Muqtada al-Sadr on Aljazeera
“Ready to attack the Americans if they Attack Iran or Syria”
“In a Democratic Iraq, Kurds will not need Own Region”
Muqtada al-Sadr gave an extended interview on Saturday on Aljazeera, which I am going to blog here. What follows is a quick paraphrase of the interview done while watching it.
He began by explaining to the interviewer what was meant by the “Sadr Movement,” which he said is not a political party. He described it as simply consisting of anyone who strictly follows [yuqallid] the teachings of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (d. 1999), Muqtada’s father (known as “the second martyr”). He said that in a wider sense, anyone who honored the “Speaking Hawzah” or religious authority, including those who follow Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (d. 1980) (“the first martyr”), could be counted as part of the Sadr Movement. They call for the Islamization of society and the spread of Islam in the world, so that it will become a base for the advent of the Imam Mahdi [the Muslim messiah to come at the end of time].
[Since Muhammad Baqir was a major theorist of the Dawa Party, Muqtada by including both figures is suggesting that all Da`wa Party members are also a kind of Sadrist, thus greatly expanding the scope of the movement. The Sadrists make a distinction between the “Speaking Hawzah”, which comprises ayatollahs who speak truth to power, and the “Silent Hawzah,” which consists of Shiite clerics who stick to religion and are too timid to enter politics.]
He distinguished between the Speaking religious authority and the silent religious authority in the time of Saddam. He pointed out that the Sadrists held Friday prayers in the time of the Dictator [Saddam], while others said they were not necessary under conditions of tyranny. [This is a dig at Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who was known to be cautious under Saddam.] Muqtada says with pride that he continues to hold Friday prayers in Kufa, and now those who once said they were unnecessary have begun holding them again. But the Speaking religious authority has been consistent.
Muqtada says that the Sadr Movement has passed through three stages of resistance [to the American occupation of Iraq]. The first was peaceful resistance (demonstrations). The second was military resistance. And the third and present stage is political resistance. He admits that the religious authority [Sistani et al.] when it called for political participation in January 2005 was engaged in political resistance, since Iraqi voters going to the polls was seen as a prologue to the departure of occupation troops from Iraq. Thus, he suggests, the Sadr Movement has its own rhythm and tactics, but that does not define the present religious leadership as a Silent authority. [The interviewer is attempting to get Muqtada to differentiate the Sadrists as the speakers from Sistani and colleagues as silent, but Muqtada dodged that question.]
Muqtada defends having tried all three tactics to get the ocupiers out, each in accordance with the specific requirements of the time. He denied the interviewer’s implication that Sistani had been right to go for political resistance all along, and Muqtada had finally caught up with him. Muqtada says that he has knocked at every door, and that if he had begun with the political, he would be being asked why he never tried the military option. He admits that the latter failed, but says that it paved the way for the next, political, stage.
Pressed as to whether the military stage is over completely, Muqtada replies that it is. He says that the Sadr Movement is committed to a political struggle to see that the foreign military occupation ends. “Whether it is an immediate or a gradual withdrawal, that is a matter for discussion,” he adds. [This is significant. It is the first time I can remember Muqtada even entertaining the option of a gradual timetable for US withdrawal. -JC]
Muqtada says that the goal of the Sadr Movement is the creation of an Islamic society. “For an ‘Islamic government’ without an Islamic society cannot in any way be considered actually an Islamic government.” He rejects any separation of religion and state. “I say that religion is complete and all-encompassing, extending to politics.” Since religion issues from God, who is perfect and complete, religion itself must be complete, and therefore must encompass all aspects of life. Religion is a part of politics, but politics must not dictate religion.
The interviewer says that the United Iraqi Alliance, supported by Sistani, was criticized by many for removing the element of political competition and choice from the public by depending on a religious instruction. The interviewer mentions Iyad Allawi as one of these critics. Muqtada instists that there is political competition, and that not everyone even follows the same grand ayatollah. He says that competition has to be for service to the Iraqi people, not for private benefit. [This is a slam at Allawi, whose government is accused of being extremely corrupt, with billions embezzled by some ministers.]
Muqtada says that he is not himself interested in holding political office. He says that each member of parliament represents all Iraqis. He says he only offers advice to the Sadrist bloc in parliament, which is responsible to the Iraqi people generally.
The thirty Sadrist delegates must follow their own conscience. He said that each of the Sadrist MPs was free to support either Ibrahim Jaafari or Adil Abdul Mahdi. the important things was that they should support someone who insists on the departure of the occupation army.
[Is Muqtada letting it slip that Ibrahim Jaafari gave the Sadrists private assurances that he would work toward withdrawal of US troops from Iraq?]
