Back-Room Theocrat: Moqtadah al-Sadr Has to Outsmart His Rivals and Outmaneuver the Americans

The New York Times Magazine
May 11, 2003

Najaf is one of the great spiritual centers of the world’s 120 million Shiites because it is home to the tomb of Imam Ali, founder of the Shiite faith and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. But the true heart of Najaf today, and the place where the political future of Iraq may be decided, is not Ali’s tomb; it is a ramshackle building on an alley across the street from the ornate shrine.

Every day, a crowd gathers at the building, trying to talk its way past the locked doors, making faint pleas and waving pieces of paper–petitions, requests, questions–in front of the guards. The people want to see Moqtadah al-Sadr, who, although he is only 30, has emerged, since the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s government, as the most powerful Shiite leader in Iraq, a man who is adored by his followers and feared by his adversaries. Many of those at the doors want only to pay homage, to touch his hand or to kiss his turban.

Inside the building, Sadr’s de facto headquarters, there is a small atrium that most days is crowded with dozens of his aides–clerics in turbans and cloaks who spend much of their time milling around, smoking cheap cigarettes. Sadr’s office is nearby, through a set of wood doors. It is a small room with whitewashed walls and thin cushions on the ground. When I was led inside on a recent morning, Sadr sat in a corner. Right next to him, propped up against the wall, was a large framed portrait of his father, Muhammad al-Sadr, the grand ayatollah of the Shiite community in Iraq who was assassinated by agents of Hussein’s government in 1999.

Moqtadah al-Sadr’s followers were assembled in a thick line that snaked out the office door and through the atrium. One after another they stepped forward and knelt before him. Their first gesture was a handshake, followed in most cases by an attempt to kiss Sadr’s hand, something he always recoiled from, sometimes sharply; Sadr regards such acts of fealty as excessively subservient. Kissing of his cheeks was permitted, and of his black turban.

The petitioners whispered their requests into his ear, and he listened, his expression unchanging. It was the expression I saw on his face the day before, during a sermon he delivered at the Kufa mosque, on the outskirts of Najaf, to tens of thousands of followers: a look of grave determination.

“You should say something about the cleaning of Najaf,” one man suggested.

Sadr nodded his head. Among the other duties he bears, he is the waste-disposal chief of Najaf. “There are heaps of garbage in the streets,” he replied. “Groups of people should be formed, and they should use loudspeakers to encourage people to cooperate with each other to make the city cleaner. We will arrange some vehicles and volunteers for this job.”

“Thank you,” the petitioner said.

“I am your servant,” Sadr replied.

Sadr was being humble. He is a servant only to forces that might be stronger than he, as flesh is a servant to bullets. He is the focal point of the guessing game over who will run Iraq and what direction the country will take: about 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiites. The choices he makes–cooperating with the occupying Americans or opposing them, cooperating with his Shiite rivals or opposing them–will determine not only his own future, but also Iraq’s. Sadr’s seriousness is understandable; the pressures that bear upon him are enormous, and if he makes a single mistake, he might be crushed.

Another man approached and explained that he found a house that had been left by its owner, probably a member of the Baath Party who fled Najaf when Saddam Hussein fell. The man asked Sadr for permission to move into it.

Sadr answered: “As long as you have your own house, even if it is small, it would be haram”–he used the Arabic word to denote something that is religiously forbidden–“to take it. Haram.”

Sadr is also Najaf’s housing chief.

“May Allah bless you,” the man said, then crept away.

Another man came forward.

“Well, what is it that you would like from me?” Sadr asked.

“I would like 250,” he said, meaning 250,000 Iraqi dinars, about $150.

Sadr is also Najaf’s financial chief.

“O.K., I am at your service,” Sadr replied, and signed a piece of paper that was placed in front of him.

