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Beyond Kingmaker: Moqtada al-Sadr and the Future of Iraq

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Posted on Oct 24, 2010
AP / Karim Kadim

A supporter holds up a poster of religious, political and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

By Scott Ritter

(Page 3)

The 2008 fighting between the Iraqi army and the Mahdi Army widened the existing fissure between Maliki and Sadr, and prompted Sadr to change his approach toward politics in Iraq, shifting away from militant conflict and toward obtaining broad electoral legitimacy. While avoiding direct military confrontation with both the U.S. military and the Iraqi army, Sadr continued to condemn the ongoing U.S.-led occupation of Iraq as well as the government of Nouri al-Maliki, which Sadr characterized as an extension of the occupation. Sadr understood that if he were ever to be able to mount a successful challenge to an Iraqi government that derived its power from the U.S. occupation, he would have to do so from outside the existing political system. While he continued to participate within the Iraqi government by proxy, with his party holding enough seats in the Iraqi Parliament to influence legislation, Sadr himself withdrew to Iran, where he began intense religious studies at a Shiite seminary, or hawza, in the holy city of Qom. Sadr’s goal is to complete his studies and obtain the religious rank of ayatollah, thereby positioning himself to succeed the aging Ayatollah Ali Sistani as the senior-most Shiite religious authority, not only in Iraq but the entire Shiite world.

Sadr understands only too well the importance of religion in Iraq today, especially among the Shiites who make up some 60 percent of the population. While many in the West view Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi government he heads as the ultimate authority in Iraq, the reality is that nothing of significance emerges from that government, whether relating to security or Iraqi oil contracts, without the support and blessing of Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani has long favored religious authorities taking a behind-the-scenes approach toward politics, known as “quietism.” This approach differs starkly from the active, often militant, approach taken by not only Moqtada al-Sadr, but also SCIRI, which under the leadership of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was more sympathetic to the Vilayet i-Faqih (governance of the supreme jurisprudence) philosophies of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, a concept that Sistani remains vehemently opposed to.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose father had been a senior Shiite leader, was positioning himself to be the heir apparent to Sistani. His death from cancer in 2009 created a huge leadership gap among not only SCIRI, but also the Iraqi Shiites. His son, Ammar al-Hakim, took over as the political head of SCIRI (renamed in 2007 as the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, or SIIC). Ammar, however, lacks both the personality and background of his father, and the influence of the SIIC has waned under his leadership. In 2009 SIIC joined with the Sadrists and others to create a coalition party, the National Iraqi Alliance. The National Iraqi Alliance was headed not by Ammar al-Hakim, but rather former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who left the Dawa Party. Sadr, sequestered in Iran for his religious studies, did not directly participate in the National Iraqi Alliance, choosing to let his subordinates assume that role. In the March 2010 elections, the National Iraqi Alliance won 70 seats, making it a critical force in the creation of any coalition government which may yet emerge. It is this ability to influence the future course of political affairs in Iraq that has earned Moqtada al-Sadr the title of kingmaker. But such a notion is shortsighted. Sadr doesn’t simply want to influence Iraqi politics—he wants to dominate, and he will do so in a fashion that will make him more “king” than any prime minister the National Iraqi Alliance might assist in elevating to temporary political office.

The selection of Ibrahim Jaafari as the head of the National Iraqi Alliance reflects not only the declining political influence of Ammar al-Hakim and SIIC, but also the growing importance of religious-based political ideology in the future politics of Iraq. SIIC has gravitated away from the Iranian-influenced philosophy of “rule of the supreme jurisprudent,” and toward the quietism of Ali Sistani, diminishing its activism role. Jaafari, on the other hand, as the former head of the Dawa Party, continues to embrace a political ideology derived from the teachings of one of Dawa’s founders, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who professed a philosophy known as Vilayet al-Ummah, or “governance of the people.” Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, the father-in-law of Moqtada al-Sadr, had initiated the exploration of “governance of the people” as a theological-political ideology, but had not finalized it prior to his execution at the hands of Saddam Hussein in 1980.

