From A World to Win News Service

Moqtada al-Sadr: U.S. Friend or Foe in Iraq?

Revolutionary Worker #1249, August 15, 2004, posted at

Note from Revolutionary Worker--The following article was originally issued by A World to Win News Service after the June 30 "handover" of power by U.S. occupiers to a puppet government in Iraq headed by Iyad Allawi. Shortly before the "handover," fundamentalist Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militias had been clashing with U.S. forces, announced a ceasefire. More recently, in the first days of August, fierce fighting between U.S. troops and al-Sadr's militias broke out once again in the city of Najaf. And other clashes were reported throughout Iraq. At the same time, a spokesman for al-Sadr announced that the Iraqi cleric was still "committed" to the ceasefire with the U.S. military. The News Service article analyzes what social and political forces al-Sadr represents.

July 5, 2004. A World to Win News Service. The last weeks have seen a sharp turnaround by the young Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who led a two-month-long mutiny against the U.S. occupation forces centered in Najaf. He sent his militia members home from the holy city and later declared a unilateral ceasefire with the U.S. military in the slums of Sadr City, Baghdad, his main political base. In the final days before the handover of "sovereignty," he offered conditional support for the U.S.-appointed government he had previously ridiculed as Washington puppets. Instead of armed resistance, he announced, he would focus on participation in the elections set by the U.S. and its hand-picked regime for January 2005.

The U.S. responded with similarly conciliatory gestures. In April the American commander Ricardo Sanchez had said, "The mission of U.S. forces is to kill or capture Moqtada al-Sadr." On June 28, Sanchez's deputy Mark Kimmitt told the media the U.S. had changed its mind. "Any time we are resolving differences peacefully rather than through the use of arms, that's a success," he said.

Sadr and the new U.S.-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi are currently negotiating a definitive deal. Allawi offered Sadr amnesty if his group turns over its weapons once and for all. Sadr responded by talking out of both sides of his mouth. He blustered, "We pledge to the Iraqi people and the world to continue resisting the occupation to our last drop of blood," but added that as far as he was concerned, the test of whether or not Allawi's government is independent of the U.S. will be whether or not they allow him to stand in the elections. Since Sadr is one of the very, very few possible candidates with any popular following at all, he is confident that the elections will bring him the central role in the new government he has so far been denied. But how could his participation or even the holding of elections themselves change the fact that this neo-colonial regime is politically and economically dependent on the U.S., answerable to any American whim, despised by the people and held up on the point of American bayonets?

Formation of the "Mehdi Army"

How did this so-called firebrand cleric who tried to position himself as a champion of the anti-US resistance become a candidate for a part in the U.S.'s puppet show?

Moqtada Sadr is the youngest son of Muhammad Sadiq Sadr, a renowned leading Shia cleric assassinated in 1999, reportedly by agents of Saddam's regime. The 30-year-old Sadr went into opposition to the U.S. when the invaders failed to consider him an important figure and employ him in their appointed government, the so-called Iraqi Governing Council. The U.S. had already included other Islamic forces, but left him aside. He started to promote himself and his brand of thinking in competition with other Shia leaders, while signalling his willingness to establish relations with the invaders and other reactionary forces.

Immediately after U.S. troops moved into Baghdad in April 2003, Sadr's followers began patrolling the streets in the poor Shia suburb formerly called Saddam City. They renamed it Sadr City, after Moqtada's father. Just two days after the fall of Baghdad, people close to Moqtada Sadr were accused of killing Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a pro-invasion Shia leader who had worked with the British and U.S. governments in exile.

In June 2003 Sadr established a militia called the Mehdi Army (the Mehdi is a mythical religious and political leader who faithful Shias believe will come one day) and put out a weekly newspaper called al-Hawza. Although small in terms of circulation, the paper's harsh criticism of the U.S. administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer angered the American, and he ordered it shut down last March. Finally, relations between Sadr and the U.S. authorities became so bitter that almost a year after Khoei's death, Bremer decided to have a warrant issued for Sadr's arrest in that case. Now that Sadr and the U.S. have come to an understanding, this warrant has been suspended--neither to be enforced nor entirely dropped. If Sadr is granted amnesty, this would free him from the threat that the U.S. has kept hanging over his head.