He says that last year he gathered 130 signatures from parliamentarians asking for a US withdrawal.
Muqtada says that one basis for the closeness between the Sadr representatives and Jaafari was that Jaafari had demanded the release of imprisoned Sadrists.
The interviewer asks him if by entering the United Iraqi Alliance he hasn’t given up a pan-Islamic identification in favor of being known as a Shiite leader. He replies that he is honored to be a follower of the Prophet and of Ali b. Abi Talib, and that he did not want to introduce a division into the ranks of the Shiites. He therefore joined with the UIA to maintain Shiite unity. How the Sadrists got elected, however, does not dictate whom they represent. Each parliamentarian, he says, represents all Iraqis, and can serve Sunnis and Christians and Turkmen as well as Shiites. He asks that the Sadrist MPs cooperate with Sunnis and Kurds, with all forces who want the independence of Iraq, as long as they are not either Baathists [he then corrects himself and says ‘Saddamists’–suggesting that he might in fact cooperate with mere Baathists] or takfiris [i.e. hardline Salafis who say that Shiites are not really Muslims at all].
Asked why he doesn’t meet with the Sunni politicians, Muqtada says that he is stuck in Kufa for reasons of security and does not have the luxury of visits to Baghdad to consult politicians there. But he says he is allied with Sunni politicians who demand the withdrawal of the occupiers and the trial of Saddam.
He says that by an end to occupation and an opposition to the presence of foreign troops, he does not just mean US troops. He rejects Arab League troops, as well, saying that they would be even worse. Such a situation, he warns, might lead to Muslim on Muslim violence, which would be the worst possible outcome.
He implies that the US is not allowing the Iraqi police and army to strengthen themselves and is blocking their acquisition of heavy weaponry so as to make its own presence seem necessary. He says that Iraq is capable of defending itself if properly armed.
He calls Abu Musab al-Zarqawi an imaginary figure, and says that he is a dagger in the hands of America. He says there are three such intertwining threats, the occupiers, the takfiris [excommunicators] and the Saddamis.
He is asked about the Iranian demand that British troops leave Basra. Muqtada replies that this does not concern him. He says what is important is that the fate of the Iraqi teenagers beaten by British troops be determined. Are they even alive? Then he says, the troops must be investigated. There must be investigations also of Abu Ghraib and the prison at Mosul where Iraqis have been tortured.
He says that the Mahdi Army is still present in Iraq, but has become a “cultural army” rather than a military one, and is serving the Iraqi people in various ways. He says that it is the “base” of the Imam Mahdi and that such a base for the promised one cannot be abolished. He denies that Ayatollah Kadhim al-Ha’iri or Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani asked him to dissolve it. [Elsewhere he had acknowledged that al-Ha’iri [Haeri] had been indicated by his father as the source of relgious-legal guidance for Sadrists, but he says that the Sadr Movement has other dimensions and that he does not mean to take away from the principle that each Shiite must follow the legal rulings of a great ayatollah.]
He says that he advises the Sadrists in parliament to seek as cabinet posts those that involve service to the people. He is especially interested in the ministry of electricity going to a Sadrist.
He denies that he opposes the principle of provincial confederacies and loose federalism. In fact, he says, it is a principle approved by the Prophet Muhammad. He is worried, however, that establishing this sort of federalism under foreign military occupation could lead to a very bad outcome. One is that there is a danger that the foreigners will take advantage of it to partition Iraq. They will also just take advantage to intervene more heavily in Iraqi affairs. And if there were a partition, he asks, what would happen to the Turkmen or the Christians or the Sabeans (groups too small to have their on provincial confederacies). He says he opposes sectarian confederacies and rejects the idea of a big Shiite provincial confederacy in the south of the country.
Asked about Kirkuk, Muqtada says that the Kurdistan Confederacy was established in the north because of the then dictatorship. He says that when the foreign occupation ends, and a democratic state is established in Iraq, with freedom of belief and freedom of peoples, there will be no reason to maintain a separate provincial confederacy. And it won’t need to demand Kirkuk. Kirkuk belongs to all of Iraq and all must equally benefit from it. He suggests that it be kept as a province and an example of communal harmony, rather than being partitioned by ethnic group.
As for his recent visits to neighboring heads of state, he argues that the US has attempted to create tensions between Iraq and each of its neighbors. Muqtada says that he urged the neighboring heads of state to be balanced in their statements. He says that Iran must not be a partisan of the Shiites, but must rather help all Muslims. There should be no fear of a Shiite crescent, and no fear of a Sunni triangle. All must live peaceably alongside one another.
