Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Shia Cleric Carves Out New Role

Muqtada al-Sadr, once the bad boy of Shia militancy, rebrands himself as peacemaker with the Sunnis.
By Zaineb Naji

Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has reemerged as a political player after months of staying out of the limelight.

The cleric, who used to make the headlines with his radical views and his grassroots militia, the Mahdi Army, is now casting himself in the role of mediator building bridges between his own Shia community and the Sunni Arabs.

On May 16, Muqtada appeared in public for the first time since the Mahdi Army clashed with United States troops in Najaf and Baghdad in April-June last year.

Six days later, he held talks to ease tensions between the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars and the Badr Organisation, the militia wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the main Shia political parties. Sunni and Shia groups have been trading accusations after clerics from both sides were killed in recent weeks.

The young cleric commands support in Najaf and in Baghdad’s Shia suburb, named Sadr City after his father, the revered senior cleric Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr, murdered in 1999 on Saddam’s orders.

Muqtada has so far remained pointedly outside the formal political process in Iraq, and spokesmen confirmed to IWPR that he intends to continue doing so.

“Sadr has no ambitions for a seat in government,” said Ali al-Yasseri, manager of al-Sadr’s office for liaison with the government. “Nor has the Mahdi Army any private ambitions - it’s just a group of young believers who want to defend their country.”

Instead, Muqtada’s tactic seems to be to leave it to his followers in parliament to pursue political influence.

While he himself shunned the January elections, he did not stop his followers from participating. An election bloc called the Sadrist Independent National Elites and Cadres list, shortened to the Independent National Bloc, won three seats in the National Assembly.

In the provincial assembly elections held at the same time, Sadr supporters made strong showings in the southern governorates of Wassit, Missan, Thi Qar and Muthanna.

The pro-Sadr parliamentary group takes the same line as Muqtada on the need to set a firm timetable for the exit of foreign troops from Iraq, and on the release of Mahdi Army members captured during last year’s fighting in Najaf and Sadr City.

At the same time, the bloc is attempting to maintain some distance between itself and the cleric.

“The goals of the Independent National Bloc are consistent with the Sadrist trend,” said Fattah al-Sheikh, a bloc member who won a seat in parliament. “We agree with the young Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr on many of his basic principles. But we do not represent his political decisions.”

Muqtada spokesman Abdul Hadee al-Daraji said the cleric would not be taking part in the process of drafting the constitution, but that the parliamentary bloc would do so.

“The Independent National Bloc are still Sadrists, but they have an independent line from Sadr’s principles of al-Sadr,” explained Daraji. “They agree their political activities on their own.”

Within parliament, the Sadrist bloc may find common ground with other politicians. Radha Jawad Taqi, a member of the United Iraqi Alliance, the large Shia-led bloc which came first in the election, views the Sadrist deputies as more practical than their leader since they believe in participating in the political process. Taqi also thinks they are close to the Alliance on many issues.

“But the Sadrists are in a hurry to put an end to the presence of multinational forces, whereas other politicians think they are needed to keep the security situation stable,” added Taqi.

The Sadrist group also wants to see Islam named as the principal source of legislation in the new constitution.

Independent National Bloc member Sheikh said the party is now looking forward to elections scheduled to December 2005. “The results of the coming elections will be a surprise, since we are optimistic that the next cabinet will be 100 per cent Sadrist.” he said. “The Sadrist trend is not just a Shia trend but a comprehensive one for the masses, [which will also] include Sunnis and Kurds.”

Muqtada’s new role as peacemaker, and the fact that some of his supporters are now part of mainstream Iraqi politics, does not mean he has altogether abandoned his hard-line views, in particular his hostility to the presence of foreign troops and his apparent dislike for the Iraqi government.

On May 20, for example, Mahdi Army members clashed with Iraqi troops in the southern town of Nasiriyah. Muqtada has also organised anti-American demonstrations in Baghdad, Najaf and Kut.

Spokesman Yasseri said that Muqrada now wants to use the Mahdi Army to help create a peaceful society, but that he will not rule out violence if it is deemed necessary.

“In the event that society is exposed to a military attack or [other] danger from any quarter, then Mahdi Army will mobilise to defend the cities,” said Yasseri. “If the situation becomes stable, then the Mahdi Army will be used to help build up the economy and work for the independence of Iraq.”

Zaineb Naji and Emad Hasan al-Sharaa are IWPR trainees in Baghdad.

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