Accessibility links

Iraq: Al-Najaf Demonstration Highlights U.S. Difficulties In Winning Over Iraqi Shi'a

  • Charles Recknagel

A demonstration in Al-Najaf yesterday saw U.S. soldiers fix bayonets to their rifles to suppress an angry protest by some 10,000 supporters of an anti-U.S. cleric. The incident highlights the continuing difficulties the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority faces in gaining the full cooperation of the Shi'a community, despite the Authority's success in enlisting the best-organized Shi'a political party into the new Iraqi Governing Council.

Prague, 21 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Muqtada al-Sadr is becoming an increasingly visible problem for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

Some 10,000 followers of the young Shi'a Muslim cleric took to the streets of the holy city of Al-Najaf over the weekend to physically challenge what they thought was a U.S. attempt to arrest their stridently anti-American leader.

In a confrontation with some two dozen American troops, the protestors -- many of whom had raced down from Baghdad's impoverished Shi'a quarter known as al-Sadr city -- chanted slogans such as "No Americans after today!" and "No to tyranny, no to the devil!"

The incident saw American soldiers face the crowd with fixed bayonets as a commanding officer used a bullhorn to explain that Washington had made no effort to arrest al-Sadr. Finally, leaders of the crowd accepted that there might have been a misunderstanding. But they still insisted on handing over a list of demands -- including that U.S. forces leave Al-Najaf immediately -- before agreeing to disperse their followers.

The incident appears to have been sparked by a strengthened American military presence in Al-Najaf to protect U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who visited the city on 20 July as part of an assessment tour of Iraq. The Gulf-based Arabic-language Al-Jazeera television station picked up rumors that the stepped-up security arrangements were to arrest al-Sadr and broadcast hourly news bulletins about a U.S. siege of the cleric's house.

But if the confrontation came down to a misunderstanding, it fully demonstrated that al-Sadr's followers are ready to challenge Washington and apparently expect U.S. forces to act against their leader.

The incident came just two days after al-Sadr on 18 July used a Friday sermon in Al-Najaf to denounce as "puppets" the members of Iraq's new U.S.-appointed Governing Council. He also announced his own plans to form a militia. Over the weekend, hundreds of clerics and students in al-Sadr's movement were reported to have signed up for the new force.

The 20 July face-off with U.S. troops also highlighted the continuing difficulties the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) faces in gaining the full cooperation of the Shi'a community, despite some key recent gains. Those gains include successfully enlisting the best-organized Shi'a party -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iran (SCIRI) -- into the new Governing Council, which took office this month.

The CPA also enlisted another well-organized Shi'a political group, the Islamic Dawa Party, into the Council. Both it and SCIRI were former exile groups based in Iran and in the past called for Iraq to become a more Islamic state. In recent months, however, they have moderated their position, saying they are ready to work within the kind of parliamentary democratic system Washington envisions for the country.

Analysts say SCIRI and Dawa are now working with Washington -- even though they still call for the U.S. to turn power over to Iraqis and leave immediately -- because they are pragmatic about the country's new political situation.

These groups -- and mainstream Shi'a religious leaders like Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- are reported to believe the Shi'a community made a fatal mistake 80 years ago during the creation of modern Iraq by letting the wealthier, but minority, Sunni Muslim community be the main interlocutors with the then-British mandate authority. They believe that led to the Shi'a's domination by the Sunni during the past decades and they do not want to miss the chance to gain a much stronger role for the Shi'a under the current U.S.-led administration.

But al-Sadr's movement has refused to work with the CPA at all. The size of the movement is unknown, but it benefits from the widespread respect Shi'a have for Muqtada's father Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, who was assassinated by presumed agents of Saddam Hussein in 1999.

Muqtada al-Sadr is variously reported to be in his early twenties or early thirties and is still a cleric with relatively low-level religious qualifications. But he has increasingly capitalized on anti-American sentiment in Iraq to rally his father's old supporters and gain new ones at the expense of longer-established Shi'a leaders.

Al-Sadr's followers demand a theocracy for Iraq and refuse to recognize Sistani as a "source of emulation" -- that is, as the paramount religious authority in Iraq. That rejection is partly because Sistani advocates that clerics stay out of politics and partly because Sistani's family is of Iranian -- and not Iraqi -- origin. Instead, al-Sadr's movement recognizes Ayatollah Kazim al-Husseini al-Haeri, an Iraqi cleric based in Iran, as its religious leader.

William Samii, RFE/RL's regional expert for Iran, says that al-Sadr is increasingly turning for financial support to Iran as he presses his anti-American stance. Al-Sadr visited Iran in June and met with former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani remains one of the most powerful political figures in Iran as chairman of the Expediency Council.

"Al-Sadr and his Iranian hosts reportedly made a deal that in exchange for financial aid to him and his organization, he would accept the Iranian theocratic model of Vilayat-i Faqih, or Guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult, and advocate that model in Iraq," Samii says. "He would also be against the Anglo-American presence in Iraq and, most interestingly, he would oppose the main source of emulation in Al-Najaf, who currently is Ayatollah Sistani."

Samii says a few days after returning from Iraq, al-Sadr made his opposition to the U.S.-led occupation administration clear.

"A few days after al-Sadr returned to Iraq, he gave a first sermon at the Al-Kufah mosque. During that sermon he said he wanted nothing to do with the Iraqi advisory council [Governing Council] that was going to be chosen by the Coalition Provisional Authority," he says. "He encouraged the faithful not to accept this government and council because they would not represent the views of the people and he said this council would not support the independence of Iraq and its people. He basically called this an occupation and he called for peaceful demonstrations against the CPA's plan."

Tehran's interest in al-Sadr comes as its own relationship with SCIRI, once very strong, appears to have weakened. SCIRI had been hosted in Iran since the 1980s and its military wing was armed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards as it conducted regular cross-border attacks against Hussein's regime. The group returned to Iraq with the collapse of Hussein's regime in April.

Kathleen Ridolfo, RFE/RL's regional expert for Iraq, says SCIRI has steadily become more assertive of its independence from Tehran as its leadership has developed a working relationship with U.S. officials. That relationship has grown despite periodic anti-American statements by SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim.

"Even though Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim says one thing one day and something completely different the next day, [the organization's top officials] had some kind of realistic relationship as far as how they viewed the U.S. Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim is the figurehead, but these younger guys in SCIRI, his nephew and such, are really running the show now," Ridolfo says.

SCIRI originally opposed the U.S. appointment of the Governing Council members but later accepted the arrangement when the CPA promised the Council increased powers.

Analysts say the challenge for Washington now will be to choose whether to try to lure al-Sadr, like SCIRI, into the administration of Iraq and away from Tehran -- or, failing that, to try to arrest him.

But that choice will be complicated by two factors. One is al-Sadr's uncompromisingly anti-American message. The other is the number of people who are ready to take to the streets to defend him. Together, they make al-Sadr difficult for the CPA to tolerate, and just as difficult to silence.