Sadrists at critical moment
The resurfacing of Al-Sadr and a judicial turn-around show the weaknesses of a once powerful anti-occupation voice, argues Saad Abdel-Wahab
According to military figures, attacks in Baghdad are down 75 per cent since June 2007 thanks in part to a boost in US troop levels, a ceasefire by the radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and the role of former Sunni militants and tribal groups who have switched sides to join US forces against Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
But some argue that the real decline in Baghdad is also attributed to US-funded neighbourhood watch groups, hundreds of security checkpoints manned by the Iraqi army and police, and hundreds of kilometres of blast walls that surround buildings and cordon off neighbourhoods.
Whatever the real reason, radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has made the headlines again by extending his Mahdi Army's ceasefire, and issuing a statement explaining why he has been away from the public, admitting that some close followers have separated from his movement.
Al-Sadr's statement, posted on the Sadrist movement's Al-Amarah website and distributed by his offices in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala and in Sadr city in Baghdad during the Friday sermons, came as an answer to a loyalist who asked why the Sayed Muqtada had been away from the public arena. The last time Al-Sadr was seen in public was last May when he delivered a tough anti-American sermon to thousands of followers in Kufa city.
Al-Sadr said he missed his followers "too much" but every "commander needs to be away for a while to worship and study." "My late father personally recommended me to pay more attention to learning and studying. The brothers in Sadrist offices are continuing to serve the society," said his statement, which was also published on Al-Amarah.
The Shia militia leader has resumed seminary studies to attain the title of Ayatollah -- one of the highest Shia clerical positions. This could make Al-Sadr and his army an even more formidable power broker in Iraq.
But Al-Sadr is also confronting the most serious challenges yet to his influence, which include swaying over a bloc in parliament and a militia force that numbers as many as 60,000 by some estimates. His loyalists hold 30 of parliament's 275 seats, the largest share by a single party.
Muqtada said, "many people who are close to me have separated for secular and materialistic reasons or for wanting to be independent and this was one of the reasons behind my absence, but I still have many loyalists faithful to me and I advise them to conduct education and teaching."
Al-Sadr, who is believed to travel between Iran and Najaf from time to time, also felt sorry about the inability to "liberate" Iraq. Al-Sadr has turned away from fellow Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and has pulled his ministers from the Shia-dominated government. "I couldn't liberate Iraq and make it an Islamic society till now. I don't know who is responsible for this failure, me or the society," the statement said.
"The presence of the occupier and not liberating Iraq as well as the disobedience of many people and their deviation from the right course has pushed me to isolation."
Al-Sadr seeks to confirm his leadership over the Mahdi Army, assuring his followers in publications and on Al-Amarah that he still has control of a militia that has become increasingly fragmented during his absence.
On 9 March 2008, a group of Mahdi Army members sent a message to Muqtada Al-Sadr: "Is it true as had been circulated in the media that you intend to make the Mahdi Army a humanitarian and culture institution?"
Muqtada replied: "There is no difference if the Mahdi Army is a military army or a humanitarian and cultural institution. If the occupier launched a military war against us, we would defend ourselves militarily. The resistance is an undeniable matter even from the enemy's point of view. The same if we are targeted from the West and secular movements, especially if there is a doctrinal and cultural war against humanity and Islam. We have to protect ourselves religiously, culturally to stand against the crusade and barbarians that work against Islam."
Some in the Mahdi Army believe that they had been oppressed during the freezing of the army's activity. Muqtada replied: "This is said by people who don't trust in their leadership and its decisions. You have to be patient."
The Sadrists have been facing problems in the courts as well. Former deputy health minister Hakim Al-Zamili and Brigadeer Hamid Al-Shimmari, who belong to Sadrist movement, were freed from US custody on 4 March, two days after an Iraqi court decided to drop kidnapping, murder and corruption charges against them for lack of evidence. Al-Shimmari was in charge of the ministry's security force. The trial had only started on 2 March, and there were widespread allegations of witness intimidation. The proceedings had already been delayed once because witnesses failed to show up.
The officials allegedly used their positions to help the Mahdi Army find and kill Sunni targets. Prosecutors charged that the militiamen were given access to public hospitals and ambulances. A US military statement issued after Al-Zamili's 2007 arrest reported without mentioning him by name that he was believed to have siphoned millions of dollars from the ministry to the Mahdi Army "to support sectarian attacks and violence targeting Iraqi citizens."
Once freed from a US-run detention facility near Baghdad's international airport, supporters whisked Al-Zamili and Al-Shimmari back to their homes in Sadr city in Baghdad for celebrations. Al-Zamili charged that during his year in jail, he came under intense "psychological pressure" from the American military and was kept in solitary confinement. "During the investigations the occupying forces threatened that the judge would convict me and I would be executed."
When the court dropped the charges, the United States reserved judgement on the ruling. On Monday, US Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker said, "there remain serious allegations of witness intimidation and other irregularities in this case that have not yet been fully or transparently resolved within the Iraqi system."
Al-Zamili described those who were to testify against him as "false witnesses" who had been promised visas to the United States. "There was American interference. False witnesses were given visas to the United States," he said. "They falsely accused me of kidnapping and killing operations because I had evidence against them which shows their administrative corruption."
It is suggested that the Iraqi government drop the charges as a way to encourage the prolonging of the Mahdi Army ceasefire.