Sadr's political model for Iraq is the Islamic Republic of Iran set up in 1979. His programme calls for the institution of Shia religious rule, especially in the Shia holy cities of Iraq like Najaf and Karbala, but on a national level as well to a large extent. For instance, he has been giving fiery sermons urging the application of Islamic law, including making the wearing of the veil compulsory for women. This has been combined with anti-U.S. rhetoric, which although fierce--and an important reason for his being able to keep the following he inherited from his father--has also been ambiguous. Because his goals have been centerd on the establishment of religious rule and not kicking out the occupiers, he has always left open the possibility of some sort of compromise with the U.S.

Sadr's Military Strategy

This eclectic and essentially capitulationist attitude toward the U.S. can be seen very concretely in the military strategy carried out under his leadership during the two months of fighting between the Medhi Army and the U.S. armed forces.

At a time when the U.S. was focused on fighting the resistance in Falluja, Sadr led the seizure of mosques and other sites in Najaf and other nearby Shia holy cities, and demanded that the American troops leave them.

The way armies fight is determined by their goals. The Maoist military strategy of people's war is guided by the Maoists' revolutionary political aims; Sadr's way of fighting was determined by his non-revolutionary politics. Rather than an attempt to engage, weaken and eventually drive out the occupiers, what happened in Najaf was more like an effort to pressure the occupiers, not defeat them.

Putting aside the most basic questions of military strategy (like the need to understand that the war will be very protracted as the people gradually build up their strength and weaken the enemy), even in a tactical sense direct street confrontations between an armed crowd and tanks, and especially the seizing and holding of buildings, are not ways in which weaker forces can defeat a military like the U.S. This is the kind of situation the U.S. likes best, since it can bring its own tremendous advantages (especially its superior firepower and technology) into play and slaughter people in large numbers with little loss to its own troops.

By contrast with the Medhi Army, the fighters in Falluja, despite their political shortcomings and the military shortcomings that flow from that, have been somewhat successful in their use of small mobile units that can inflict blows and disappear. In this way they are bringing their own strengths into play, especially the political, logistical and intelligence support of the people, and are able to lure the U.S. forces into situations that cancel some of their advantages. For instance, the ruins created by the U.S.'s pounding of the city with artillery and helicopter gunships constitutes a terrain where mechanised forces (tanks and other armored vehicles) cannot move quickly, and where U.S. patrols can be surrounded and/or ambushed without reinforcements rushing in. In short, the Falluja fighters have acted in a way that can hurt the U.S. forces without giving them a big target. In retaliation, the U.S. has shown unrestrained brutality against all of the city's inhabitants and spurred on greater resistance.

The march of Sadr's militia through the streets of Najaf was anything but part of preparation for a fight to the finish, even in a limited, tactical sense. In fighting a militarily stronger enemy, more serious resistance forces never bother to display their forces and show their strength simply in order to impress their opponents. They hide from the eyes of the enemy, then launch ambushes and surprise attacks. During that period they try to win over the people and enjoy increasingly more support from the masses if they follow a revolutionary line and wage a just war. Instead, Sadr's forces quickly suffered very big losses, with the ruthless U.S. military killing them by the hundreds. Soon Sadr was forced to call a retreat, and U.S. soldiers entered the Shia holy cities, something they had not dared to do at the beginning. The sight of tanks rolling down Najaf's avenues contrasted sharply with the U.S.'s continuing reluctance to move ground forces into the rubble at the heart of Falluja.