Mudher al-Husseini, a youthful follower of Sadr’s, approached his leader and asked permission to read a new poem. Sadr agreed. The poem, written by a well-known local Shiite poet named Majid al-Auqabi, was titled, “Let Allah Forgive the Past.” Its rhyme is lost in translation, but not its meaning.

“Saddam forced us to eat cattle feed,” Husseini began. “But today is the day to shout. The dollar is seducing us, but it is better to be a martyr than to take the dollar. Coalition treads have trampled the people. We don’t want a ruler from them; we want our own ruler. We don’t want to be cheated again.”

Husseini spoke loudly and emotionally; the hand with which he held the poem shook, and his other hand, wrapped in a fist, punched the warm air. An elderly man sitting next to him began to weep; so did others.

“We don’t want to be cheated again,” Husseini continued. “Brother Iraqis, give us your hand, and our quarrels will be removed. You people who looted, how can you feed your children with haram money? Everything that has been looted must be returned to Islamic houses. Say no to bullets that cause death. All Iraqis are wounded, and their wounds need to be healed.”

When he finished, a shout went up in the room.

“We will follow Sadr!”

Sadr’s grim countenance did not change.

Najaf is home not only to the tomb of Imam Ali, but also to another historical landmark that in contemporary political terms is more important: the Hawza. The Hawza is a loose-knit religious seminary that dates back a thousand years. It is the oldest Shiite seminary in the world, and its clerics have played pivotal roles in Middle Eastern history. Senior clerics from Najaf encouraged the 1920 revolution against British rule in Iraq, and they played a similar role in the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which like Iraq is predominantly Shiite.

But the Iranian revolution, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, signaled a shift in the Hawza’s importance. At roughly the same time as Khomeini’s accession to power in Iran, Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government increased its repression of Shiites, using its trademark tools of murder and torture. Najaf’s clerics–the ones who weren’t killed or imprisoned or forced to flee to Iran–were severely restricted. Beginning in the 1980’s, the seminary in the holy Iranian city of Qum became the locus of Shiite activism.

That is likely to change now that the clerics in Najaf can speak their minds, and that’s why Sadr is so crucial. He is too young to be a senior cleric–he is still a religious student–but he heads the most powerful faction at the Hawza, and his faction has most clearly indicated a desire to play a political role in determining the country’s future. The Sadr movement, as it is often called, already dominates the sprawling Baghdad slum that was known as Saddam City until a few weeks ago, when it was renamed, unofficially, Sadr City. The movement also has backing in Karbala, another holy city, and in Nasiriya. In socioeconomic terms, its support is strongest among the poor; middle-class Shiites are wary of its fundamentalist leanings. In geographic terms, its following is stronger in central Iraq than in southern Iraq. (The north is dominated by Kurds.)

When I presented myself at Sadr’s headquarters, I was led to a room on the second floor and told to wait. After a few minutes, Sadr walked into the room along with several aides, many of them as young as he is or younger. They, too, were unsmiling. Perhaps what their faces portrayed is the fatal determination of youth, youth who are convinced that right and resolve are the spears behind which their goals will be reached.

Sadr did not reveal his plans in detail, perhaps because he is improvising them; it is impossible to control a situation with so many variables. What he does, and what he becomes, depend not just on his own intentions but also on those of the Americans, whose plans are unknown and perhaps undecided, and those too of his rivals–other Shiite leaders, as well as Sunni leaders and Kurds. Will Sadr become a political leader or a religious leader or a corpse? The answer is unknown to him; he says he believes it will be decided by Allah.

“I think it will be very hard to make a completely Islamic state in the near future, but hopefully in the distant future,” he said, through the interpreter who accompanied me. Sadr speaks in a strong voice, absent of doubt. “Our government should be led by religious men, but they should be very good in science too. Religion is with politics and politics is with religion. They are as one.”

He had mentioned, in his sermon at the Kufa mosque, that “enemies” would try to stand in the way of Iraq’s Shiites. He did not name the enemies, so I asked whether it was the Americans whom he had in mind.