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Despite his untimely death, the basic constructs of Baqir al-Sadr’s political theory were clear: The legitimacy of an Islamic government comes from the people, not the clerics. Islamic government represents the blending of the people, who are God’s trustees on earth, and the prophets, who are God’s witnesses. The lineage of those who bear witness to God’s word is, in the Shiite faith, traced from the Prophet, to the imams who constituted a direct continuation of the Prophet, and then to the Marja, or religious authorities. While the witness lineage remained intact, Islamic governance would be conducted under its sole auspices. However, since most Shiites believe that the line of the imams terminated during the time of the 12th imam, the concept of governance by those who bear direct witness to God’s word has likewise been broken. As such, according to Baqir al-Sadr, the role of governance has been divided so that the trustees of God’s word, i.e. the people, are directly responsible for government, while the witnesses, or Marja, would supervise the Muslim faith. As such, Baqir al-Sadr was a fervent believer in direct democratic elections of a government by the people to be governed. Baqir al-Sadr died before he could finish his concepts on the role of the Marja in “governance of the people,” but based upon his writings, it is believed that he viewed the Marja’s role as being limited to protecting any deviations from religious doctrine that would threaten the Muslim ideology.


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By firefly, November 7, 2010 at 1:56 am Link to this comment

While America claims to be the vanguard of freedom
and democracy.

The truth is that in the Middle East, few leaders
exist without the approval and backing of the US,
irrespective of the benefits to the people. America’s
needs come first! The US chooses who can govern, and
if the people don’t like their choice, they are
‘terrorists’.

If the US doesn’t like the people’s choice, the
government is a ‘terrorist state’ (as with Hamas and
Iran) and American subterfuge is used to support ‘the
people’ a.k.a., the opposition.

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Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, October 28, 2010 at 4:21 am Link to this comment

mdgr: Pointing the finger of blame is not just what is required to expiate/atone for the horrors, but it is also needed in order to unbind ourselves from inertial force those horrors have engendered.

Up to a point, beyond which it becomes reflexive catharsis. Beyond which, as well, it is just “bleating-in-a-blog” to release our pent-up frustrations.

Frankly, the repeated bitching is as interesting commentary to read as ... uh, dull dishwater. Besides, it focuses the debate on people/groups and not on methods, habits/motivations and means.

The real problem is in the latter. Change them and the former will fall into line. Meaning this: the tools are there to be used properly for the competent management of the economy and government. But we’ve put dunderheads in charge of the process.

That objective is far more difficult to attain in just one mid-term election. It is a long, long process of reformation—of the wasteful way we live and the manner in which we are educated to think and behave. It is a question, thus, of common values—which are wanting.

The New Age “be all ya wannabe” has led to the mess that we are in. People wannabe selfish and inward looking as they focus on their individual desires and needs. Their role models are the celebrity rich, made such by incessant media promotion.

When what is necessary is an enhancement of collective needs—better education, better health care, better usage of energy resources, better living conditions for more of our population.

And far less a wanton bent on personal accumulation of riches.

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By mdgr, October 26, 2010 at 11:10 pm Link to this comment

I would go a bit further yet from that of Moonraven

Lafayette:

Pointing the finger of blame is not just what is required to expiate/atone for the horrors, but it is also needed in order to unbind ourselves from inertial force those horrors have engendered. 

If we don’t, we will inevitably send political prisoners to Egyptian jails in the name of rendition, though we shall say there is no torture.

We shall continue to commit the same war crimes that were conducted under Bush, but under an even greater cover of darkness than that offered by Cheney.

It’s way too late for expiation at this late hour, however.

The Furies will still follow us and I am guessing that America will not escape them.

* * *

On another note, thank you so much Mr. Ritter for an astute strategic analysis of the situation in Iraq.

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By Ella Zahra, October 26, 2010 at 12:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is exactly what I have been thinking.  Thanks for articulating this analysis, Scott.