Yet the U.S.'s brutality in putting down Sadr's mutiny didn't mean that the U.S. didn't get his message of seeking compromise. In fact they got the message very well, but they wanted to negotiate from a position of greater strength and not weakness. At first Sadr said his forces would not surrender until the U.S. pulled out of these cities and pledged to stay out. A truce was declared and the U.S. pulled back its troops. By the end of June U.S. troops had gone back into Najaf, supposedly to "boost the morale" of their puppet police and deliver more weapons, but really to deliver the message that they were back in control, a point they very much needed to make in the current situation. Sadr had little choice but to accept the Americans' excuses for this truce violation as a means of saving face for himself, since he was in no position to do anything about it. Having already basically given up, he could not turn his armed mutiny back on again. He faces a similar problem now that the occupiers and their stooges are demanding that his followers finally just give up their guns and discard the "armed demonstration" card from any future hand they might play.

The Iran Connection

Sadr's military strategy is very much connected with his politics and ideology. His fundamentalism is the same kind that came to power in Iran after the U.S.-supported Shah was toppled by a people's revolution. The Khomeini regime may not have been the U.S.'s preferred solution in Iran but they found it far more acceptable than a continued revolutionary situation. The situation is similar regarding Sadr, who is not the U.S.'s favorite Iraqi politician but might be far more useful to them than his more openly obsequious and widely unpopular rivals.

Instead of moving to uproot the oppressive society the Shah represented--foreign domination and the backward social relations in Iran that made this domination possible--the Iranian mullahs established a religious dictatorship. They imposed the most backward and barbaric rules on the people, especially women. They murdered tens of thousands of communists and other revolutionaries, thousands of Kurds and other minority nationalities, and made life hell for other religious minorities and also the majority of the people who considered religion a personal matter. Their regime enjoyed good relations with the imperialist countries. The U.S., other big powers and Israel supplied it with arms and ammunition to suppress the revolutionaries. (This came to light with the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration.) But at the same time the Iranian Islamic regime never dropped its anti-American and anti- Western slogans and sought to take advantage of the anti-imperialist sentiments of the people.

Sadr learned the essence of this lesson well. It is reported that he repeatedly visited neighboring Iran after the invasion, meeting with senior officials in Tehran. There have also been some reports that Iran financed Sadr's militia, and that Sadr's representatives met constantly with top Iranian officials including Khamenei and Rafsanjani and military commanders like Safavi and Zulqadr. Rafsanjani, the regime's top ideologist, publicly supported Sadr. At the time of Sadr's mutiny, Rafsanjani said that Sadr and his group represented the only genuine "struggle" (as he put it) in Iraq, and that all the other anti-U.S. forces were "terrorists." This was an especially despicable pronouncement because at that very moment the resistance of the people in the mainly Sunni city of Falluja was at its highest point and thousands of youth, Sunnis and Shias from all over Iraq were joining or supporting the fierce resistance of the people there against the invaders.

Iran also has good relations with all the various reactionary Shia groups, including Ayatollah Sistani, a so-called moderate ayatollah (in fact, a pro-U.S. ayatollah) and Hezb al-Dawa. (The Hezb al-Dawa leadership was in Iran for more than 20 years. Its leader, Ayatollah Hakim, was assassinated last year.) In order to keep its influence in Iraq, Iran cannot afford to limit its support to just one faction. So the Iranian regime's support for Sistani or Hezb al-Dawa doesn't mean they wouldn't support Sadr. Having this influence is vital for the Iranian regime, which hopes to use it to advantage in future negotiations with U.S. imperialism in order to save its own shaky life.

In fact, it might be that Sadr's affinity with Iran's ruling mullahs was one reason why the U.S. was reluctant to include him in their puppet council in the beginning. The U.S. didn't want to see an increase in Iran's influence in Iraq, especially earlier when it seemed that Iran might be the next Iraq, the next target of U.S. aggression. Sadr's military and political surrender to the U.S. came at a time when the Iranian regime was making highly conciliatory noises to the U.S. Just as Sadr was announcing his intention to join the U.S. puppet team, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman hailed the U.S. "handover." "The interim government is expected to provide grounds for the restoration of full sovereignty, the real end of the occupation and free and timely general elections," he said, echoing the U.S.'s claims exactly.

