Muqtada al-Sadr has recently emerged as a Muslim Shia leader who vociferously rejects the US-led occupation in Iraq.
He is seen by many Shia and politicians as a zealous leader who has chosen the wrong time for this escalation of protests.
About 30 years old, al-Sadr is a son of the Grand Ayat Allah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a prominent Iraqi Shia leader who was killed in 1999 along with two of his other sons.
Hardly known outside Iraq, and lacking the religious education and degrees required by Shia doctrines, al-Sadr bases his religious authority on his lineage.
Saddam Hussein backed his father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, to head the al-Hawza (the main centre for Shia instruction in Iraq) in Najaf. Hussein backed al-Sadr because he was an Arab Muslim and he wanted to rid the al-Hawza of its non-Arab leaders.
“I do not believe that
any sensible human being would kill a leader such as Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr”
former Iraqi foreign minister
Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr used that backing to consolidate his hopes to change Iraq’s religious, political, and social outlook to comply with Islamic rules.
He reportedly gained popular support to an extent that worried the Iraqi government. Unconfirmed reports suggest he has been killed by the Iraqi secret services.
But sources close to former Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri quoted Sabri as saying before the war on Iraq: “I do not believe that any sensible human being would kill a leader such as Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.”
Continuing his father’s attempt to lead the al-Hawza in Najaf, his followers surrounded the home of Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani, an Iranian citizen, asking him to leave the country soon after occupation. This followed the murder of the prominent Shia cleric Abd al-Majid al-Khoei who had returned to Iraq with US forces after years in exile.
Muqtada al-Sadr found a great deal of space for manoeuvre – as is the case with all Iraq’s political and religious factions. He consolidated his power base among his father’s supporters and started a conscious anti-occupation campaign.
He has repeatedly expressed opposition to the US-led occupation of Iraq; however, he has preached non-violence.
He did not recognise the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and declared a shadow cabinet.
Al-Sadr founded paramilitary militias, al-Mahdi Army, saying it would fight for the interests of the Iraqi people.
On 28 March 2004, the US occupation authorities ordered the closure of al-Hawza newspaper, published by Muqtada al-Sadr, alleging it was inciting violence.
Peaceful protests across Iraq
have escalated tensions
Al-Sadr’s followers demonstrated in their thousands in several cities, protesting against the closure.
Declaring that peaceful protests had become useless, al-Sadr urged his followers to “terrorise” their enemy on 5 April 2004.
His call came only one day after thousands of his followers took to the streets in protest. Armed supporters, mostly impoverished young men belonging to al-Mahdi Army, have reportedly engaged in gun battles with coalition forces.
Eight American soldiers, one Salvadorean combatant and at least 20 Iraqi demonstrators were reported killed in the day-long fighting.
Seen as the worst outbreak of Shia resistance in the year-old US-led occupation of Iraq, al-Sadr’s backers demanded the reopening of their Al-Hawza newspaper.
Al-Sadr’s supporters also demanded the end of a siege that was imposed on al-Sadr’s offices and the release of Mustafa Yaqubi, a top aide who was arrested a week earlier.
Muqtada al-Sadr has maintained his rejection of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and has actively advocated the so-called “faithfully Islamic government”.
A spokesman for the US-led occupation of Iraq has said an arrest warrant has been issued for al-Sadr.
Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Iraqi Shi’ite cleric who ordered his fanatical militia to attack coalition troops, is being supported by Iran and its terror surrogate Hezbollah, according to military sources with access to recent intelligence reports.
Sheik al-Sadr’s bid to spark a widespread uprising in Iraq comes at a particularly pivotal time. The United States is conducting a massive troop rotation that leaves inexperienced troops in some locations, including Fallujah, which is west of Baghdad and where Sunnis have mounted another series of rebellions.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that he will consider more U.S. forces for Iraq if his top commander there, Gen. John Abizaid, requests them. There are about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and the force strength is scheduled to shrink by 15,000 once the rotation is completed.
“The commanders are using the excess of forces that happen to be in there because of the deployment process,” Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters. “They will decide what they need, and they will get what they need.”
Sheik al-Sadr, who has traveled to Iran and met with its hard-line Shi’ite clerics, is an ardent foe of the United States who wants all foreign troops to leave.
The United States suspects that his goal is to create a hard-line Shi’ite regime in Iraq modeled after Tehran’s government. Military sources said Sheik al-Sadr is being aided directly by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which plays a large role in running that country, and by Hezbollah, an Iranian-created terrorist group based in Lebanon.
One of the sources said these two organizations are supplying the cleric with money, spiritual support and possibly weapons. “Iran does not want a success in Iraq,” the source said.
“A democratic Iraq is a death knell to the mullahs.” Sheik al-Sadr upped the ante during the weekend by calling for his 3,000-strong militia, the Army of the Mahdi, to begin attacking coalition forces. His fiery words touched off attacks throughout southern Iraq.
The Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad announced on Monday that an Iraqi judge months ago had issued an arrest warrant for Sheik al-Sadr on a charge of murdering a moderate Shi’ite cleric.
The question for U.S. commanders is how to arrest Sheik al-Sadr without further enraging his small but violent group of followers. “Let the Iraqis kill him,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney. “We should not kill him, but we may have to. He’s trying to create an uprising. This is their Tet offensive. We’re going to kill a lot of them just like we did at Tet.”
John Hillen, a former Army captain who fought in Operation Desert Storm during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, said the first step should be to try to discredit the cleric, using the condemnation of moderate Shi’ite leaders, before arresting him.
“You need to defuse the situation,” Mr. Hillen said. “You need to make it Iraqi versus Iraqi. You’ve got to discredit him by his own people and find legitimate sources on our side. Make this as much a Shi’ite-to-Shi’ite issue as opposed to the Americans versus Sadr.”
The U.S. military is trying new tactics to try to quell insurgents in Fallujah, avoiding time-consuming house-to-house sweeps in favor of targeted raids based on hard intelligence. When the 82nd Airborne Division first tried to subdue Fallujah in the summer, units went block by block to locate insurgents. Now, in the second intense battle for the city of Saddam Hussein loyalists, intelligence collection has improved and U.S. Marines can target specific dwellings.
“The plan is not to go house to house, street to street. We are trying to get insurgents,” Capt. Ed Sullivan told Agence France-Presse.
Mr. Hillen said such precision operations mean that the Marines are getting good intelligence. “If you have good intelligence beforehand, which is the key to the whole Fallujah-type operations, you can at the same time be precise and overwhelming. We’ve been in and around Fallujah for quite some time, and I’m sure we have some pretty good intelligence sources there.”
Mr. Rumsfeld said part of the intelligence resources are photographs of Iraqis who participated in the killings and mutilations of four American contractors. The former military commandos were serving as security staff in Fallujah and moving on a main road frequently traveled by coalition personnel when they were ambushed.
“They have photographs of a good many people who were involved in the attacks against the individuals, and they have been conducting raids in the city against high-value targets,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “They’ve captured a number of people over the past 36 hours. The city is isolated. A number of people have resisted and been killed. And it will be a methodical effort to find the individuals who were involved.”