Friday, April 21, 2006

I Am Not An Ogre

This article goes along with a previous post regarding the Shia split inside the UIA that has a lot to do with old sectarian politics: My Daddy Was Better Than Your Daddy.

Try not to cringe when you notice Newsweek playing footsie with Sadr's spokesman without calling him on certain things or even adding to the story by explaining the real situation. It's still a great way to get to know the politics on the ground so the continuing impasse (which apparently was resolved today) doesn't seem so bizarre and you are not confused by imagining that it is strictly a problem between reluctant Sunni and the new majority Shia government.

The very first part of the interview starts with Sadr's spokesman being completely disingenous and nobody calls him on it.

NEWSWEEK: There was a warrant out for the arrest of Moqtada al-Sadr in the assassination of Ayatollah Majid al-Khoei. What happened to that?
AL-SHEIKH: Those allegations were circulated during the time of [former U.S. envoy L. Paul] Bremer. They wanted to make Sayyid Moqtada an outlaw. He was not even near the location where Sayyid Majid was assassinated. They were trying to pressure him to drop his opposition to the occupation.

For those who don't know, al Khoei was assassinated on April 10, 2003; one day after Baghdad fell. At that time, Sadr was a little known factor in Iraqi politics. No one was speaking to him or about him. The assassination was conducted under cover of the war and was carried out for a number of reasons. Some of which, if you read the above article on the "family feud" in the UIA, is about long standing disagreements over the direction and leadership of the Shia in Iraq. Al Khoei had been in exile up to that moment and had returned to Iraq just that day.

The other problem that is glanced over and continues to be missed by most reporters is that he went directly to Najaf, the main seat of Shi'ism in Iraq. The Sadr faction, which had endured in Iraq during Saddam's reign, unlike al Khoei, took this as a direct challenge to their leadership and control of that mosque. Control of a mosque is a very powerful tool in Arab/Muslim society and politics. A mosque provides money through zhakat (charitable tax like a tithe) that is handed out to members and generates quite a bit of loyalty to who ever controls it. The money is also often used for "charities" or other programs like the development and arming of militias

Of course, it goes without saying that a mosque provides a "bully pulpit" and can swing the opinions of thousands of worshippers.

Al Khoei did come in on the tails of the American invasion, but don't let Sadr's spokesman fool you. That is not why al Khoei was assassinated. His family, like Sadr and Hakim, had a long history in Iraq and in Shia religious leaderhip. In fact, on the day he was assassinated, a very large crowd had come to hear him at the mosque. Two men ran out of the crowd and shot him, along with several other clergy and body guards, dead on the steps of the mosque.

Sadr's man is correct that Sadr was no where near the mosque at the time, but no one in Iraq doubts who was behind it or why. That was Sadr's first attempt to take over Najaf. Without the prestige of Najaf behind him, Sadr remains an uneducated wannabe cleric. The fact that he continues to be referred to as a cleric, simply because he preaches at a mosque or two, is false. To the Shia elite and those who are educated in Shia theological heirarchy (including the main body of Shias), do not see him as a possible leader of all Shia because of his lack of education. Any prestige that he has comes strictly from his father's place in Iraq history, reverence for his position as a highly educated Shia cleric and because the Sadr name has a long history of leadership in the Shia religious schools.

Sadr tried to take over Najaf again in 2004 with an armed militia. Unfortunately, not only was his credentials questioned, but his ham fisted treatment of the locals caused him to be in serious trouble and he was eventually "escorted" out of Najaf by Sistani after his militia was almost destroyed by the US army. Again in 2005 during the first elections for a parliament and again, right before the final election in December 2005, Sadr's followers tried to drive out Al Hakim's political offices.

Sadr does oppose US occupation. Largely because it has worked with Sistani and al Hakim's SCIRI party to set up government and because, while working with this group to set up the TAL (Transitional Authority Law), it was agreed that any three provinces (or more) could choose to become a federal state within Iraq. If this break up occurs, Najaf will be in the federal state controlled by Hakim's SCIRI in Basrah.

Sadr supported Jafari for several reasons. First, Jafari is actually an educated cleric, though standing for political office, which is the cover that Sadr needs considering his own lack of completed education. Second, Jafari is from the Dawa party which is also a rival of SCIRI in the UIA. He expects that lending his support to Jafari that Jafari will in turn lend his support to Sadr. Even possibly that, as the Prime Minister whose chosen sit on internal minstries, Sadr may be given certain mosques or provided with, what amounts to, a letter of cache that will move him up through the Shia ranks past his current position and prestige. Jafari opposes federalist Iraq and that worked in Sadr's favor. Sadr probably hoped that his support would influence the US to withdraw sooner rather than later. If it does, then the favoritisim shown to Sistani and even to SCIRI will be gone, along with any protection. Sadr imagines that he will then have an open field to either politically or physically depose his rivals. Sistani to Sadr is a limited threat in his eyes. He's old and bound to die. Further, even if he doesn't do so soon, Sistani's most important message has been to keep the Shia together as a majority and not break up since this is what has made it so easy for Saddam and past regimes to dominate them. Sadr must imagine that if Hakim and others were out of power or physically gone, Sistani would not oppose Sadr becoming the "leader" and would urge Shia to support him inorder to maintain unity.

