araji handed out his last bag of food, he walked to the end of the road. Nearby, a cemetery for Mahdi Army fighters has mushroomed in the past two years. Every day, the wails of mourners sail over the graves. Yet Araji sensed glory.
"No one can pull our roots out of this land," he said.