Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabiliser?
Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabiliser?
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  1. Executive Summary
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Iraq’s Muqtada Al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabiliser?

With stepped-up U.S.-led raids against Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi, and media allegations of the militia’s responsibility for widespread and particularly horrendous sectarian killings in Baghdad on 9 July, the Shiite leader and his movement have become more central than ever.

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Executive Summary

With stepped-up U.S.-led raids against Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi, and media allegations of the militia’s responsibility for widespread and particularly horrendous sectarian killings in Baghdad on 9 July, the Shiite leader and his movement have become more central than ever. The war in Iraq radically reshuffled the country’s political deck, bringing to the fore new actors and social forces, none more surprising and enigmatic, and few as critical to Iraq’s stability, as Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadrist movement he embodies. Largely unknown prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and bereft of resources Shiites typically must possess to assert their authority, Muqtada al-Sadr at first was dismissed as a marginal rabble-rouser, excluded from the political process and, after he flexed his muscles, decreed wanted “dead or alive” by the U.S.-led coalition. Learning the hard way, the U.S. and its allies have had to recognise the reality of the Sadrists’ strength.

Today, the Sadrists play a central part in government and parliament. The young imam enjoys a cult-like following among Shiite masses. How his forces act will be vital to the country’s future. The Sadrist movement has deep roots, and its demands reflect many justified grievances. The key is to ensure that Muqtada helps bring the Sadrists and their social base fully into the political process. For that, he will have to be treated as a legitimate, representative actor and act as one.

The most puzzling aspect of Muqtada’s ascent is that he possesses none of the more obvious criteria of political success and little that can account for the existence and resilience of his social base. Although coming from a prominent family, he is neither particularly charismatic nor a particularly adept speaker. He does not enjoy the backing of a party apparatus. He has few religious credentials. By most accounts, even his material assets are scanty: by and large, he is excluded from the financial networks controlled by the Shiite clerical class and is not truly aligned with any foreign sponsor, receiving at best limited material support from Iran. Likewise, the Sadrists are not a typical political movement. They have neither a coherent nor consistent agenda, and neither experienced nor identifiable leaders and advisers. Especially during the occupation’s first two years, the young imams that led the movement were inexperienced, displaying far more zeal than political wisdom.

For all these reasons, the Sadrists early on were dismissed as an irrelevant aberration with little purchase on the nation’s future. The coalition and its Iraqi partners considered Muqtada’s behaviour inconsistent, his judgment erratic, his discourse radical and his movement chaotic. Underestimating him proved costly; between April and August 2004, it led to deadly confrontation between his followers and coalition forces.

The origins of this miscalculation are straightforward. Heavily relying on former exiles, the U.S. built a political process from which it was easy to exclude Muqtada. It was not so easy to exclude him from his social base. Muqtada enjoyed significant popular backing and a power base in the Shiite slums of Baghdad, the city of Kufa, and the governorate of Maysan. His followers, for the most part impoverished Shiites, are remarkably determined and loyal. Muqtada secured strong legitimacy in the eyes of his constituency, far stronger in fact than that of Shiite personalities coopted by the coalition. He has become the authentic spokesman of a significant portion of traditionally disenfranchised Iraqis who, far from benefiting from the former regime’s ouster, remained marginalised from the emerging political order.

His outlook also proved appealing, as he was at the cross section of disparate, seemingly contradictory stances. He consistently denounced the occupation and displayed sympathy for the armed opposition while simultaneously participating in the political process the U.S. set up and which the armed groups combat. His movement is profoundly Shiite, but his nationalistic discourse, resistance to the occupation, hostility toward other Shiite actors (the clerical establishment in Najaf and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)) and opposition to federalism have earned him respect from some Sunni Arabs. His rejection of an autonomous southern, predominantly Shiite, state and his reluctance to compromise with the Kurds on the status of Kirkuk, together with the strength of his armed militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi, have put him at the centre of issues critical to the future of the political process: negotiations over the constitution, agreement over the status of Kurdistan, the eventual dismantling and disarming of militias and the timing of coalition forces’ withdrawal. Moreover, Muqtada has begun to acquire regional standing, having displayed surprising diplomatic skill during an early 2006 tour of neighbouring countries.

Seen by many as a spoiler, his political positioning and legitimacy in the eyes of a restless, disenfranchised population have made Muqtada a key to Iraq’s stability, and he must be treated as such. But Muqtada must do more to exercise responsible leadership himself. As sectarian tensions have grown, so too has his movement’s involvement in the dirty war that pits Sunnis against Shiites. Muqtada has maintained his calls for national unity, even in the wake of particularly vicious attacks against Shiite civilians, yet the February 2006 attack against a Shiite shrine in Samarra appears to have been a turning point. Since then, the violence has reached alarming proportions as Sadrists have indiscriminately attacked presumed Baathists and Wahhabis. Controlling his forces and putting an end to their killings is Muqtada’s principal challenge. Should he fail to meet it, he will be partly responsible for two things he ardently claims he wishes to avoid: the country’s fragmentation and an Islamic civil war.

Amman/Brussels, 11 July 2006

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