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Sadr Reappears & His Background Comes Into Focus.

After months in hiding, Sadr reappeared at his mosque in Kufa on May 25 with a Friday sermon calling for an end to foreign occupation. It is now said that, if the Shi'ite theocracy of Iran is seeking to create a Hizbullah-style puppet in Iraq, its best partner would be the Sadrist movement. But re-creating the Hizbullah experience is likely to take many years to bear fruit. The ill-disciplined and fragmented Sadr movement is worlds apart from the discipline and sophistication of Lebanon's Hizbullah. And Sadr is no Hassan Nasrallah.

The Sadr legend dates to April 1980 when Saddam's Sunni/Ba'thist dictatorship executed Grand Ayatullah Muhammad-Baqer al-Sadr - a co-founder al-Da'wa al-Islamiya, one of the first Shi'ite Islamist groups to be formed in the Arab world. But as a coherent force, the Sadr movement began to take form only after his cousin Ayatullah Muhammad-Sadeq al-Sadr, Muqtada's father, entered the political scene before he was assassinated in 1999.

Alarmed by the Shi'ite uprising which erupted in March 1991 - the aftermath of the war to liberate Kuwait from Saddam's Iraq - Saddam then began a process of co-opting Shi'ite tribes. Muhammad-Sadeq al-Sadr was quite different from his legendary cousin. Whereas the latter was widely considered a genius - he had been written and lectured on Islamic history and doctrinal matters since the age of 10 - and a master ideologue (having conceived a modern version of Wilayat ul-Faqih while in exile in Lebanon in 1969 - a theocratic concept later borrowed by Ruhullah Khomeini and applied in Iran), the former was an activist with an attachment to the Arab tribal elements of Iraqi Shi'ism. Muhammad-Sadeq's main contribution was his controversial Fiqh ul-Asha'er (tribal juris-prudence with emphasis on Arabism). Initially, Saddam tolerated some of the activities of Muhammad-Sadeq and his followers. But this changed after he became one of the focal points of opposition to the Sunni/Ba'thist dictatorship. In February 1999, Muhammad-Sadeq and two of his sons were killed by unknown assailants in Najaf.

Muhammad-Sadeq's swift rise to prominence in the 1990s had unsettled the Iran-based Iraqi opposition which revolved around Ayatullah Muhammad-Baqer al-Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI - recently renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, SIIC, to signal a distancing from Iran's theocracy) and the various Da'wa factions.

The Sadrists had a low opinion of the Iran-based Hakims and the rest of the Iraqi Shi'ite opposition, which they viewed as at best ineffective and at worst treacherous. For their part, the Hakims and the remnants of the old Da'wa movement highlighted Muhammad-Sadeq's ties to Saddam. Some went even further and accused Muhammad-Sadeq of being an agent of Saddam.

These controversies continue to influence the complex divisions which lie at the heart of Iraq's Shi'ite politics today. The Iranians rarely intervened in these disputes. The leading Iranian organisations which dealt with the Iran-based Iraqi opposition were the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (MINS). Both tried to stay clear of the divisions among Iraqi Shi'ite groups. If strong support was expressed for any particular group, this was done by individual Iranian Ayatullahs and religious-charitable organisations acting in a private capacity.

However, the situation in recent months changed as the IRGC and MINS developed close links with the Sadrists, particularly with Sadr's militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi (JaM), which has been receiving the most advanced weapons and IEDs. The JaM recruits were sent to Iran for training and indoctrination. JaM recruits were also sent to Hizbullah in Lebanon for similar purposes.

The downfall of Saddam in April 2003 had allowed Muhammad-Sadiq's youngest son, Muqtada al-Sadr, to emerge from hiding and publicly claim the Sadrist mantle. Within a few months the young Muqtada emerged as a powerful force in occupied Iraq, attracting large swaths of tribal and poor urban Shi'ites. He applied populist rhetorics and attacked the occupation and "those who benefit from it" (a veiled reference to the Hakims and Da'wa factions). Muqtada and his followers quickly established a fiefdom in the Shi'ite suburb east of Baghdad formerly known as Saddam City, but unofficially known by its original name, Madinat al-Thawra (city of the revolution). Madinat al-Thawra was renamed Madinat al-Sadr (Sadr City). Now Sadr City is the epicentre of the Sadr movement.

The district is an ideal place for the growth of "a state within a state". Originally built in the 1960s to absorb mostly Shi'ite immigrants from the south and promote their assimilation, the 20-sq-km district's self-enclosed economy and its psychological, and geographic separation from the rest of Baghdad have had the opposite effect of reinforcing the tribal and sectarian identities of its inhabitants, who exceed 2.5m.

Although Muqtada initially adopted an anti-Iran position, this was more a reflection of the Sadrists' misgivings towards the Hakims and the Da'wa factions than towards Iran itself. Muqtada's trip to Iran in June 2003 had the immediate effect of softening his anti-Iran rhetoric. While in Iran, Muqtada was courted by various state, semi-official and private religious-charitable organizations. The warm welcome given to the young and inexperienced cleric was then met with widespread scepticism by Iranian journalists who questioned their government's wisdom in welcoming an upstart.

Now, this has changed and Muqtada is regarded in Iran as a hero. Many Iraqis, including a big number of Shi'ites, today regard the Sadr movement as an extension of the Iranian theocracy. The greatest catalyst behind the growth of Iranian influence has been the steady fragmentation of Sadr's movement and its JaM. Major segments of the Sadr movement have fragmented into autonomous militias, death squads and criminal gangs, as well as cult-like millenarian movements influenced by Iran's supremacists.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Date:May 28, 2007
Words:935
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