He didn’t hesitate. “Everyone knows that America is not looking for reforms to unify the country,” he said. “They will be an enemy to us, or shall we say they will not be a friend to us. We are looking for a unified Islamic nation, so we think our aim is different than their aim.”

For policy makers in Washington, there are two nightmare scenarios for Iraq. The first is that Iraq becomes an Islamic state led by Shiite clerics from Najaf. The second is that Iraq becomes an Islamic state led by Shiite clerics from Najaf who are, in turn, led by fundamentalists in Iran. The latter possibility was bolstered on April 8, when Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri, an Iraqi cleric living in Qum, Iran, issued a fatwa, or religious order, that urged clerics in neighboring Iraq to “seize the first possible opportunity to fill the power vacuum in the administration of Iraqi cities.” Using phrases and ideas common among fundamentalists in Iran, the fatwa also said, “People have to be taught not to collapse morally before the means used by the Great Satan”–the United States–“if it stays in Iraq. It will try to spread moral decay, incite lust by allowing easy access to stimulating satellite channels and spread debauchery to weaken people’s faith.”

I asked Sadr to describe his relationship with Haeri. “My father said that the most respected man after himself is Kadhem al-Haeri, and so we follow him, for he touches reality,” Sadr replied.

The Iranian connection is evident in Najaf. At the gates to Imam Ali’s tomb and in the alley leading to Sadr’s headquarters, merchants have set up card tables from which they sell pictures of Sadr, his father and Khomeini. But Iran’s influence may decline in importance as Iraq’s Shiites flex their rediscovered muscles. They were weak and vulnerable during Hussein’s rule, but not anymore.

Even middle-class Shiites who dislike fundamentalism revered Muhammad al-Sadr. In 1992, with the approval of the government, he became grand ayatollah of Iraq’s Shiite community. His six-year tenure as grand ayatollah was marked by two trends: he was a man of peace who urged Shiites and Sunnis to drop their differences and live together as brothers, and he also became increasingly vocal in his criticism of Hussein’s rule. It was this second action that apparently led to his killing in an ambush on Feb. 19, 1999.

On that day, Sadr was driving from his office, on the outskirts of Najaf, to his home. At a roundabout, his vehicle was riddled with machine-gun fire by assailants believed to have been agents of the Mukhabarat, Hussein’s secret police. Sadr was killed in the fusillade, along with his driver and two of his sons, Mustafa and Muamal. The killings sparked violent protests, the most severe of which occurred in Saddam City; there was violence around Nasiriya, too.

Moqtadah al-Sadr’s older brothers were their father’s chief aides, and they were being groomed for leadership roles. The assassinations left Moqtadah as the heir apparent of the family. Afterward, his movements were strictly controlled and monitored by the Mukhabarat, until just weeks ago, when the Mukhabarat, along with the rest of Hussein’s apparatus of oppression, was vanquished by American forces. Moqtadah al-Sadr not only outlasted Saddam Hussein; he also outsmarted him. He knew to wait for the right moment to carry on the mission of his martyred family. He also knows now that he may, in the end, share their fate.

The Hawza is deeply divided, and its division is manifested in its physical structure: it has none. The Hawza consists of mosques, houses and rooms scattered around impoverished Najaf, where different factions oversee instruction. The two most important factions are led by Sadr and by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sestani, the official religious leader of Iraq’s Shiites. Through his son, who acts as his spokesman, Sestani has made it clear that he believes politics to be beneath the calling of religious figures. A few days after the collapse of Hussein’s government, his house was surrounded by men said to be followers of Sadr’s, and they demanded that he leave the country because he had been insufficiently active against Hussein. The standoff was defused, but Sestani and Sadr still do not speak with each other.

Sestani’s office is located 150 yards from Sadr’s, up another alley. When I went to Sestani’s office, I was told by one of his assistants, standing at the entrance, that I could not speak with Sestani or his son, but that I could leave written questions, and a written response would be provided on the following day. My interpreter wrote down my questions, one of which asked why Sestani and Sadr were not on speaking terms.

