Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 May - 2 June 2004
Issue No. 692
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Moqtada Al-Sadr

Moqtada Al-Sadr: Leader of orphans

As pitched battles continue to rage in southern Iraqi cities, pitting US-led troops against the Army of the Mahdi, the personality and intentions of the man behind the uprising continue to provoke controversy, both within Iraq and beyond

Profile by Hazem Al-Amin

Click to view caption
Supporters of Moqtada in the center of Sadr City (photo: AP)

On Tuesday this week the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, one of Iraq's holiest Shia Islamic shrines, has reportedly been damaged in clashes between US troops and the forces of Moqtada Al-Sadr. At time of going to press the BBC reported that Moqtada himself has visited the site of the attack to inspect the damage, amid chanting from crowds. The incident in Najaf, likely to spark more outrage among Iraq's Shia majority, could mark a new chapter in the ongoing US hunt for the controversial cleric whose fate depends largely on rallying more Shia support.

Before the present round of violence broke out, I travelled to Najaf with the aim of probing the origins and motivation of Moqtada Al-Sadr and his supporters. As I sat waiting in the hall of Moqtada's small office near Imam Ali Mosque, I could see tens of aspirants, sitting in smaller adjacent rooms, listening attentively to the words of disciples of Moqtada's father, Al-Sayyid Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr.

The larger central room where I sat was packed with hundreds of followers, all of them waiting for Moqtada to reach out and shake their hand. When the opportunity comes, the hand is so limp that you are left at a loss as to what exactly to do with it. Then, as if to further disconcert you, a foreigner who has come from so far away for this interview, he steadfastly averts his gaze, and the more you shift your position so as to look him in the eye, the more you realise that this is not just an ordinary case of youthful bashfulness.

One could not help but feel that the black turban hasn't quite settled on the head of Al-Sayyid Moqtada Al-Sadr. If it lends him some stature and absorbs some of his ineffable bafflement, it nevertheless fails to offset the impression, when you first meet him, that this young man is not very self-possessed. A brief interview with him confirms the impression.

Overnight, Moqtada has found himself catapulted spiritual leader for tens of thousands of people. Yet it is doubtful that he had been preparing himself for this role. The sentences he utters are awkward and incomplete, and somehow lacking in conviction -- hardly what one would expect of a man for whom the spoken word is his stock in trade. The black-turbaned clergymen of Iraq are masters of rhetorical eloquence, yet it would appear that the young Moqtada does not excel in this domain. His turn of phrase is alien to his surroundings, prone to collapse into casual speech and slang. As a public speaker, he fails to rise even to the level of the average literate Iraqi.

Yet this bashful, tongue-tied young man, is not just anyone. Moqtada is the fourth son of Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr. His two elder brothers, Mouamil and Mustafa, were assassinated by the Iraqi regime along with his father in 1999, leaving the third brother, Mortada, and himself. In keeping with the traditions of Iraq's bloodstained modern history, Moqtada's father himself had made his entry into public life on the day he took delivery of the corpses of his cousins, Al-Sayyid Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr -- also known as the first Sadr-- and his sister Bint Al- Huda, executed by Saddam Hussein in 1980.

Although candidates for the position of a Marja' (spiritual leader) among the Iraqi Shia must meet many prerequisites in terms of academic and theological training, the obstacles these pose can often be smoothed over by other qualifications, such as belonging to a family with a long track record of service in this domain. Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr was a scion of the prestigious Al-Sadr family that hailed from Al-Kadhemiya -- the Baghdad district on the banks of the Tigris where the remains of the Imam Moussa Al-Kadhem are interred -- and in his sermons frequently mentioned his "clear and distinct" descent from the House of the Prophet through a lineage that included Imam Jaafar Al-Sadeq, the theologian behind the Twelve Imams Shia School, also known as al-Mazhab al-Jaafari, and father of Imam Moussa Al-Kadhem.

"In the house of Al-Sayyid Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr there are three daughters of Al-Sayyid Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr," is one of the first things people will tell you when you inquire about the history of this illustrious family. That the second Sadr, Sadeq, was able to marry off three of his sons -- Mustafa, Mouamil and Moqtada -- to Baqir's three daughters only lent further legitimacy to his claim to have inherited the Al-Sadr leadership. Eventually these women, who had already been orphaned when the regime executed their father, would see their father-in-law and two of his sons assassinated, leaving two of the three daughters widowed. Counting the widows and orphans who have fallen under Moqtada's care -- his mother, his brothers' wives, his sister whose husband was also assassinated, and any number of nieces and nephews -- gives one a sense of the magnitude of the peculiarly Iraqi form of tragedy which has befallen the family.

