Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Free to be like US

Freedom of speech only means so much in the new Iraq, reports Nermeen Al-Mufti

Click to view caption
Muqtada Al-Sadr

The Iraqi daily Al-Sabah, sponsored and financed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), recently published a bill of "new rights for Iraqis", according to transitional administrative law, guaranteeing that "all Iraqis are equal before the law," and that "all public and individual freedoms will be protected."

The daily -- again according to transitional law -- assured that "freedom of expression in speeches and writings will not be restricted."

Little wonder that the closure of the leading weekly newspaper Al-Hawza prompted thousands of Iraqis to take to the streets of Baghdad in protest on 31 March. The paper, which was shut down under orders from Chief US Civil Administrator Paul Bremer, for publishing articles inciting resistance against the foreign occupation, was a mouthpiece for the young revolutionary Shia cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr, dubbed the firebrand cleric, uses his Friday sermons to attack the occupation of Iraq and call for its forced departure. He has millions of followers, in poor Shia areas in Baghdad such as Sadr City and the Shu'la neighbourhood, as well as many provinces outside the capital. Last summer he established Al-Mehdi army. The army, which is essentially unarmed, save for some elements whom, in common with many Iraqis, keep kalashinkovs at home, has been behind demonstrations in Najaf, Karbala, Kirkuk and Baghdad.

While media attention focussed on clashes between Al-Sadr's followers and the occupying forces in reaction to the closure of Al-Hawza, fighting in Najaf erupted earlier that week between another army called Al- Ghadab (anger), led by Hadi Al-Yemani, and the coalition Spanish and Salvadorian forces. This was the first time Iraqis had heard of either the army or its leader. Unlike Al-Mehdi, Al-Ghadab army is armed.

As soon as Al-Ghadab clashes were quelled, fighting began in Najaf and Baghdad between Al-Mehdi and Muqtada's followers and occupation forces. Scores of Iraqis were killed and injured, though these days such numbers hardly make an impact.

Amid the escalation in Baghdad, and the killing of four US contractors in Falluja, Bremer declared that the US and coalition forces would not tolerate violence and launched "Vigilant Resolve", a major new offensive against Falluja's insurgents. The highway to Jordan was closed while Falluja was surrounded by US forces.

In Sadr city, Baghdad, one of Muqtada's followers said it was time to tell those in Falluja they are not alone. Cries of "Long live Sadr! America and the Interim Governing Council are infidels!" were repeated by thousands.

One protester, Sahib Zuhair, who was wearing a black suit (the colour of Al- Mehdi army) and green bandana asked, "What is this freedom of expression that America is speaking about? Al-Hawza did nothing but practise freedom of expression -- our expression! We are against occupation, but that is not allowed according to transitional law!"

Until now Al-Sadr has not had support from the Hawza in Najaf, the main Shia seminary in Iraq. Despite the fact that he cannot issue a fatwa of jihad and is too young to have the title Ayatollah, he is vastly influential among his followers.

The leading figure in the Hawza, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, a conservative, has asked Muqtada to exercise restraint while Ayatollah Mohamed Taqi Al- Muddersi denounced his actions of violence.

Ironically, against the background of the Al-Sadr insurrection, Operation Vigilant Resolve in Falluja, and the countdown to the hand-over of authority to Iraqis, many Iraqis are now preparing to celebrate the first anniversary of the smashing of Saddam's huge statue in Fardos Square on 9 April -- the day Baghdad was indefinitely occupied.

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