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By Arabian Sinbad, October 25, 2010 at 10:53 pm Link to this comment

By moonraven, October 25 at 10:20 pm

Lafayette:

Wrong.  Pointing the finger of blame is what is REQUIRED to expiate horrors.

Otherwise the door is always wide open to impunity and repetition.
=========================
Well said moonraven!

And I might add that identifying the perpetrators of these horrors is necessary as a precondition for bringing them to a court of justice and having them pay for their crimes; otherwise we will continue to regress backward into savagery and barbarity, and one day we will have not one Hitler, but many other Hitlers in these sad United States of America, which will be “united” only in criminality and crimes against humanity!

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By moonraven, October 25, 2010 at 6:20 pm Link to this comment

Lafayette:

Wrong.  Pointing the finger of blame is what is REQUIRED to expiate horrors.

Otherwise the door is always wide open to impunity and repetition.

Report this

By tedmurphy41, October 25, 2010 at 8:08 am Link to this comment

Whatever the fate of Iraq, never forget how it all came about, not forgetting the dead and injured left on the road to this ‘impasse’.

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By omop, October 25, 2010 at 7:57 am Link to this comment

OK Boys and girls its time to call it as it is.

Its quite acceptable and honorable to ” install a NEW state” whose justificzation is
the pseudo-history that its people have been prosecuted because of their
RELIGiOUS BE is not soLIEFS ( the jews) in one area of the world in a different part
of the world and then claim that those who oppose such a state are all religious
zealots.

If that kind of logic[?] is not so deadly it would be hilarious.

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By Lafayette, October 25, 2010 at 5:41 am Link to this comment

AS: The essence of my post, which was lost on you in your mistranslation, was to lament the perennially short-sighted and misguided policies of the US political establishment!

Yes, Lead-head’s administration botched this job royally.

But, so what?, that’s history. Pointing the finger of blame never ever solved the remaining problem.

Peace in the Middle-East is a maniac’s puzzle. Let them get on with it.

And America’s blind faith/support of Israel is an impediment to the process—as we are seeing once again with Netanyahu. Europe is far more bipartisan in its approach to this highly complex puzzle.

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By Lafayette, October 25, 2010 at 5:33 am Link to this comment

Rob: Sadr isn’t Bin Laden, he’s more of a Hassan Nasrallah type, but his rise is a great wake up for the idiots who still try to justify the war.

Naive thinking.

He’s no better than the rest of the religious nutters in Iraq.

If in power, he will install a religious regime as exists in Iran. He could also be a major threat to Israel, meaning yet another to peace in the area.

It’s easy for us to talk about this ... we don’t live in Iraq.

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By Lafayette, October 25, 2010 at 5:29 am Link to this comment

AS: I was making a comparison-contrast with the “very secular” Saddam Hussein, whom the Americans could not handle, by way of lamenting that the war in Iraq has resulted in empowering “fanatically religious” groups as opposed to the previously secular regime of Saddam Hussein.

Hussein was a “secular” murderous thug—an Iraqi version of Murder Inc. and hardly an acceptable alternative.

He had killed his way to the top of the Ba’athist Party, then killed anyone who got in his way in order that his family should stay there—and with preference anyone impertinent enough to challenge him from the Schia majority.

Good riddance to him and his to murderous sons.

Until the three ethnicities (Schia/Sunni/Kirds) arrive at an agreement that installs a modus vivendi between them, the killing will continue and Iraq will teeter on a tight-rope, with no safety net.

There are plenty of national precedents for a democracy wherein the power is shared between majority and minority factions: Switzerland, Finland, Latvia, Belgium - just to name three. It’s not easy, but it is a better option than killing one another.

Frankly, it all comes down to sharing oil revenues amongst the ethnicities.

N’est-ce pas?

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By Arabian Sinbad, October 25, 2010 at 5:07 am Link to this comment

By Lafayette, October 25 at 7:48 am

VERY RELIGIOUS?

You think anyone who bows down to pray to the Kaaba daily is “very religious”? Perhaps so, but that does not seem to prevent them from killing with wild abandon.

Just like us “Crusaders”, I might add, except that we pray elsewhere ...

Just how many people have died in the name of God/Allah/Whatever?
==============================================
Lafayette,

I think that you fully misunderstood the irony in my usage of the expression “very religious.” What I meant is to say “fanatically religious” in the same sense that you referred to the Crusaders.

I was making a comparison-contrast with the “very secular” Saddam Hussein, whom the Americans could not handle, by way of lamenting that the war in Iraq has resulted in empowering “fanatically religious” groups as opposed to the previously secular regime of Saddam Hussein.

The same situation is being repeated in Afghanistan, where after 10 years of killing and destruction, the US is being forced to negotiate with the fanatic Taliban as partners to end the quagmire they got themselves into.

The essence of my post, which was lost on you in your mistranslation, was to lament the perennially short-sighted and misguided policies of the US political establishment! And I was, en essence, expressing my unhappiness with the power of such groups as the one led by Al-Sadr!

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By Robespierre115, October 25, 2010 at 4:48 am Link to this comment

If Sadr were to take power in Iraq it would be a great ending to an imperialist adventure promoted by people like Christopher Hitchens who glorified the war as some sort of march against theocrats, fundamentalists etc. Sadr isn’t Bin Laden, he’s more of a Hassan Nasrallah type, but his rise is a great wake up for the idiots who still try to justify the war.

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By Lafayette, October 25, 2010 at 3:48 am Link to this comment

VERY RELIGIOUS?

AS: the very religious Shi’ah-oriented Moqtada al-Sadr, closely allied with Shi’ah Iran in a sea of Sunni Islam

Very religious your cutthroat as-Sadr? What did he do, shortly after the invasion, when Imam al-Khoei rushed from London to Iraq to (possibly) become a major threat to al-Sadr’s hold on power?

This excerpt from here:

Some of his [al-Sadr] followers are alleged to be responsible for the assassination on 10 April 2003 of Imam Abdul Majid al-Khoei. Judge Raed Juhi, who conducted the investigation after the incident, issued arrest warrants against Sadr and two dozen others, but Sadr’s warrant was placed under seal by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Yes, yes - a pure fabrication of the Western Powers. I can see you writing it already ...

You think anyone who bows down to pray to the Kaaba daily is “very religious”? Perhaps so, but that does not seem to prevent them from killing with wild abandon.

Just like us “Crusaders”, I might add, except that we pray elsewhere ...

Just how many people have died in the name of God/Allah/Whatever?

POST SCRIPTUM: Though shalt not kill

Ditch the war, ditch the people who make war. Let them dig themselves back into the Deep, Deep Doodoo.

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By Lafayette, October 25, 2010 at 3:18 am Link to this comment

Translation of very old French dictum:

The one-eyed man rules in the kingdom of the blind.

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By morristhewise, October 24, 2010 at 8:57 pm Link to this comment

There is little profit in defeating an enemy in a few days or months, but the beauty
of having the Taliban as an enemy is that they rarely come out to fight. Many live
in mountainous cracks and crevices and are supported by Pakistan who is
interested in maintaining a long war. Picking them off one by one can last forever,
it is no different in the war on drugs as soon as one pothead is busted another
lights up a joint.

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By Arabian Sinbad, October 24, 2010 at 8:16 pm Link to this comment

Good luck to the ever misguided political-America!

You could not handle the very secular Saddam Hussein, which you discarded after using him to achieve your “religion” of divide and conquer evil schemes in the area, and now you’re condemned to deal with the very religious Shi’ah-oriented Moqtada al-Sadr, closely allied with Shi’ah Iran in a sea of Sunni Islam.

The best recipe for unending conflicts, so you can continue to be the merchant of death, selling your weapons of mass destruction to both parties. As we speak, the normally non-combatant Saudis are in their way to purchase 60 billion worth of weapons, and the irony of this is that Israel has already given their approval of such sale!

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