The Middle East Does Not Need Another Failed Theocracy
May 19, 2004
Unfortunately the situation in Iraq is rather dire and a number of nations can profit from its chaos whereas others would definitely suffer from an Iraq undergoing pervasive civil strife which can very well make Iraq a theocratic state. Getting rid of the old hazard of Saddam Hussein and his rapacious family has led to the emergence of a motley group of characters in post Saddam Iraq who are fighting for dominance over the nation.
One such individual who deserves special attention is a man by the name of Moqtada al-Sadr who had appeared out of the woodwork of a chaotic post Saddam Iraq. He is a young Shiite Muslim cleric in his early thirties who is among many individuals struggling for power in today's Iraq. He is the son of Mohammad Sadiq Sadr, who was a prominent cleric in the Shiite religious establishment. In 1999, Sadr senior was assassinated in 1999 and the most likely perpetrators were agents of Saddam Hussein's Baath party. After his father's death, al-Sadr took over his father's charitable organization and had operated in a clandestine manner by setting up various cells in Shia dominant areas of Iraq in the hopes of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and establishing a religious theocracy like the one in neighboring Iran.
Shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein by U.S forces, Moqtada al-Sadr right away maneuvered for influence through his family's foundation. In that time period, a poor neighborhood in Baghdad that is inhabited mainly by Shiites was renamed Sadr City from the previous name of Saddam City. In the Shia slum areas of Baghdad, his followers distributed food to the needy thereby endearing himself to poverty stricken members of the Shiite community. Al Sadr's methods of attaining power were by no means limited to charity work and sermons but by violence and intimidation as well.
Prior to the U.S. invasion, al-Sadr was a relative unknown outside of Iraq who had obtained instantaneous notoriety in the American political and military establishment. He was regarded as a minor rabble rousing nuisance up until the summer of 2003 and has turned into a major threat to American interests and most importantly to Iraqi interests as well. The first signs of trouble occurred on April 11, two days after the fall of Baghdad when a pro U.S. cleric by the name Abdel Majid al-Khoie was murdered in Najaf and according to the U.S., Sadr was the most likely culprit. Then came the string of fiery Friday prayer sermons. Here are some examples of his quotes:
"Terrorize your enemies as we cannot remain silent at their violations. Otherwise, we will reach a stage when the consequences will be serious... I am concerned about you because demonstrations are useless... Your enemy loves terrorism and scorns nations and all Arabs. It seeks to silence the opinions of others. I appeal to you not to resort to demonstrations because they have become useless. You should resort to other methods." Quoted by Iraqi web site Sharja Al-Khalij, 5 Apr 04
"I will only negotiate with the Americans if their country says that it has come here to liberate us not to occupy us, as occupying a country is incompatible with the very principle of negotiations... We are not hostile to America, but we are the enemy of occupation... I only want a government based on freedom and rule by the people. Obviously, such a government will be an Islamic one." Interview with Iranian news agency Irna, 23 Feb 04
"The Untied States did not only come to overthrow Saddam only or take our oil. It came with the intention of destroying the whole cultural, moral, and humanitarian structure of Iraqi civilization and replace it by a structure producing thorns, moss, and a defeated nation." Quote from editorial in Sadr's Al-Hawza newspaper, 7 Aug 2003
These quotes are rather typical of today's "popular" imams whose sermons are anti American (even though it was the U.S. who overthrew Saddam) in flavor with the ever-recurring theme of enemy (Israel, U.S. and the UK.) plots. One can't forget the ordering of the followers to attain martyrdom. But interestingly enough you won't see these Imams or their sons in the front lines.
