Accessibility links

Breaking News

Analysis: The Al-Sadr Standoff

Anyone doubting the political savvy of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr must by now admit that the cleric more than makes up for his lack of an ideological platform with his ability to influence the Iraqi political scene. No sooner had the office of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani announced that the ayatollah would fly to London for medical treatment, than al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army intensified its attacks on Iraqi and U.S. forces in a number of cities across Iraq.

The two-week standoff has allowed the cleric to thrust his movement into the spotlight. Delegates to the Iraqi National Conference, which got under way on 15 August to elect an interim National Assembly, were consumed by the standoff in Al-Najaf from the opening session, and much of the conference's focus was consumed by efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis. Al-Sadr's "game" with the interim government went something like this: intense fighting broke out between al-Sadr militiamen and Iraqi and U.S. forces on 5 August. The following day, the U.S. military said it had killed about 300 militiamen. Al-Sadr's spokesman claimed that only 36 militiamen were killed. The fighting spread to a number of cities throughout the country. On 7 August, Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Husayni al-Shirazi issued a statement calling on all parties to lay down their arms and enter into negotiations. The fighting raged on, however, and the Iraqi Health Ministry reported heavy casualties in Al-Najaf and Baghdad.
"I want one thing; namely, martyrdom"

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi traveled to Al-Najaf on 8 August to meet with officials there, and threatened to forcibly remove the militiamen if they did not leave the holy city. Allawi appeared to offer al-Sadr an opportunity to "save face" by telling journalists later that day in Baghdad that he was not sure that the Al-Najaf fighters were even linked to the cleric. Al-Sadr remained defiant. His aide, Hazim al-A'raji told Al-Jazeera on 8 August that the Imam Al-Mahdi Army would not leave Al-Najaf unless ordered to do so by the religious authorities there. On 9 August, al-Sadr pledged to remain and fight multinational forces "until the last drop of my blood," Al-Arabiyah reported.

Split Over Al-Sadr

The standoff appeared to drive a wedge among members of the interim administration. Vice President Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, a prominent member of the Shi'ite Al-Da'wah Party, called on U.S. forces to leave Al-Najaf on 11 August, telling Al-Jazeera: "Iraqi forces can administer Al-Najaf to end this phenomenon of violence in this city that is holy to all Muslims." Prime Minister Allawi appeared to have a different plan in mind: on 12 August, Iraqi and U.S. forces launched a major offensive on al-Sadr positions in Al-Najaf. The Health Ministry reported on that day that 165 Iraqis were killed and 600 wounded in 24 hours of fighting between al-Sadr militiamen and Iraqi-U.S. forces across the country. Thousands of Iraqis in Al-Nasiriyah and Baghdad demonstrated in support of al-Sadr, who ignored a plea by the office of Ayatollah al-Sistani to end the conflict. Al-Sistani representative Hamid al-Khaffaf told Al-Jazeera on 12 August that the ayatollah had sent representatives to negotiate with al-Sadr.

The interim government also entered into talks with the cleric, Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib announced on 13 August. But Prime Minister Allawi pulled out of the talks on 14 August and fighting resumed the following day, which coincided with the convening of the Iraqi National Conference. Just minutes into the conference's opening session, delegates from the Shi'ite Council interrupted the proceedings to demand that the government resume talks with the cleric and ask him to participate in the political process. Al-Sadr has refused earlier attempts by Allawi to bring him into the political process. Shi'ite scholar Husayn al-Sadr, a distant relative of Muqtada, addressed the conference, and demanded that a committee be formed to find a solution to the standoff. Later that day, State Minister Wa'il Abd al-Latif announced that the government would resume talks with the cleric, but added that the door for negotiations would not remain open for long. "Once the deadline is over, the other position will be taken," he said.

A 50-member delegation comprising conference participants was organized to travel to Al-Najaf on 16 August. The trip was delayed, and on 17 August it was decided that eight members would be flown to Al-Najaf after intelligence reports indicated that militants were planning to ambush the delegation along the road to Al-Najaf. Al-Sadr remained in hiding however, and sent his representatives to meet with the delegation. After three hours, the group flew back to Baghdad empty-handed. The cleric's excuse? He was unable to meet the delegation because of security concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 2004). By then, al-Sadr had succeeded in disrupting the political process in the capital. The three-day conference would have to be extended for another day to allow delegates to vote on an interim assembly.

Fruitless Negotiations

By 18 August, Allawi's administration appeared to have reached its threshold. Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan told reporters that a "decisive battle" would take place that would remove militants from Al-Najaf. Heavy fighting was later reported throughout the city. By late afternoon, al-Sadr had announced that he would accept the delegation's proposal to leave the Imam Ali Mosque, dissolve his militia, and join the political process. In return, he would be guaranteed safe passage, and would not be arrested on an outstanding warrant for his purported involvement in the 10 April 2003 killing of Shi'ite Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khoi. Al-Sadr failed to mention in his letter to the National Conference when his militiamen would leave the mosque.

The standoff with al-Sadr must be viewed within the context of his previous behavior. Al-Sadr militiamen battled U.S. and Iraqi forces for nearly eight weeks this spring. The cleric finally agreed to withdraw his militia from Al-Najaf in late May after ignoring an 18 May demand by Ayatollah al-Sistani to do so. Under a four-point agreement announced by National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i on 27 May, al-Sadr was to also withdraw his militiamen from all government buildings and allow the Iraqi police to return to their jobs; the militiamen had ransacked, looted, and even burned a number of police stations in the preceding weeks. The agreement also called for al-Sadr's militia to refrain from acting as self-appointed policemen. In turn, coalition forces would withdraw to their bases outside the city. The cleric's militia initially abided by the agreement, but soon resumed its assault on Iraqi police and multinational forces. U.S. military officials have often claimed that al-Sadr takes advantages of the breaks in fighting to regroup and rearm his forces.

Al-Sadr's behavior over the past 16 months has demonstrated that he is not a man of his word. He has backtracked countless times and only makes concessions when confrontations come to a head. The events of the past two weeks will likely continue along the same pattern. The cleric has said countless times that he has no intention of joining the Iraqi political process. His remarks in a 15 May interview with Al-Arabiyah television might best summarize his perspective. When asked if he would turn his militia into a political group as part of a negotiated settlement, he said: "There is not change toward a political organization. [The Imam Al-Mahdi Army] can be neither dissolved nor turned into a political entity." When asked what he would do should U.S. forces storm the Imam Ali Mosque, al-Sadr said: "There will be time bombs to protect the [Imam Ali] mausoleum," adding, "I want one thing: namely, martyrdom."

For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".

Factbox: Iraq's Holy City of Al-Najaf