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

Shia Split Over Sadr

Radical preacher's revolt provokes censure from some of his co-religionists.
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Iraqi Shia appear divided over the stand-off between Coalition forces and followers of Shiite preacher Muqtada al-Sadr.


Some say they support the fiery cleric, while others wish he'd just give up and go home.


In 1991, 42-year-old Abd al-Aziz Kadhem, now the owner of a restaurant in Karbala, participated in the Shia uprising against Saddam Hussein.


In those days, he says, "the people of Fallujah stood with Saddam to strike the Shia".


Kadhem even recalls how a tank brigade commanded by officers from the Sunni Triangle smashed through the holy city flaunting banners that read "No Shia After Today!"


"But all this is in the past," Kadhem said, insisting "the Shia will forget this and forgive our Sunni brothers and stand with them against the occupation".


Kadhem's friend, farmer Ali Abbas, agrees that the Coalition presence has made new friends of old enemies.


Abbas recalls an occasion during his army days in the mid-1990s when his officer, who came from Fallujah, refused him leave.


The officer told Abbas that Shias were "all subversives and saboteurs". In fact, says Abbas, "the people of Fallujah hated the Shia more than anyone else.


"But I forgot all this in an instant after the fall of Saddam, because he was the one who made them think this way..."


Kadhem and Abbas' change of heart towards the Fallujis suggests that the Coalition's crackdown on radical preacher Muqtada al-Sadr is causing a political realignment among Iraqi Shia.


A shift, creating sympathy towards Sadr and anti-Coalition insurgents, is even visible among Shia politicians formerly close to the Coalition.


Consider the former anti-Saddam guerrilla leader Abd al-Karem al-Mohammedawi, who has suspended his membership in the Governing Council after the Coalition began its crackdown.


The change can also be seen in the piles of food and medicines gathered in Shia mosques, destined for shipment to Sunni Falluja.


The shift is also evident in the unusual sighting of a gathering of Sunni worshippers who went to pray in Najaf's Imam Ali mosque - a bastion of Shia Islam.


The new attitude has in addition affected internal Shia politics, where supporters of elder clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani express dissatisfaction with what they believe to be a quietist stance.


"What's Sistani waiting for? He must declare jihad to unify the Iraqis," said Ali Shaker, a young taxi driver.


"I used to follow Sistani, but I now I follow Sadr because he wants jihad against the occupation, and I support the serious stances that Muqtada al-Sadr has taken."


"After the senior clerics declare jihad I will slaughter every American in my way," said Fleyah Radhi, a pensioner from Sadr City, who says his son was killed by US troops in fighting in the northeastern Baghdad suburb.


The Coalition said it is targeting Sadr for running an unauthorised militia, and for the murder of fellow cleric Abd al-Majid al-Khoei in April 2003.


But numerous Iraqi Shia associate the Coalition crackdown with the closure of his newspaper, al-Hawza, which many see as a violation of press freedom.


"Where is democracy, where is the journalism?" said Hussam Hazim, a taxi driver from the town of Zaafaraniya, southeast of Baghdad.


"The Coalition forces promised the Iraqi freedom and democracy," Hazim said, but he claims Iraqis have not seen "any evidence of that" as shown by the closure of Sadr's newspaper.


Other Shia also believe that Coalition forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in an April 4 clash at Najaf when at least 15 Iraqis were killed. The Coalition says it returned fire from the crowd.


Some Iraqis do support the crackdown against Muqtada al-Sadr, but they are reluctant to speak out.


"Muqtada al-Sadr is a suspect before an Iraqi court, so he should follow the law [by surrendering] and show that he respects it," said a Baghdad lawyer who declined to give his name.


Others are angry at Sadr's followers for turning Iraqi towns into battlefields.


At one checkpoint at the entrance to the holy city of Karbala, residents fumed at members of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia who streamed past them into the city to reinforce their comrades.


"Muqtada's followers are few. People here follow Ali al-Sistani, and many people from Karbala are annoyed by Muqtada's behaviour," says taxi driver Mohammed Jabbar.


Nearby, Ahmed Gatei, a pensioner trying to ride his bicycle into town, quarrels with Mahdi Army militiamen who want to search him at an impromptu checkpoint.


"If you just leave our city, we will be okay," he said.


Aqil Jabbar, Mohammed Fawzi, Emad al-Sharei, Dhiya Rasan, Wisam al-Jaff, Hussein Ali and Ali Naji are IWPR trainees.