Asked where he stands in the conflict between the United States on the one side and Iran and Syria on the other, and what he would do if open conflict broke out, Muqtada replied “I am in the service of Islam. Whatever they need in their difficulties, I will provide it. . . I will defend all Islamic and Arab states.” But, he said, he would have to be asked by those states to intervene. He wouldn’t just volunteer to do it whether they wanted it or not. That, he said, is what is wrong with volunteers coming to Iraq unasked to fight the occupation, and then staying to kill Iraqi civilians.
What, he is asked, if Iran or Syria requested that he help them by attacking American troops inside Iraq. He replies, “If I have the capability, I will do it. I am here to serve Islam. Why wouldn’t I do them this favor?”
He says he hopes that the Muslims states will stand by Hamas and help form a Palestinian state with sovereignty. He complains that in the past some Muslim powers have not served the Palestinians well. He says he hopes the Palestinians will be enabled to build their state.
Asked about the trial of Saddam, Muqtada says that his greatest fear is that the trial will be conducted in such a way that he will be found innocent. He says that whoever was killed in Iraq was killed by Saddam, directly or indirectly. He killed Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr with his own hands, but killed Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr through others. He deserves death.
On the Danish caricatures of the Prophet, Muqtada says that the reaction has been a spontaneous reaction of the outraged masses. It is an assault not by Christians but by Crusaders against Islam. We want, he says, a condemnation of Bush’s solidarity with Denmark over this issue. He recalls the outcry and solidarity against Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir when he made remarks interpreted as antisemitic. Why is there not now a similar outcry and solidarity with Muslims over these bigotted caricatures? There should be a bigger outcry, Muqtada says.
Al-Zaman reports on some of Muqtada al-Sadr’s other comments in Amman, where he will meet Sunday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, after having held talks on Saturday with Jordan’s Prime Minister, Ma`ruf al-Bakhit. It reports, Muqtada al-Sadr said that he does not intend at the present time to establish any relationship with the United States before it withdraws its troops from Iraq. He explained in comments distributed on Saturday in Ammand that the Sadr Movement Will have no relations with Washington “unless it withdraws from our land, or sets a timetable for withdrawal.”
Al-Sadr warned against a civil war in Iraq, but affirmed that he is sure that the Iraqi people will not fall into a protracted internal struggle. He denied that growing Iranian influence in the country is the only threat it faces, saying that the menace of neighboring powers using Iraq for their own purposes is present on all sides. He called on Iraq’s neighbors to cooperate with Iraq rather than intervening in it.
Hamza Hendawi explores the continued anti-Americanism of Muqtada al-Sadr, as expressed in his trips to Damascus and Amman.
Liz Sly of the Chicago Tribune examines the position of Muqtada in Iraqi politics now that his supporters played such a central role in choosing Ibrahim Jaafari as candidate for prime minister. She points to his commitment to a strong central government and his deep dislike of former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi.
Cole: Muqtada hates Iyad Allawi on many grounds (he is an ex-Baathist who organized Baath officers for a coup against Saddam), but most of all because Allawi is known to have wanted to send a SWAT team into the shrine of Ali at Najaf in August 2004 to attempt to kill Muqtada and his key aides, even at the risk of destroying the shrine. Cooler heads (especially Sistani’s) prevailed.
On the other hand, Muqtada has no difficulty dealing with Dulaimi’s Iraqi Accord Front, the Sunni religious parties; many of them had also been on the outs with Saddam.
The Da`wa Party has long been dedicated to a unified central government. In 1996 in London Da`wa left Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress because Chalabi accepted in principle the Kurdistan model for Iraq, of loose federalism and provincial confederacies.
One dimension that Sly doesn’t deal with is the provincial politics. SCIRI tends to be the leading party in 9 of the 11 provinces where there are substantial Shiite populations, including in the South. A system where provincial governments own new oil finds and their profits is a system that funnels billions to SCIRI. Muqtada only has Maysan province, so far not rich in such resources. It isn’t that Muqtada is defending Baghdad interests per se. SCIRI rules Baghdad. It is that he heads a movement, not a party, and so far has been outmaneuvered in provincial politics by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. For the moment at least, Muqtada is likely to have more influence on and gain more resources from the federal government than from the provincial governments. The opposite is true for SCIRI.
Muqtada has other constituencies that drive him in this direction. About half the Turkmen, including a lot in Kirkuk, are Shiite and were recruited into Sadrism by Muqtada’s father. They hate the Kurdish model, and Muqtada tries to be a player up north.
Likewise, Muqtada wants to pick up disgruntled Sunni fundamentalists in places like Anbar, who also hate the loose federalism model.