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Iraq: Is Al-Sadr Stirring The Pot Or Promoting Peace?

Muqtada al-Sar has long been outspoken in his calls for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq (epa) Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has been widely praised for his role in staving off a major sectarian split in Iraq since the 22 February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. While the cleric has taken a leading role in calling for unity and calm, he has at the same time rallied Iraqis to demonstrate against the presence of multinational forces in Iraq.

Al-Sadr spent much of the past two months on a regional tour aimed at reshaping his image as a peacemaker, visiting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. He cut his stay in Lebanon short to return to Iraq following the Samarra bombing.

Calling On The Neighbors

Throughout his regional tour, Al-Sadr portrayed himself as a defender -- saying his militiamen would be willing to defend Iran if it were attacked by the United States -- and mediator -- volunteering to broker peace between Syria and Lebanon.

The cleric, who by all accounts is not seeking a position for himself in the incoming Iraqi government, has argued that relations between Iraq and its neighbors have been damaged by the war in his country. At home, al-Sadr supporters, who ran as part of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) list in the December legislative elections, are moving to the fore of politics. Thirty-two of them will sit in the new parliament.

A protest against the 22 February Golden Mosque bombing that was sponsored by al-Sadr's organization on 23 February (epa)

Al-Sadr's men in parliament will push for a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq. And it is likely they will elicit the UIA's support for their cause. The UIA will have 128 seats (including al-Sadr's 32 supporters) in the 275-seat chamber.

The recent increasing tensions between U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the UIA could lead to strong support within the alliance for the initiative. The tensions with Khalilzad arose after al-Sadr supporters helped push through the nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to be the faction's candidate as prime minister after the new legislature convenes. The Kurds and Sunni Arabs -- and according to some accounts the United States -- preferred another Shi'ite contender, Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Al-Mahdi lost an internal UIA poll to al-Ja'fari by just one vote.

Using The Sunnis

Al-Sadr has worked hard to align his movement with some Sunni Arab groups -- in particular the Muslim Scholars Association -- over the past three years as part of his goal of driving multinational forces from Iraq and establishing an Islamic state there. But time and again, the cleric has proven that his alliances only last as long as they suit his needs.

The behavior of his militiamen in recent days leaves little question about their true intentions. According to media reports, militiamen from al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army hurried to protect Sunni Arab mosques in Baghdad and other cities following the retaliatory attacks last week. But as the days wore on, militiamen informed Sunnis that they were seizing many of the mosques, claiming that they were originally Shi'ite mosques that were handed over to Sunnis by former President Saddam Hussein.

Al-Sadr militiamen carried out similar acts in 2003, which the cleric defended. When questioned about such seizures in September 2003, al-Sadr said: "They [the mosques] were ours. Saddam Hussein stole them from us and we have taken them back. If the Sunnis want to come and pray here, they can do so on [the] condition that they will follow a Shi'ite imam in prayers. We are the majority and the majority must be respected." According to media reports, at least some, but likely not all, of the mosques have been returned to Sunnis since that time.

This time, al-Sadr reportedly scolded his followers for trying to seize mosques. Parliamentarian and al-Sadr supporter Qusay al-Suhail told RFE/RL on 27 February that reports oF mosques being seized were grossly exaggerated.

According to western media, al-Sadr militiamen also engaged in other acts of violence against Sunni Arabs in recent days, including the burning of mosques, the killings of clergy, and attacks on civilians. There are also reports that Shi'ite militiamen -- some of them aligned with al-Sadr -- have driven Sunnis from some mixed Muslim communities.

One al-Sadr aide claimed that the militiamen have even "arrested" some Sunnis, reported on 26 February. Sahib al-Amiri claimed the detainees would be handed over to the government. In 2004 al-Sadr was found to be operating a makeshift court in Al-Najaf. Mutilated bodies and torture machines were allegedly found in the rooms of the court.

Militiamen from the Mahdi Army reportedly freely patrolled the streets of Baghdad over the past several days while the rest of the city remained under tight curfew. That fact in itself demonstrates the power of the militia. Government forces, dominated by Shi'ite Arabs, apparently made no attempt to control the movements of militiamen, either out of fear or loyalty -- perhaps a little of both.

