Controversial cleric’s bid for ayatollah status could also help cement comeback after election boost.
The movement led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is poised to make a dramatic return to the forefront of Iraqi Shia politics, combining its success in recent elections with the anticipated elevation of its leader’s religious status.
Sadr’s followers are projected to have won more than 40 seats in the new parliament, increasing their share by at least ten.
They are now the strongest faction in the Iraqi National Alliance, the main bloc that challenged prime minister Nuri al-Maliki for the Shia vote. Maliki has been regarded with suspicion by the Sadrists since the Iraqi military led a crackdown on their militia in 2008.
Alongside growing leverage over their political rivals, the Sadrists are expected to enjoy greater spiritual authority among their supporters as Muqtada continues his studies to become an eminent Shia scholar, or ayatollah.
Officials close to the 36-year-old cleric say he is making swift progress in his schooling at a seminary in the Iranian holy city of Qom. It is unclear whether he will graduate soon, as most ayatollahs spend several decades attaining the rank.
It is also as yet unclear whether the Sadrists will enter government or form an opposition, as final election results have yet to be released and protracted coalition talks are expected to follow. Whatever they decide, analysts say the Sadrists will be impossible to ignore in the new parliament.
“They will have their word in every decision,” Abdullah Jaafar, a retired professor of political sciences in Baghdad, said.
As the most blatantly anti-American of the Shia political groups, Sadr’s movement is particularly well placed to capitalise on the planned withdrawal of most United States military forces from Iraq later this year.
“If the Americans withdraw at the expected time, the Sadrists will tell their followers that they kicked the troops out,” Jaafar said. He added that the Sadrists would oppose any attempt to extend the Americans’ stay in Iraq.
A member of a prominent Shia religious family that was persecuted by Saddam Hussein, Sadr emerged as a popular leader in the aftermath of the US-led invasion in 2003. His relative youth and fiery opposition to the American presence won him many followers among the urban Shia poor.
His armed supporters were gathered into a militia, known as the Mahdi Army, that fought several battles with US-led troops. The militia was also implicated in attacks on Sunnis and rival Shia groups during the worst years of sectarian conflict in the middle of the last decade.
In 2008, the Mahdi Army was severely weakened after government troops attacked its strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq. The assault roughly coincided with Sadr’s decision to move to Iran to pursue his studies.
From Qom, Sadr has maintained contact with his followers through hand-written notes and sermons, channeled through his organisation’s offices across Iraq. His movement has shed some of its martial image and sought to emphasise its social, religious and political programmes.
In interviews with IWPR, Sadr’s allies linked his eventual return to Iraq to the completion of his studies and the withdrawal of American troops.
“Muqtada al-Sadr will not return to an occupied Iraq,” Nasser al-Rubaie, a Sadrist candidate and a deputy in the outgoing parliament, said. “He has said more than once that he will only return when the American occupiers have left.”
Sheikh Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for Sadr, denied claims that the cleric had moved to Iran to avoid arrest under a warrant issued against him by the US military. “He is not afraid of coming home but he is busy with his studies in Iran right now,” he said.
Sadr’s followers believe their leader’s theological studies will enhance their standing in parliament and on the street.
“There is no doubt that gaining the rank of ayatollah will empower the Sadrist bloc,” Rubaie said.
“It will also broaden the Sadrists’ base by giving those who love Sadr the chance to follow him as a marja,” he added. A marja is the title given to a Shia scholar, almost always of ayatollah rank, who is entrusted by his followers to provide guidance on all aspects of daily life.
Currently, most Shia Iraqis, including Sadr’s followers, regard Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as their marja. An elderly cleric based in the holy city of Najaf, Sistani called on Iraqis to turn out and vote but did not endorse any political faction in the latest election.
Prominent Shia politicians who are not part of the Sadrist group acknowledge that Sadr’s theological studies will enhance his political standing. However, they question the extent to which his movement will be able to eclipse its rivals.
Sadr’s studies “will make him wiser and enable him to take more accurate decisions in politics”, said Muna Zalzala, a deputy with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, ISCI, a major Shia Islamist party that partnered the Sadrists in the recent election.
While the Sadrists as a bloc would grow more powerful, Zalzala said she did not believe they would necessarily gain more followers once Sadr became a marja. “Sistani is the highest marja in Iraq,” she said.
Abdul Hadi al-Hasani, a deputy from Dawa, Maliki’s Shia party, said Sadr was still many years away from qualifying as an ayatollah.
“It is not easy for anyone to get such a rank in a few years,” he said. “Clerics study for decades to get this rank. A marja is a big responsibility and it is still too early for Sadr.”
Officials close to Sadr said, however, that he was expected to qualify quicker than other clerics.
“His family is known to be geniuses,” Rubaie said, pointing out that Sadr’s father and his father’s cousin both qualified as ayatollahs while still relatively young.
A source close to the cleric who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to release such information said Sadr was expected to be appointed ayatollah within three to seven years.
Some Sunni Arabs said they feared Sadr’s growing theological authority would ultimately strengthen the Mahdi Army, which they associate with a campaign of violence that killed thousands of their community.
“We respect Sadr but we fear his militia,” Sabah Adil, a government employee from Baghdad, said. “They killed Sunnis everywhere. We pretended to be Shia at the time.”
Nebras Sami, an arts student from Baghdad in his late twenties, said he would consider leaving Iraq if Sadr became an ayatollah. “If he got the degree, no one will dare prevent him from rebuilding his militia,” he said.
Mithal al-Alosi, a secular member of parliament from a Sunni Arab family, said he was not against Sadr’s pursuit of theological study but was worried about its possible impact.
“We are not concerned about Muqtada al-Sadr or his rank but about the extent to which [this] will be politicised locally and regionally,” he said.
Alosi added that he feared for Sadr’s safety in Iran, and believed he might be vulnerable to manipulation by the Tehran government.
“Having Sadr staying in Iran is not good for him or his followers. For example, if a suspicious edict is issued in his name while he is in Iran, we cannot confirm whether or not it was issued by him,” Alosi said.
Sadr’s supporters maintain that his studies will strengthen their movement, and dismiss fears of a revival of sectarian violence.
“The Sunni and Shia are sons of one Iraq, we are brothers,” Amir al-Kenani, a Sadrist candidate, said. “Terrorists tried to stoke strife among us. They failed in the past and we will not allow them to succeed in the future.”
Source: Sadr Followers Bask in Poll Success by By Abeer Mohammed in Baghdad (ICR No. 329, 25-Mar-10) Abeer Mohammed is IWPR’s senior local editor in Baghdad.