The Trojan Horse?

Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr once merely battled Americans. Now he could bring Islamism to Baghdad in the guise of reform.

Thousands of supporters of Iraq's radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (portrait) rally in Baghdad's Shiite stronghold of Sadr City on September 16, 2011 against the US military presence in Iraq and decry graft and poor public services, holding up broken appliances to highlight their plight. Arabic writing on green banner reads : "No, no to America.. no, no to Israel".   AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Yochi J. Dreazen
Sept. 22, 2011, 1 p.m.

BAGH­DAD — Tens of thou­sands of fol­low­ers of in­flu­en­tial Shiite cler­ic Mok­tada al-Sadr flooded the streets of Bagh­dad, Na­jaf, and Basra last week for some of the largest pub­lic ral­lies in sev­er­al years. At one point, they might have been demon­strat­ing — even fight­ing — against the United States as part of the Sadr-led up­ris­ing that made the young man’s name. But these protests wer­en’t about the U.S. pres­ence. In­stead, they fo­cused on a dif­fer­ent tar­get: the gov­ern­ment of Ir­aq it­self.

After four years of ex­ile in Ir­an, Sadr has re­in­ven­ted him­self. He has lost none of his anti-Amer­ic­an fer­vor (his polit­ic­al party re­cently sus­pen­ded a pair law­makers merely rumored to have met with Amer­ic­an of­fi­cials), but the Sadr Front — one of the largest mem­bers of Prime Min­is­ter Nuri Kamal al-Ma­liki’s fra­gile co­ali­tion — has sur­prised many West­ern and loc­al ob­serv­ers by emer­ging as a lead­ing crit­ic of the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment. Its par­lia­ment­ari­ans in­vest­ig­ate con­tracts on a line-by-line basis, audit the gov­ern­ment’s per­form­ance on power gen­er­a­tion, and de­mand that Ma­liki cre­ate the jobs his party prom­ised — ham­mer­ing the rel­ev­ant min­is­ters in ways nev­er seen be­fore here. In do­ing so, they are fol­low­ing a mod­el pi­on­eered by Hezbol­lah in Le­ban­on and Hamas in Ga­za. If their pop­ular­ity keeps rising, they may have found a way for Is­lam­ism to take hold in a broadly sec­u­lar coun­try.

At Sadr’s Bagh­dad protest, some of the 25,000 in at­tend­ance car­ried broken fans, air con­di­tion­ers, and gen­er­at­ors to sig­nal in­ad­equate elec­tri­city — a prob­lem on which the United States and Ir­aq have spent $7 bil­lion since 2003. They car­ried empty cas­kets to dram­at­ize Ma­liki’s fail­ure to cre­ate jobs or in­crease the food ra­tions on which many poor Shia fam­il­ies de­pend. And the crowd cheered as Sadr Front politi­cians be­rated the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment. “We want ser­vices, jobs, and a por­tion of the oil rev­en­ue,” Ibrahim al-Jabiri, a Shiite cler­ic and polit­ic­al ad­viser to Sadr, said dur­ing the rally. The crowds chanted back, “Now, now, now!”

The over­sight hear­ings, mean­while, are mak­ing for Ir­aqi-style must-see TV. The par­lia­ment­ary com­mis­sion in­vest­ig­at­ing $1.7 bil­lion in fraud­u­lent Elec­tri­city Min­istry con­tracts is run by Sad­rist Uday Awad. Last month, Awad summoned Raad Shal­lal (the former min­is­ter who inked the deals and then resigned in dis­grace) and Hus­sein al-Shahristani (a deputy prime min­is­ter and close Ma­liki ally) to ap­pear be­fore his pan­el. Awad and oth­er Sad­rists ac­cused the two men of neg­li­gence and in­com­pet­ence.

Shahristani in­sisted that he wasn’t in­volved in the deals and shouldn’t be held ac­count­able, but Awad held up in­tern­al doc­u­ments the com­mit­tee had gathered that showed Shahristani knew about and sup­por­ted them. West­ern of­fi­cials here said they were im­pressed by the tenacity of Awad’s in­vest­ig­a­tion: One firm that won a con­tract doesn’t ap­pear to ex­ist, and the oth­er was already bank­rupt when the agree­ment was signed. “This gov­ern­ment is fail­ing to provide what our people need and de­serve,” Jawad al-Shi­haily, a Sad­rist law­maker, said in an in­ter­view. “We will hold them ac­count­able un­til they do.”

Amer­ic­ans are am­bi­val­ent about the evolving Sad­rist move­ment. On one hand, it ap­pears to sup­port demo­crat­ic val­ues such as re­form and trans­par­ency. On the oth­er, it echoes moves by oth­er armed Is­lam­ist groups in the re­gion — es­pe­cially Hezbol­lah and Hamas, both of which now carry out few­er at­tacks and in­stead fo­cus on par­ti­cip­at­ing in gov­ern­ment. Like the lead­ers of those groups, Sadr takes a pop­u­list line on cor­rup­tion, ad­voc­at­ing good-gov­ern­ment re­forms and ap­point­ing tech­no­crat­ic law­makers and min­is­ters. It has giv­en his move­ment a more mod­er­ate, non­sec­tari­an sheen. “It is be­com­ing much more sim­il­ar to the Le­banese Hezbol­lah mod­el,” Maj. Gen. Jef­frey Buchanan, the top U.S. mil­it­ary spokes­man here, said in an in­ter­view.

Some Amer­ic­an of­fi­cials fear the mod­el au­gurs poorly for Ir­aq. Hezbol­lah law­makers brought down Beirut’s gov­ern­ment earli­er this year; they then forced the ap­point­ment of a prime min­is­ter tied to their party and un­friendly to Wash­ing­ton. Mean­while, the group has re­fused to dis­band its private mi­li­tia. Its fight­ers have ac­quired new weapons from Ir­an and threaten new at­tacks against Is­rael.

Sadr could eas­ily fol­low suit, us­ing his polit­ic­al power to bring down the Ma­liki gov­ern­ment; he could then force the ap­point­ment of a more re­li­gious or pro-Ir­a­ni­an premi­er while keep­ing his troops at the ready in case his de­mands aren’t met. So far, those de­mands haven’t in­cluded the ad­op­tion of sharia, but for now Sadr is still ac­cu­mu­lat­ing power. He hasn’t dis­ban­ded his mi­li­tia or put them un­der the con­trol of Ir­aq’s cent­ral gov­ern­ment, rais­ing the specter of re­newed polit­ic­al vi­ol­ence after the U.S. with­draw­al.

At the mo­ment, Sadr ap­pears to be keep­ing his op­tions open. In a re­cent state­ment, the cler­ic urged his fol­low­ers to “halt mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions” un­til the end of the year to give the U.S. time to with­draw its forces. But he warned that if the with­draw­al was delayed for any reas­on, “The mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions will be re­sumed in a new and tough­er way.” Since rising to prom­in­ence in 2003, Sadr has wavered between war­ri­or and politi­cian. His move­ment’s new dir­ec­tion means he may nev­er have to choose.

This story was re­por­ted with a grant from the Pulitzer Cen­ter on Crisis Re­port­ing. 


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