Unruly hero of the Shia

By David Gardner

Published: August 21 2004 21:22

The Valley of Peace in Najaf was on Friday morning reeling under an onslaught of American rockets and airborne howitzers as the US army, assisted by Iraqi police, sought to dislodge Shia fighters from the adjoining Imam Ali shrine. The valley, or Wadi as-Salaam, a vast cemetery overlaying an underground warren of crypts, may become the final resting place of Moqtada al-Sadr, the maverick Shia militia leader who has come to symbolise Iraqi opposition to the US occupation. Just as possibly, it could become the graveyard of Washington and its allies' plans to set Iraq on a path to stable and democratic governance.

Not only Iraq's future is at stake. The Imam Ali shrine, housing the remains of the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed and founder of Shi'ism, is the Shia Holy of Holies. To the extent that Ali was the fourth Caliph of Islam in the 7th century, his Najaf shrine resonates with all Muslims. There is already a perception among Arabs and Muslims that it has been desecrated on a scale not seen since Wahhabi marauders from central Arabia sacked the shrine of the Imam Hussein - Ali's martyred son - in neighbouring Karbala in 1803.

By Friday afternoon, the siege of the shrine appeared to have ended with the negotiated handover of the mosque to senior Shia clerics and withdrawal of the Sadrist militia. Yet the whole episode amounts to an almost preternatural apotheosis for young Mr Sadr who, despite being the scion of a revered clerical dynasty, was a year ago regarded almost universally as a semi-literate hooligan from the slums. Now, he is a pan-Iraqi and Arab icon of resistance who, whether or not he survives the violent struggle for power, is the worst kind of opponent to face in a region and a tradition steeped in the cult of martyrdom.

This time last year, Mr Sadr's decision to oppose the occupation and create his so-called Army of the Mahdi was dismissed as messianic posturing. His subsequent rally to launch a rival government to the US-appointed administration of mostly emigré politicians attracted little more than a few hundred followers. In October 2003, a poll by the reputable Iraqi Centre for Research and Strategic Studies showed that, while Iraqis profoundly distrusted the Americans and the exiles, only a barely detectable 1 per cent supported Mr Sadr.

But by May this year, a poll by the same organisation showed his support at 68 per cent, making him the second most popular figure in Iraq after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shia spiritual leader. For this Mr Sadr was indebted to the occupation authorities and, in particular, to Paul Bremer, the now departed US administrator in Baghdad.

In early April Mr Bremer closed the Sadrist newspaper and a warrant was issued for the arrest of Mr Sadr in connection with the murder in Najaf a year earlier of Abdel Majid al-Kho'i, a pro-western Shia cleric. As the occupation authority announced it would kill or capture Mr Sadr, he launched an insurrection, instructing his militia to terrorise the enemy. Overnight, the self-styled cleric became a hero not only to the majority Shia, but to the minority Sunni Arabs prosecuting a deadly insurgency in central Iraq.

His tactics are more political than military, combining escalation with tactical withdrawal. But they depend for their success on coalition forces combating them with purely military means. He and his rag-tag militia are seen to stand and fight, losing hundreds of martyrs to US tanks, artillery and warplanes. This is a militarily hopeless but politically effective approach, especially in contrast to suicide bombings by Iraqi and foreign jihadis or the car bombs set by Saddam Hussein's former secret police or Mukhabarat, which result in indiscriminate civilian casualties.

But Mr Sadr is also laying claim to the rich politico-religious inheritance of his father, assassinated by Mr Hussein in 1999, and his uncle, executed by the Ba'athist regime in 1980. Both played a part in the underground resistance led by the Islamist Da'wa party, and after the 1991 Gulf war and Baghdad's bloody suppression of a Shia uprising, Mr Sadr's father built a powerful network of welfare and resistance that wove together the slums and the tribes with the clerical leadership in Najaf.

The young Mr Sadr, however, is accorded no theological standing among the snowy-bearded ayatollahs of the Najaf Hawza, the clerical leadership headed by Mr Sistani. Despite his claims to be a junior cleric, he is not known to have completed seminary studies. And despite the plump, unkempt appearance that helps disguise his youth, he is believed to be younger than his claimed 30 years.

Nevertheless, he has - at least for the moment - eclipsed Shia leaders with rival claims to the Sadrist inheritance; the kudos of resistance to Mr Hussein and the US is a potent combination. His goals are to force US troops out of Iraq and replace the interim government of Iyad Allawi with an elected Shia majority administration operating under Islamic law. A theocrat by instinct, he may be smart enough to realise that clerical rule on the Iranian model has little support in Iraq; he recently broke with his mentor, Kazem al-Haeri, a Khomeinist ayatollah still based in Iran.

In the short term, he appears to want to emulate Hizbollah, the radical Lebanese Shia movement, and trump its feat of forcing Israel to withdraw from Lebanon four years ago. He even mimics the gestures of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader.

But Hizbollah had the discipline to convert its military success into political capital inside the system. Mr Sadr has called into question the legitimacy of the emerging state power represented by the US-backed Mr Allawi. Since it is unlikely he can replace it, the question now is whether he, or his movement, can become part of it.