It's a big game that Sadr is playing. In short, he hopes to by pass the normal process for clerics and noted theologians and jump right to the top. He uses his anti-occupation stance to attract the disaffected and grow his followers and militia. Regardless of his firey "patriotic" speeches on the subject, his reasons are totally selfish and pragmatic. These speeches are simply a cover; bread for the masses to chew while he sits and plots.

However, Sadr has several problems already outlined:

1) He never completed his education to become a cleric.
2) He is young and considered uncouth and untested.
3) It is widely acknowledged, though never mentioned, that he orchestrated, ordered or otherwise implied to his followers al Khoei's assassination (think, at least, Henry II and Thomas A Becket) on the steps of a Mosque. For one cleric to engage or be responsible for the death of another in that fashion, is very damaging.
4) He tried to forcefully take over Najaf, which many Shia see as the center of Shi'ism in Iraq and, to some degree, the neutral city where all scholars meet.
5) His brutish forces tortured and arbitrarily killed citizens of the city; setting up unauthorized Sharia courts without control or permission form the main Shia leadership
6) He was defeated by the Americans (at least his militia; fairly humiliating) and had to be saved by Sistani (such a thing engenders a certain obligation on Sadr whow will lose even more face if he goes against his will or attacks him directly which is why Sadr was attempting to use politics to move it in his favor without directly going against Sistani's wishes)
7) He is stuck in Sadr city. He not only has to fear arrest from the government or capture by US forces, but the Mahdi and Badr brigade have been clashing and it is very likely that he could be assassinated.

In fact, as I have said in earlier postings, do not imagine that all is goodness and light inside the UIA or Shia controlled areas. Many of the deaths (particularly of Shia clerics in Shia controlled areas) being attributed to "Sunni/Shia" sectarian fighting are actually infighting inside the Shia sect. Fortunately for the Shia, the Sunni and Al Qaida violence has provided them a cover. They can blame the violence on outsiders so that the face of the UIA still appears strong and unified. Further, they can continue to convince their constituence that the enemy is the Sunni and the reason why they need to maintain a militia. It also allows them to continue to do revenge killings and run Sunni ethnics out of the region to solidify their control.

All the killings are not strictly Shia on Shia. No one could say with any clarity what that percentage is. The Sunni definitely retaliate for the treatment of their people and are definitely trying to press their political wishes with violence agains the Shia in hopes of using the secession of violence as a bargaining tool for their demands. There are definitely ex-ba'athists and Islamists in the mix. Though, again, one would be hardpressed to define with any accuracy how much of any of these actually accounts for the violence and death.

Sadr definitely has bloody hands: both Sunni and Shia. No one should doubt that for a moment.

Sadr Spokesman: �He Is Not an Ogre� - Newsweek: International Editions -

The resolution to the impasse came with Sistani's mediation. A very important part of this equation is in this paragraph:

But in a letter Thursday to the executive committee of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition, al-Jaafari wrote that he was prepared to "make any sacrifice to achieve" the organization's goals. "I tell you, you chose me, and I return this choice to you to do as you see fit."

"I cannot allow myself to be an obstacle, or appear to be an obstacle," al-Jaafari said in an emotional address on national television. He said he agreed to a new vote so that his fellow Shiite lawmakers "can think with complete freedom and see what they wish to do."

However, Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman said al-Jaafari's change of heart followed meetings Wednesday in the Shiite holy city of Najaf between U.N. envoy Ashraf Qazi and both al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation's most prestigious Shiite cleric.

"There was a signal from Najaf," Othman told The Associated Press. "Qazi's meetings with (al-Sistani) and al-Sadr were the chief reason that untied the knot."

Aides to al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Shiite alliance, said the ayatollah was frustrated over the deadlock in forming a government and alarmed over the rise in sectarian violence that followed the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Just so you understand, Sadr continues to be protected by Sistani, but Sistani still holds the reins of power. Further, whenever you hear one Shia leader or other calling for peace and an end to "sectarian violence" do not imagine that he is talking about or largely concerned about the Sunni/Shia problem. They are often urging their own people to stand down against one another. Sistani rightly sees the future ability of the majority Shia to rule Iraq is endangered by the continuing power struggle within the Shia body politic and the UIA.

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