Moqtada's sole remaining brother, Mortada, seems to have been particularly hard hit, and has since become a recluse. While some will tell you that he is simply concentrating on his studies, others close to the family say that he has succumbed to severe depression as a result of the successive calamities that have struck his family. As for Moqtada, he "stood like a lion" amidst the mourners at his father's funeral, according to the hyperbole affected by his supporters, who are anxious to consolidate his position vis-a-vis his father's disciples. Moqtada was only 25 at the time his father and elder brothers were assassinated. In a sense, one could say that he was orphaned twice, having lost both the paternal guidance and authority figure which are central to a child's upbringing in a traditional religious family, and the role models which his elder brothers would have provided.

We should remember too that Moqtada's father and brothers were not assassinated in some remote and distant past. They died only five years ago, an insignificant lapse of time in a country where the memory of the dead lives on in the slogans and rituals of their followers for decades and sometimes centuries. What is happening today in Najaf and the cities of the south reflects this fact. Moqtada's confusion is evident not only in his manner of speaking, but in the substance of what he says, even to the point that has been heard to contradict himself within the space of a single day. One moment he is clamouring for jihad against the Americans, the next he announces that he is ready to negotiate a truce. Yet we cannot attribute this wavering to Moqtada's personality alone. After all, his ambivalence mirrors the ambivalence of Iraqi Shia as a whole, as they hesitate between allegiance to Moqtada's father and to the traditional leadership of Al-Sayyid Ali Al- Sistani, all the while suffering a barrage of often contradictory fatwas and other religious pronouncements from all sides.

This tension among the Shia can be traced back to Moqtada's father. Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr broke with the conservative clerical hierarchy, creating for himself a direct relationship with the Iraqi tribes that brought him widespread support and popularity. His controversial book Fiqh al-Asha'ir crowned his relationship with his supporters, and is frequently cited as proof of the supreme popularity of Al-Sadr's spiritual and political leadership. However, recent developments point to undercurrents which contradict this simple narrative. At the same time as the clan leaders in Baghdad's Madinat Al-Sadr quarter were gathering in the office of the "martyred" ayatollah, to display certificates signed by Sadeq himself authorizing them to represent him in the mediation of local disputes, the heads of the clans in Najaf were delivering a letter to Sadr's Army of the Mahdi, asking them to leave the city and hand it over to the Iraqi police and the people of Najaf.

This is no small detail if we want to understand the Sadr leadership's social and political support base. When I interviewed Al-Sadr's foreign relations official, Sheikh Hassan Al-Zarqawi, he explained the demand lodged by the Najaf leaders as follows: "The people of Najaf are merchants whose businesses are suffering from the state of war with the Americans, whereas our support lies primarily among the people living in the outskirts of that city. This is why they have appealed to the forces of the Mahdi Army, which are also foreign to that city, to leave and hand over their weapons to the people of Najaf." But Zohair, a citizen of Najaf, presents the situation in a rather different light: "The Najaf clans have close ties with the traditional Shia clerical authority. The Sadr movement, however, is supported by the clans that migrated to the city from the south, specifically from the governorates of Imara and Basra. There have been several waves of such migration, the largest of which was provoked by the former regime prohibiting them from moving to Baghdad."

The same geographical configuration is repeated in Baghdad, but on a much larger scale. The Sadr movement finds its greatest support among the migrant communities from the far south, rather than among those Shia who have been established in the city for at least a century. The anxiety and uprootedness of the urban migrants, and their attempts to create a replacement for the fabric of kinship structures they had left behind, furnish the primary, though not the only, fuel for the violence taking place in southern Iraq today. Once again, the essential story is one of people who have been orphaned. In their collective bereavement, those who had elected Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr as surrogate father to compensate them for the social bonds left behind when they fled poverty and war, now find they can identify all too easily with the orphaned Moqtada.

To understand the present, then, we must turn back to 1992, when Moqtada's father was released from prison after seven years' detention on the basis of his kinship with Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr. His reemergence into public life was soon inextricably linked with another event of the same year. The death of Grand Ayatollah Abu Qassem Al-Khou'i threw the Shia spiritual leadership into a state of disarray that would be compounded by the death of his three successors in the years that followed. All three were of Iranian origin, and the first was the only one to die a natural death; the other two were assassinated in 1996 and 1997 respectively. Their place was then taken by Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who remains secluded in his home up till today. During this period of turmoil which lasted from 1992 to 1999, Sadeq Al-Sadr launched a new school of Shia proselytisation that went far beyond doctrinal inculcation to focus on community organisation, using the banner of legitimacy provided by its founder's lineage.