However not all of his quotes were so inflammatory like the following:
"I hope you will send my greetings and my thanks to the American people who love peace. I thank them because they supported us by demonstrations. I love them because I wanted to guide them to God and I wish to unify them with our people. So let Ramadan be a meeting for us of peace and settlement, a month of preventing bloodshed, wars and terrorism. This month will be a seed of unity and brotherhood between the two peoples and the two religions." Letter to occupying forces to mark Ramadan published in Sadr's Al-Hawzah newspaper, 6 Nov 03
"We have been keen and are still keen to avoid a clash with the occupation forces. But as I have said, we continue to face, almost on a daily basis, an intense campaign of escalation, harassment and provocation... Our course is to avoid collision and bloodshed as long the path of politics, diplomacy and negotiation remains open." Quoted by Lebanese web site Al-Safir, 5 Nov 03
I had to include those quotes to underline a certain point in that it is typical of mullahs who involve themselves in politics to show two faces at times to throw off their enemies for their own gains. Also that in situations where they feel vulnerable, miraculously they are open to dialogue and negotiations but when they feel that they have the upper hand -¦ it is their law or no law! Sounds familiar does't it?
The occupation of Iraq has been a very bumpy one but the recurring theme was that as long as the Shiite leadership is to some degree cooperative with the coalition that something positive can be salvaged for the United States and then the unthinkable happened. On the 28th of March, the Coalition Provisional Authority announced the closure of Moqtada al-Sadr's weekly newspaper al-Hawza for inciting anti U.S. violence. His Mehdi army this past April then started to engage in hostile actions against the coalition forces. So started the campaign of insurgency by the Shiites although Sadr's army consists of fighters who are largely a radical fringe group.
The Mehdi Army was formed in the summer of 2003 in defiance of the Coalition Provisional Authority's promotion of arms control. They are thought to number to up to ten thousand fighters and they are getting more recruits day by day who join out of frustration of their poor quality of lives and naturally their anger would be directed towards the Americans.
An important point is that al-Sadr's target is not limited to the U.S. occupation alone but towards other competing Shiite factions. This became obvious when members of his militia had clashed with moderate Shiites over control of the shrine of Ali in Najaf in July of 2003. So today, his militia through spilling blood in a holy city has control of the Shrine of Ali and with that, have control over the numerous donations that it receives from visiting pilgrims.
Al-Sadr's main rival is the highly venerated Iranian born Ayatollah Sistani. Sistani in contrast to al-Sadr is a soft-spoken, moderate cleric who commands greater respect among the Shiite faithful than Sadr. He had called for limited cooperation with the coalition to ensure a speedy handover to Iraqi rule and the most likely ruling elite of Iraq will consist mainly of Shia population.
Despite the majority of the Iraqis are Shiite, they have been the oppressed segment of the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein's rule. Because of the U.S. invasion a power vacuum was created and the Shias right away entered the chaotic landscape. It is clear that through their strength in numbers, the Shiites will hold the most power in a new Iraq. Whether it will be strength through the ballot box or through the gun remains to be seen but let us hope for the former rather than the latter.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the cities of Karbala and Najaf became model cities for the rest of the nation. The Shiites found new freedom in worship, assembly, politics and in the media. With the new dynamisms and a large and steady influx of pilgrims, these cities were becoming boomtowns of sort. The magic ingredients: peace, freedom, hard work and a pioneering spirit. But thanks to al-Sadr, these towns in recent months have been taken over by his militia and they have been using these holy cities as a springboard for their military activities against U.S. forces.
Consequently, economic activity has ground to a virtual halt in both Najaf and Karbala. The residents are confined to their homes and once again a climate of fear has returned to these cities. Just recently, hundreds of protesters in Najaf were calling on Mr. Sadr's militia to leave the city. Sadr's militia responded by firing in the air, which had caused the crowd to disperse.
The U.S. earlier stated clearly that they wanted al-Sadr either captured or killed. Recently they seem to adopt a softer stance on him. It would be better for the Iraqis to deal with him for the majority of the Shiites see Sadr as a dangerous troublemaker and an important test on collective Shia effectiveness would be shown by how they would treat him. Through his violent deeds he is clearly a tyrant waiting to happen. Hopefully the Iraqis will see him as he is and put him on trial for his crimes against the Iraqi nation. More important, if they want to avoid becoming a theocracy and if they have any doubts about its effectiveness in governing a nation, all they have to do is look east towards neighboring Iran and right away they will come to the right decision. I'm sure the ruling "rahbars" in Tehran hope they will come up with the wrong decision.
Let Freedom Ring ~ Bump!