Al-Sadr Turns Up The Rhetoric Against Multinational Forces

On the street level, al-Sadr is using the tensions to generate a mass campaign for withdrawal of multinational forces, a movement he hopes the government will be unable to ignore. Building on statements made by Sunni and Shi'ite leaders in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing, al-Sadr told his followers on 26 February that terrorism in Iraq was rooted in the presence of foreign troops there.

Al-Sadr militiamen (AFP file photo)

The cleric's calls for national unity are directed at binding Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs together against the United States and the international coalition. The first step in this will be the holding of a joint Sunni-Shi'ite demonstration days against multinational forces in Baghdad in the coming. By rallying the two sects, al-Sadr hopes to force Iraq's political leaders to call for an accelerated withdrawal of multinational forces.

Speaking to supporters in Al-Basrah on 26 February, al-Sadr blamed the United States for the 22 February bombing of Shi'ite shrines in Samarra, saying Washington's goal in Iraq was to turn Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs against one another. He claimed the United States has turned Ba'athist and Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents "into a weapon for the annihilation of the Iraqi people, [a weapon against] stability and independence."

"The U.S. troops withdrew from the site [of the Golden Mosque] so that it could be blown up," al-Sadr alleged. Saying that Iraq's enemy is trying to stir up sedition, he asked his followers: "Do you want to back the enemy...? Do you want to back the occupier who is dismembering our homeland and killing our sons?"

"At first it was an Islamic war on the crusaders [multinational forces], but the war went from being waged on the crusaders to being waged among Muslims themselves," al-Sadr claimed. Referring to Shi'ite criticisms of calls by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad that Iraq form a national-unity government , al-Sadr told his followers: "Whether the U.S. ambassador leaves [Iraq] or not, what will that do if the head of the snake remains here? Cut off the head of the snake, then the entire evil will go away." He demanded that multinational forces leave Iraq, saying "the evacuation of the occupiers is the most important prerequisite for achieving security in Iraq."

Speaking about reports of British soldiers torturing Iraqis in Al-Basrah, the cleric said: "We got rid of Saddam only to have it be replaced by another dictatorship, the dictatorship of Britain, America, and Israel."

Al-Sadr last attempted to incite resistance to the international coalition through his newspaper, "Al-Hawzah," in 2004. That move prompted the Coalition Provisional Authority to shut the publication down. The situation in Iraq is much different today, and it is unlikely the Shi'a-led government would have the power or the resolve take action against al-Sadr for inciting violence. Most likely, the cleric will continue to operate with impunity.

As Iraq straddles the line between unrest and civil war, the actions of al-Sadr in the coming days will have a major influence on the direction of the country's future. A call to arms by the cleric would be nearly impossible for the Iraqi government to contain. For multinational forces already battling a thriving insurgency, it would prove an unwelcome challenge.

Reactions To The Samarra Attack

Reactions To The Samarra Attack
Demonstrators in Baghdad on February 23 (epa)

Iraqi religious and government leaders, as well as international officials, condemned the February 22 bomb attack that wrecked the Golden Mosque, a major Shi'ite Muslim shrine in Samarra. Below is a selection of statements on the incident.

"This new ugly crime comes as a warning that there is a conspiracy against the Iraqi people to spark a war among brothers. God willing, we will not allow this.... We must cooperate and work together against this danger, the danger of civil war. This is the fiercest danger because it threatens our unity and our country with a devastating civil war." -- Iraqi President Jalal Talabani

"The timing of this crime indicates that one of its aims is to stall the political process and to hamper the negotiations on the formation of a national-unity government." -- President Talabani

"I announce on this occasion three days of mourning. I hope our heroic people will take more care on this occasion to bolster Islamic unity and protect Islamic brotherhood and Iraqi national brotherhood." -- Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari

"Oh honorable people of Samarra! We should stand as one, united in confronting terrorism.... This assault is an assault on all Muslims." -- Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabur

"They will fail to draw the Iraqi people into civil war as they have failed in the past." -- Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i

"If the security systems are unable to secure necessary protection, the believers are able to do so with the might of God." -- Shi'ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

"We will not only condemn and protest but we will act against those militants. If the Iraqi government does not do its job to defend the Iraqi people we are ready to do so." -- Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, speaking through spokesman Abdel Hadi al-Darajee

(compiled by Reuters)

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