What is important here is not the precise relation between Iran and the Sadr group, but the unity between their politics and ideology and their attempts to trick the people into supporting them, while at the same time making the most contemptible concessions to reactionaries and imperialism.

Some people have been confused by the fact that the most support for Sadr has come from the lower strata of the Shia people. This doesn't mean that he represents their interests. Historically the clergy in most Islamic countries have been connected to the dominant economic system and political set-up that represents it. This has enabled the clergy to enjoy special privileges. These privileges have been undermined by economic and political developments in the region. Even though the colonialists and their successors always sought to base their grabbing for these countries on alliances with the most reactionary local forces such as feudal, tribal and religious authorities, the development of capitalism under imperialist domination and the objective need for some further social changes if foreign capital is to prosper have created some contradictions.

In Iraq, the rise of Khomeini and his Shia regime in Iran and their close relations with Iraqi Shias alarmed Saddam Hussein. The clergy had already been very restricted in Iraq after the 1958 coup against the British-imposed king. The Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s made the already bad relations between the regime and Shia religious leaders worse. Saddam moved more towards secularism in his own way. In fact, he began increasingly restricting the privileges of the Shia clergy at a time when the rise of Khomeini in Iran made them hungry for more. The Shia clergy in Iraq as a whole, including Sadr's father, never fought for radical change in Iraq. Given that much of the urban poor in places like Sadr City come from a peasant background where religious culture has a strong influence, it is not surprising that the backward-looking ideas associated with Islamic fundamentalism should be widespread among them, especially when this is mixed with anti-establishment and anti-U.S. rhetoric and gestures. The rise of Sadr's influence is to no small degree a consequence of the fact that there has been no strong revolutionary counter-influence. In the past, many of Iraq's communists came from the same social strata from which Sadr has drawn support.

The damage that Sadr's group can inflict on the people's struggle arises from their ideology and politics that flow from it. Even in the most basic way, it is a stand that can only divide the people and not unite them against the occupier. This can be clearly seen in terms of the contradictions between Iraq's Sunni and Shia people. In order to bring this region under their control, the British used Sunni-based rulers against the Shia majority, a policy Saddam continued. Now, pretending to be a friend to the Shias, the U.S. has placed emphasis on working with some Shia ayatollahs like Sistani, Khoei and Hakim. But this brought nothing but new oppression to the people of all religions. Sadr's ideology and politics go very well with the U.S.'s efforts to worsen and exploit the differences between Shias and Sunnis and between Arabs and Kurds--who have been a special target of Sadr's reactionary sputtering. Sadr's seeking of privileges for the Shias--actually, mainly for Shia reactionary authorities--would simply continue the "divide and rule" game colonialists and neo-colonialists have been playing in this region and the world for well over a century.

And of course, his stand cannot unite women and men by removing the male privileges and the oppression of women that the U.S. invaders are determined to perpetuate and in fact represent themselves.

As far as U.S. imperialism is concerned, they will try to include Sadr in their apparatus, and at the same time try to contain him. The U.S. has been trying hard to reconstitute a ruling coalition that represents the old ruling classes, without Saddam but loyal to U.S. imperialism. Sadr's announcement that he will run in the 2005 elections means that he is now a candidate for an important position in that coalition. It may be that Sadr should be considered something like a reserve candidate for the U.S., in case the coalition it is now working on falls apart. The U.S. might be reluctant to accept Sadr because they are not eager to see Iran's mullahs become more influential inside the puppet government. But the instant desertion by most of the so-called "new Iraq" soldiers and police the U.S. sent in against the Medhi Army shows how few alternatives the U.S. has.