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

When Sadrists Confronted Saddam

Muqtada Al-Sadr's uprising recalls revolt triggered by the assassination of his father five years ago.
By Dhiya Rasan

Seven US M1A1 tanks, brought in to put down a revolt by members of the Mahdi Army of Shiite preacher Muqtada al-Sadr, stand a few hundred metres down a broad dusty avenue from northeast Baghdad's Mohsen Mosque.


This, however, is not the first time the neighbourhood has seen an insurrection. Five years ago, local residents rose up against Saddam Hussein's security forces after the assassination of Muqtada's father, the widely venerated Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr.


The image of the murders - Sadr and his two elder sons machine-gunned in their car as they left sunset prayers - is now the subject of religious imagery.


Saddam blamed other Shia clerics for the triple slayings, but few Iraqis doubted that the dictator's henchmen killed the outspoken ayatollah.


Local Sadrist representative Adel al-Shara, grey-bearded despite his age of 29, was a cleric and follower of the elder Sadr in this sprawling slum, then known as Saddam City but renamed Sadr City following the dictator's fall.


The day after the murders, Shara was in the Mohsen Mosque where shocked residents gathered on hearing the news.


The crowd, which eventually spilled out into the street, "prayed in the spirit of its leader", Shara said.


Meanwhile, Baathist militia and security forces gathered outside. They called for the crowd to disperse, but the mourners chanted the ayatollah's popular slogan, "No, no to Satan."


As tensions rose, the security forces opened fire. Inside the mosque, weapons were handed out, and a pitched battle soon raged. Several security vehicles were set on fire.


But Saddam's forces eventually shot their way into the mosque, killing some 200 people inside and arresting Shara along with many of his fellow clerics.


Several of his colleagues were executed and at least one was tortured to death. To ensure no further trouble from congregations, the mosque's doors were welded shut.


Sadr's assassination and the Mohsen Mosque uprising ended a two-year renaissance of Shia religiosity, but it did not snuff out the movement altogether.


In the 1990s, as part of a general strategy of encouraging religion to bolster the legitimacy of his regime, Saddam allowed Sadr to introduce communal Friday prayers.


If Saddam was expecting a pliant cleric, however, he was mistaken.


Sadr was steeped in the philosophy of his relative, Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a pioneer of Shia political Islamism killed by the regime in 1981.


Sadr dubbed his nascent movement the "al-Hawza al-Natiqa" or "the Outspoken Seminary".


Sadr also encouraged his followers to study religion, to introduce it into their daily lives and to turn to the marjaeya, or clergy, for guidance.


Shara was a 20-year-old student of technology when he first encountered Sadr's movement.


"I prayed, but my prayers did not have a voice, a political stance. The Sayyid gave me a voice," Shara said, using the honorific that denotes a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.


Shara became a seminary student on the recommendation of Ayatollah Hasan al-Nasr, one of Sadr's followers, while Sadr himself wrapped the young Shara's turban on his graduation.


By then Sadr's sermons had taken on a more political tone.


He addressed pan-Islamic concerns like Palestine and the sanctions on Iraq, but also indirectly criticised Saddam, - who was collaborating with the Americans against Iraqis.


At the time, the sermons - recorded on cassette tapes and widely distributed across the country - were one of the few voices the regime could not control.


Indeed, as Shara puts it, Sadr's prayers "threatened the throne of the tyrant", and as a result "they spread rumours saying he was a spy and collaborator with Saddam".


But Shara says the public ignored these stories and followed Sadr's orders to go to Najaf and Karbala on foot to mark Shia religious holidays, a practice banned by the regime since the 1970s to squelch political activity.


In February 1999, the ayatollah delivered his 45th Friday sermon.


Wearing a white burial shroud - which has become a symbol of the Sadrists and the unofficial uniform of the Mahdi Army - he addressed his followers for what was to be the last time.


The next evening he was assassinated.


The younger son, Muqtada, was spared, and after the fall of the regime he inherited his father's movement.


As chaos gripped post-war Baghdad, Sadrist preachers across Sadr City organised vigilante committees to guard neighbourhoods and prevent looting of public institutions. Others distributed food and water.


Meanwhile, Muqtada al-Sadr continued his father's pan-Islamic rhetoric.


He criticised the US occupation, although always staying just short of a direct and unambiguous call for violence, and in the summer of 2003 he created his Mahdi Army as an alternative to the newly formed US sponsored New Iraqi Army.


Sadr's followers contrast Muqtada with the US-appointed Governing Council, which is composed largely of Iraqis who lived outside the country during Saddam's regime.


"Sayyid Muqtada is not like the Governing Council. He lived through our situation and our suffering, and knows what we want," said a young man in Shara's office who identifies himself as Abu Moataz.


"I want to be with Sayed Muqtada, even if I'm crushed by American tanks," said Moataz.


Today, the Coalition accuses Sadr and his supporters of the murder of a fellow cleric in April 2003, of inciting violence through the movement's newspaper and terrorising other Iraqis.


Coalition spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt has even vowed to "destroy" the Mahdi Army and there's evidence of that effort.


A few rooms away from where Shara speaks, his followers display the wreckage of an AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile, which they say smashed into a small mosque next to their office.


The Sadrists say they are the only ones standing up against the Coalition.


"There is no other political trend facing tyrants and unbelievers," said a self-proclaimed Mahdi Army soldier in Shara's office. "There are lots of other scholars and preachers but they don't confront anything."


Dhiya Rasan is an IWPR trainee.


More IWPR's Global Voices