The assistant objected to that one.

“There is no comparison!” he said, angrily. He meant that Sestani is the highest religious authority among Iraq’s Shiites and that Sadr is just an upstart who does not merit a comparison with the grand ayatollah.

Still, the assistant agreed to deliver the questions to Sestani’s son, and told us to return at 10 the next morning. We did, and received a list of terse, handwritten replies.

To my question about the rivalry, the answer was, “The position of Moqtadah al-Sadr and the religious leadership is well known by the people. His excellency”–a reference to Sestani–“is not a party in any kind of dispute. He is above all disputes and is responsible for all people.”

I had also asked whether Sestani had had or wanted any contact with the Americans occupying Iraq. The answer was concise: No.

What’s dangerous about the divisions in the Hawza is that such disputes have a history of being settled violently. Just a few days after the fall of Hussein, a prominent Shiite, Sheik Abdel Majid al-Khoei, returned to Najaf from exile in London. Khoei was the son of a previous grand ayatollah, and his return, arranged and financed by the American government, appeared to be a bid by Washington to insert into Najaf a moderate, pro-Western figure.

It didn’t work. On the evening of April 9, Khoei entered the shrine of Imam Ali to meet with a group of religious leaders, including the shrine’s caretaker, Haider al-Rafaei, who had cooperated with Hussein’s government. The meeting was an apparent attempt at reconciliation. According to a reporter for the Knight Ridder/Tribune news service, who was in Najaf that day, Khoei was accompanied by an American who identified himself as “Dave, an employee of the U.S. government.” Khoei had reportedly been staying at a university complex with Special Operations soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division.

What happened next is unclear, but most reports say that once Khoei entered the shrine and met with Rafaei, several hundred people gathered around them, chanting the name of Muhammad al-Sadr. The crowd regarded Rafaei as a Hussein loyalist and was skeptical of Khoei’s motives. Violence broke out, and in the melee Khoei and Rafaei were beaten, shot and hacked to death.

The killings raised tensions in Najaf, with Sadr’s followers accused of inciting and carrying out the violence. The killings also appear to have led the Americans to abandon, for now, their attempt to play a role in Najaf; during the three days I was there, I never saw American troops patrolling the streets or even driving through them. The town appears to be a no-go area for them, just as Saddam City, now Sadr City, in Baghdad, is devoid of any significant American presence. The Americans would appear to have no idea what is happening in these places, and no control over them.

I asked Sadr whether his movement was behind the killings of Khoei and Rafaei.

“I would like to draw your attention to the kind of wars our enemies fight against us,” he said. “They can’t fight directly, so they fight by spreading rumors in order to bring about the downfall of great leaders who can rule this society correctly. They fabricate rumors and accusations of being a murderer or being against religious scholars. All of these are lies.”

I stopped by Sadr’s office again the following day. He was not there, but one of his aides, at the entrance, offered me a statement that Sadr had just issued. According to the statement, several followers of Sadr’s had been detained by Iraqis belonging to a new political party. The statement demanded their release and warned that if anti-Sadr forces continued such activities, they would be dealt with like “qirada khusran”–defeated monkeys, which is one of the lowest insults in Arabic.

The wording was harsh and at odds with other statements by Sadr, in which he counseled followers to avoid violence. During his sermon at Kufa, he urged everyone to organize protests against the American occupation of Iraq, but he also said, “I ask you kindly not to shed a drop of blood.”

Even if Sadr genuinely wants a peaceful solution, can violence be avoided? There are the Americans to deal with, and the Sunnis, as well as his rivals at the Hawza, not to mention the Communists and Kurds and Christians and Turkomans. Profound political change in Iraq rarely occurs in a peaceful manner; it rarely occurs in a peaceful manner anywhere.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.