In the last week, the threat posed by Moqtada al-Sadr to the U.S.-led efforts in Iraq resurfaced during a bloody incident that occurred in Baghdad. On September 25, a patrol by U.S. and Iraqi troops in Sadr City in eastern Baghdad ended in violence as the troops engaged in a firefight with militia from al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army. At the end of the firefight, more than a handful lay dead. The event serves as a reminder that the threat posed by al-Sadr remains just below the surface.
Since the start of the U.S. intervention, al-Sadr posed a problem for U.S. troops. Commanding a militia with thousands of fighters, al-Sadr has a significant amount of negotiating leverage at his disposal. He comes from a very prominent family, and is the son of respected Shi’a cleric Mohamed Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party in 1999 due to his outspoken criticism of its policies. Al-Sadr’s vision of Iraq remains nationalist, leading him to reject all U.S. involvement in the country.
From the start of the intervention, al-Sadr spoke out against the United States’ plans in Iraq. When Washington finally recognized the true threat that al-Sadr posed to the success of its intervention, he had already fortified his power in the vacuum that was created after the fall of the Ba’ath Party establishment. American forces detained some of his associates, and in response al-Sadr ordered his militia to attack U.S. positions. [See: “What To Do With Moqtada Al-Sadr“]
Al-Sadr’s April 2004 uprising briefly overwhelmed the U.S. military, which had been struggling to defeat the predominately Sunni Arab and foreign Islamist insurgency. It forced the Pentagon to divert its resources in Iraq from fighting this insurgency to dealing with the Mehdi Army; it also had a negative effect on the Bush administration’s political situation since it appeared briefly that the United States was facing a popular uprising.
In August 2004, al-Sadr launched another revolt. While the Mehdi Army caused many casualties to U.S. troops, they also took a pounding from American forces. Near the end of the August fighting, there was talk that Washington was considering assassinating al-Sadr, but his popularity within the Shi’a community made him too explosive for the U.S. to eliminate. [See: “Terminating Al-Sadr Will Not Eliminate Shi’a Resistance”]
Therefore, al-Sadr called his militia to step down and shielded himself behind more prominent Shi’a religious leaders. The U.S. decided against assassination, and was happy to see an end to the Shi’a struggle. This gave the U.S. military the opportunity to concentrate its resources on the Sunni Arab and foreign Islamist insurgency.
Al-Sadr and the Shi’a Religious Establishment
Iraq’s Shi’a religious leaders chose to protect al-Sadr because of his popularity within the Shi’a community in Iraq, especially among the masses of poor. Additionally, the ability of al-Sadr to muster up his impressive militia in defense of Shi’a values remains an important asset for Shi’a leaders especially since the Shi’a community as a whole has been targeted by what appears to be former Ba’athists, Sunni Arab militant groups and foreign Islamists.
However, Shi’a leaders wanted to participate in the political process since an Iraqi constitution would theoretically result in a power-sharing relationship that gives the Shi’a the most control due to the fact that they constitute a majority in Iraq. During this process, al-Sadr remained relatively quiet, and appeared to be pursuing a more political role. His Mehdi Army continued to provide security in Sadr City, but clashes between his militia and U.S.-led troops had ended.
However, in the lead-up to the October 15, 2005 referendum on Iraq’s proposed constitution, he returned to the public spotlight by rejecting the document. He also put on a demonstration of force through his Mehdi Army followers, as seen in the September 25 clash with U.S. and Iraqi troops. [See: “The Implications of Iraq’s Proposed Constitution“]
Additionally, it appears that in his rejection of the constitution, al-Sadr placed himself at odds with the rest of the Shi’a leadership. It is not clear whether his rejection was because of the separatism evident in the proposed constitution, or because of his refusal to participate in any aspect of a process that is affiliated with the U.S. since that would somewhat legitimize what al-Sadr perceives as a continued occupation.
The Bottom Line
Al-Sadr must remain careful because he is positioning himself against the Shi’a hierarchy, in addition to against U.S.-led troops. His Mehdi Army affords him a significant amount of negotiating leverage with these two factions, and both factions recognize his influence with the country’s poor masses. That being said, by opposing the country’s Shi’a religious leaders, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, al-Sadr could alienate some of his followers.
Indeed, it appears that in recent days al-Sadr has backtracked from opposing the Shi’a hierarchy. For instance, a senior al-Sadr aide, Hazem al-Araji, recently stated that al-Sadr’s position on the proposed constitution “is neutral,” which was a change from his earlier rejection of the document.
Look for al-Sadr to continue to display the force potential of his Mehdi Army militia, especially in the face of Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s declaration of war against Iraq’s Shi’a population, in addition to the upsurge in violence that is predicted to occur as the October 15 referendum date draws near.
Republished with the kind permission of the Power and Interest News Report. The PINR is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader.