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Commentary Last Updated: Jan 4th, 2007 - 01:08:31

Understanding Muqtada al-Sadr
By Abbas J. Ali, Ph.D.
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Dec 4, 2006, 00:32

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In the midst of intense debate on how to honorably extricate the United States from the increasingly chaotic situation in Iraq, politicians in Washington are well advised to take a lesson in how ignoring Iraqi social forces and how the power of tradition has led to a disastrous outcome and a badly damaged U.S. stance abroad. In fact, Iraq is a special case study that offers a valuable lesson in understanding the powerful hold of social passion and spiritual sentiment on the populace.

Instantaneous and abounding, deep and widely expressed, Iraqi social passions have badly impaired the administration�s military plans and in a political vacuum, have situated politically inexperienced individuals on the center stage of influence. And no other than Muqtada al-Sadr has found himself the subject of mass affection, admiration, and reverence.

Indeed, the invasion of Iraq has highlighted a subtle reality that whatever happens socially is not accidental and most likely impossible to comprehend without an intimate familiarity with the roots of the Iraqi culture and the symbolic and substantial attachment of Iraqis to their revered personalities. For most politicians and foreign policy experts, Muqtad al-Sadr is just an agitator. For millions of ordinary Iraqis he is the living symbol of their suffering, hope, and aspiration.

Since the seventh century, ordinary Iraqis have made correlations between their tragedies and oppressions, between the brutal murder of the Prophet Mohamed�s grandson, Imam Hussein, and tyranny. For many Iraqis, Imam Hussein embodied the message of liberation and faith, pride and dignity. His message is always alive giving them hope and fortitude in the struggle against tyranny and forceful suppression.

Unlike many former exiled Iraqis, Muqtada al-Sadr is not a transient phenomenon. Behind him is not only a prestigious lineage -- he is a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohamed and Imam Hussein -- but also the fame and influence of the legendary al-Sadr family. It is not surprising that ordinary Iraqis draw a connection between their calamity and the occupation, and the message of Imam Hussein and the call of al-Sadr for liberty and dignity.

Muqtada al-Sadr�s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sader, who was killed along with two of his sons by Saddam in 1999, displayed a rare combination of intellectual and philosophical leanings, while maintaining close relations with ordinary citizens. Contrary to the practice of his previous and contemporary ayatollahs, he vigorously pursued the opening of Al-Hawzah (the learned religious community) to students from the ordinary Iraqi citizenship and the poor and set the stage for active populace participation in religious teaching. Furthermore, he established a network of charities and mosques to serve the needs of those who have been long marginalized politically and economically.

Muqtada al-Sadr capitalizes on his prestigious lineage, the reverence with which his family is held and the network of charities and mosques left by his father. Despite the fact, that after the death of his father and under Saddam�s regime, he was deprived of adequate religious teaching from preeminent scholars, those who identified with the legacy and message of his father passionately and fiercely identified with his popular political message.

Muqtada al-Sadr�s message is inherently more political and secular than his religious competitors'. Immediately after the invasion, he instructed his supporters to protect the people and the country, stating that when the people fail to defend their country and freedom, the country is an easy prey. His enthusiasm for the removal of Saddam�s regime was a factor for his initial prohibition of any act against the American armies, as he thought they would soon leave.

When L. Paul Bremer III and his Occupational Authority showed frustration with al-Sadr�s message --Iraqis should run and chart the future of the country -- al-Sadr intensified his call for a sovereign and free Iraq. He called for a united Iraq and a cohesive country, where all sects and religious groups could live free of terror. His patriotism and nonsectarian, inclusive message appealed to a wide segment of the population.

From the start, al-Sadr found himself and his supporters a target of the Occupational Authority, Ba'athists, and foreign terrorists and has been the subject of fierce smear campaigns instigated by various groups including the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and the Communist Party. The first envies the popularity of the Sadrist Movement, and the second resents the fact that the Sadrist Movement is widely popular in areas that were traditionally under its influence.

While the two failed American military showdowns with the Sadrist Movement in 2004 helped to strengthen the popularity of the movement and al-Sadr was elevated to a national hero, the showdowns also dramatically steered the movement away from its primary patriotic goals. Likewise, the movement has been targeted for infiltration by different forces and its members have become preoccupied with religious rituals instead of governance.

While these developments have saddened al-Sadr, his deep pain grows as he witnesses how former exiled groups have warmly and willingly espoused political agendas that have steadily led to the fragmentation and polarization of the country. When al-Sadr asserted that the occupation would eventually lead to ruining the country socially, politically, and economically, these groups ridiculed him.

Since 2005, terrorists have started to roam the country freely and the newly established central government has been deliberately weakened. The Iraqis' natural optimism and sense of pride has given way to fear and pessimism. This sad state was accelerated when the terrorists bombed the Shrine of Imam al-Askari in Samara in February 2006 and consequently inflamed the already tense situation. Since then, and especially after the bloody carnage in Sadr City on November 23, Muqtada has not been able to restrain his followers from engaging in indiscriminate revenge.

As Iraq steadily slides into chaos and bloodshed, the gulf among the people of what once used to be a beautiful country has deepened. Muqtada al-Sadr�s initial optimism for building a functional country becomes a remote reality and reversing the downfall of Iraq requires a miracle.

Underneath the surface of Iraqi pessimism there is a deep optimism anchored on the expectation that the sooner the foreign troops leave Iraq, the better the chance for Iraq to regain its health. Muqtada al-Sadr may not be a seasoned politician, but he understands the psyche and the living memory of the majority of Iraqis. The real test is whether or not al-Sadr can persuade Iraqi political and religious groups to stop putting their faith in foreigners and act responsibly to prevent an all-out civil war.

Abbas J. Ali, Ph.D., is a professor and director in the School of International Management, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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