ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Moktada al-Sadr’s Bid for Power 26.8.04

Moktada al-Sadr’s Bid for Power

26 August 2004

By Yisrael Ne'eman

The Iraqi Grand Ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani is on his way to the Shi’ite Moslem holy city of Najaf in an attempt to halt the fighting between the rebel Shi’ite cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia and a joint American/Iraqi government force closing in on the Imam Ali Mosque complex. The aging al-Sistani is considered a moderate while al-Sadr is known to be an upstart extremist. The standoff has been going on for three weeks with the Mahdi guerillas taken refuge in one of Shi’i’s most revered shrines. Outnumbered and overwhelmed by US ground forces and air power al-Sadr’s militia is said to have dwindled from over 1000 to several hundred. Many fighters have melted back into the population and can be expected to surface later.

Iraq’s interim president, Dr. Ayad Allawi first attempted negotiations and now is calling for the rebels to lay down their arms. Everyone can rest assured that the American/Iraqi government alignment will win this round, but the question is, “At what price?” Furthermore, why did al-Sadr start such an uprising?

Moktada al-Sadr is no fool. He realized the necessity of testing the limits of his power (both militia and political/public support) while making sure to cast himself in the role of “Defender of Islam”. The Americans cannot enter the Imam Ali Mosque, nor can they do damage to it without the possibility of sparking a massive Shi’ite explosion. Dr. Allawi is threatening to send in Iraqi government forces, but it is questionable as to whether they are capable of capturing the mosque. In the end the Mahdi militia may have to be starved out.

The longer the siege, the more Allawi and the Iraqi interim government are seen as American lackeys and betrayers of the faith and Iraqi people. Al-Sadr may lose the battle, but he will gain enormous public sympathy, and bounce back stronger in the next round. Tactically, he faces a very tough decision to attain his objective of ousting US and British troops from Iraq. Should the Americans suffer enough casualties and/or there be a Shi’ite uprising, the Bush administration could lose the November elections and al-Sadr would be accredited with victory. On the other hand he could have just waited for the Allied withdrawal in a year or so and then risen against the “illegitimate” western backed regime (even if elected).

Either al-Sadr acted in haste as youthful radicals often do, or, he realized that should the immediate uprising fail he could fall back on Option 2 - accept a cease-fire and wait for an American withdrawal. One did not contradict the other. It would be prudent to assume than al-Sadr’s steps were well thought out.

So what of the revered Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani? By coming to the rescue, he has placed himself between Dr. Awalli and al-Sadr. One can expect his supporters to be heavily represented in the immediate post-American Iraq, but whether they will encompass his moderation is questionable. Not in the best of health, al-Sistani can be expected to be a transitory leader of temporary influence.

Only in his thirties, Al-Sadr is building a radical power base founded on the eligious passions ignited by the conflict over the Imam Ali Shrine. Whether he wins this battle or not is of little importance, rather the legacy he leaves behind will be far more crucial in determining his future power base in the post-American Iraq. If he plays his cards carefully, his Shi’ite radicalism may well dominate in Iraq in a year or two.