Many of the pronouncements issued by Ayatollah Sadeq Al-Sadr still elicit conflicting interpretations among Iraqis today. In his speeches he often asserted that the US and Israel were conspiring to kill him, as a prelude to declaiming: "Down with America! Down with Israel!" His supporters today cite these utterances as one of their justifications for their war against the American occupiers, arguing that Saddam Hussein was simply the instrument the Americans used to assassinate their leader. His opponents among the Shia, however, claim that such remarks were intended as an overture to the beleaguered Saddam regime at a critical stage in its ongoing confrontation with the US. A similar controversy arose over the question of Friday prayers, which according to Shia conviction should not be held under an unjust ruler. In 1997, Sadeq Al-Sadr initiated Friday prayers in the Kofa Mosque and enjoined his disciples in other Iraqi cities to do likewise. Today, Al-Sadr supporters maintain that this was a form of protest against the Saddam regime, whereas their opponents respond that its effect was to legitimise the regime because of the message implicit in the resumption of this practice.

The Saddam regime assassinated Moqtada's father because it felt that his influence was growing too strong. He was ambushed in his car in Najaf, near to the famous Shia mosque, in the company of his two elder sons. Moqtada's detractors claim that if he escaped death that day, it was because his father had not thought him mature enough to accompany him on his missions. His supporters, on the other hand, are quick to point out that Moqtada received his black turban in 1988, which, if true, means that he has been wearing this emblem of religious status since the age of 14. It is difficult to believe that he could have been so mature a child, let alone as imposing as his supporters would like to imagine.

Growing up under the sway of absolute paternal authority, as is typical in such families, creates a form of dependency that tends to inhibit normal development in the absence of a powerful role model -- though that model may, perhaps, continue to direct the son's actions and behaviour from beyond the grave. This in turn raises the question of how Moqtada seeks to position himself today with respect to his father. What are his ambitions as the member of the family who has inherited the Al-Sadr mantle?

The anecdotes related by those close to him about the period between his father's death and the fall of the Saddam regime lack any special sense of drama. On the second day of receiving condolences in his father's office in Al-Hamair Alley in Najaf, Iraqi intelligence closed down the office. Secret service vehicles began trailing Moqtada wherever he went, ostensibly to protect him. At the same time, his father's agents and disciples in other parts of the country were clearly being marked out as assassination targets.

Apparently, a group of Sadeq's acolytes had taken over the supervision of a network of schools and offices in coordination with Al- Sayyid Kazem Al-Hairi, an Iran-based Ayatollah, whom Sadeq had requested his disciples to follow. These acolytes consisted of six individuals who were supposedly destined to form the Sadr movement's central administrative council after the fall of the Iraqi regime. There is reason to believe that some of these individuals are more instrumental than Moqtada in determining the course of events in Iraq today. They include Sheikh Qais Al-Khaza'li, currently the official spokesman for the Army of the Mahdi, Sheikh Jaber Al-Khafaji, chief judge of the religious court of Al-Hawza Al-Natiqa (known as "the vocal Hawza", or seminary, in contradiction to Sistani's Hawza, which Moqtada calls "the silent seminary"), Sheikh Mustafa Al-Ya'qoubi, Al- Sayyid Mohammed Al-Tabtabai, recently arrested by the Americans, and Al-Sayyid Riyadh Al-Nouri, an Al-Sadr kinsman and a senior officer in the Army of the Mahdi.

The confusion at the top of the Iraqi Shia hierarchy was perhaps always destined to create the type of cauldron in which Najaf, Kufa and Karbala are currently seething. To aggravate the confusion and agitation of the Iraq Shia community, Al-Hairi has denied any political connection with the group of six sheikhs. Iran at one point established contacts with them and then retracted, leaving them exposed. Sistani for his part has denied any connections with them whatsoever. True, he once hinted that he might seek their support during negotiations over a constitution, but he never acted on his own suggestion, perhaps recalling their profound and intrinsic antagonism to the traditional Shia authority structure.

Meanwhile, the forces of the sheikhs seized control of many Shia cities, only to find themselves rejected by the population. But, while the majority of the Shia middle- class may want nothing to do with them, the tribal dispossessed cling to the Sadr movement and the Army of the Mahdi, which provide them with a vehicle through which to vent their anger and resentment against those of "their people" whom they charge with having neglected and abandoned them. These are Moqtada's orphans -- orphaned once by the former regime, and orphaned again by the Shia hierarchy, in a country in which orphans make up the bulk of the population.

One of Moqtada's aides has said that the young cleric spent 16 years studying theology and that this qualifies as his preparatory training to become a senior cleric. Many Iraqis would take issue with this. But not Moqtada's supporters, who regard him not only as a religious leader, but as the only authority who can protect them in the wilderness in which they are living.

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