On the Mystery of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Disappearance
US government sources are saying that nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr fled to neighboring Iran three weeks ago. Sadrist aides denied the report.
This on a day when two major bombings left 66 persons wounded or dead in the capital, and 20 bodies were found in the streets of Baghdad. In the southern city of Amara, two Mahdi Army fighters were killed in clashes with the police.
This USG report about Muqtada broke after midnight Baghdad time, so there has not been time for the Arabic or Persian press to react. I’ll know more Thursday morning.
Sadr aides denied to the LA Times that Muqtada is in Iran, saying he is in hiding in Iraq.
Some are taking exception to the word “fled.”
The press record I assembled, below, does not support Muqtada’s disappearance to Iran. It is possible but not likely that Muqtada would go to Iran. He and his family have endlessly made fun of the al-Hakim clerical leaders for fleeing to Iran to escape persecution by Saddam Hussein, when the al-Sadrs insisted on staying in Iraq. Muqtada’s father was killed in 1999 by Saddam’s agents because he stayed and gave defiant sermons. So it would be a lot of crow to eat for Muqtada to go to Iran to escape the Americans. Plus, there is nothing in the Iranian press about him showing up in Qom, and an Iranian diplomat denied the story. Without more and better evidence, this account strikes me as suspect, and I would guess that if Muqtada disappeared, it is inside Iraq.
It might be useful to construct a timeline for Muqtada’s recent activities.
It would begin on January 16. On that date, former Shiite prime minister of Iraq, Ibrahim Jaafari, met in Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. One thing the two discussed was the prospect that the followers of Muqtada in the Iraqi parliament would cease their boycott of the legislature, which had begun last fall when the current prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, met with George W. Bush:
‘ Al-Jaafari told reporters after meeting the country’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will end their six-week-old political boycott “very soon.” Speaking about the 30 Iraqi legislators and six Cabinet ministers who follow al-Sadr, whose return is being discussed with the Shiite bloc in parliament, al-Jaafari said “the suspension of activities by the Sadrist bloc will end very soon, God willing.” The boycott has kept them from parliament and Cabinet offices since they walked out over the late November meeting between Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan. ‘
Two days after this article appeared, on Jan. 19, it was reported that a key aide to Muqtada in East Baghdad, Abdel Hadi Daraji, was arrested by US forces on suspicion of being involved with death squad activity and helping the shadowy Mahdi Army terrorist, Abu Deraa.
On the day of that arrest, an interview with Muqtada appeared in La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper. BBC World Monitoring translated it. Here are the relevant passages:
‘ Wanted Iraqi Shi’i militant leader Muqtada al-Sadr has said immediate US withdrawal is the only solution to Iraq’s security problems. He said his militants were facing action against them by “at least four armies”, including “a ‘shadow’ army that no one ever talks about, trained by US military intelligence in the Jordanian desert in the utmost secrecy”. He said the Sunnis must “mark their distance from the Saddam-ites, from the radical groups, and from Bin-Ladin’s men, as well as reiterating their ‘no’ to the United States” for action against them to cease. Following is text of an interview with Al-Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr by Renato Caprile in Baghdad on 18 January, headlined: “‘A secret army against us, but the Shi’is will prove capable of resisting’;” published by Italian newspaper La Repubblica on 19 January; first paragraph is La Repubblica introduction
Baghdad: He feels hounded, and he is in hiding. He never sleeps in the same bed two nights running any more. Some of his die-hard loyalist followers have already turned their backs on him. He has even transferred his family to a secret place. Muqtada al-Sadr feels that the end is near. There are too many foes, too many enemies infiltrated among his people. Yet he does not have it in for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whom he considers to be little better than a puppet, so much as for Iyad al-Alawi, the former prime minister on whom the United States has apparently never ceased placing its money. He, al-Alawi, is apparently the true puppet master behind the operation aiming to wipe Al-Sadr and his Al-Mahdi Army off the face of Iraq.
[Caprile] How come Al-Maliki, whose government contained fully six ministers from your faction until a short while ago, has suddenly woken up to the fact that the real problem that needs to be resolved is the religious militia groups, yours in particular?
[Al-Sadr] Between myself and Abu-Asara (the “father of Asara,” the name of Al-Maliki’s daughter – La Repubblica editor’s note), there has never been much feeling. I have always suspected that he was being manoeuvred, and I have never trusted him. We have met only on a couple of occasions. At our last meeting he first told me: “You are the country’s backbone,” and then he confessed that he was “obliged” to combat us. Obliged, you hear me?
[Caprile] The fact remains that an iron-clad fist is about to come down on your people.
[Al-Sadr] Actually, it has already begun to do so. They arrested over 400 of my people yesterday night. It is not us they wish to destroy, it is Islam. We are simply an obstacle in the way. We will not put up any resistance for the time being.
[Caprile] Are you saying that you plan to hand over your weapons?
[Al-Sadr] During muharram (the sacred month commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn, which took place over six centuries ago – La Repubblica editor’s note), the Koran forbids killing. . .
[Caprile] Some people maintain that the Army and the police force are heavily infiltrated by your men, and that the US Marines on their own will never succeed in disarming you.
[Al-Sadr] The exact opposite is true: It is our militia group that is crawling with spies. Of course, it does not take much to infiltrate a grassroots army. And it is precisely these people who, in staining their hands with unworthy actions, have brought discredit on the Al-Mahdi Army. There are at least four armies ready to swing into action against us: a “shadow” army that no one ever talks about, trained by US military intelligence in the Jordanian desert in the utmost secrecy. Then there is the private army of Al-Allawi, the infidel who will soon succeed Al-Maliki, and that army is training in the former military airport at Muthanna. Then there are the Kurdish peshmerga. And finally, there are the regular US troops.
[Caprile] If what you say is true, then you have no hope of withstanding the onslaught.
[Al-Sadr] There are very many of us, too. We represent a majority in the country that does not want Iraq to become a nonconfessional state and a lackey of the Western powers, which is what Al-Allawi is dreaming of.
[Caprile] You have officially been in the firing line for a week. The government maintains that the religious militia groups are militarily weaker without their leaders.
[Al-Sadr] I am aware of that. That is why I have transferred my family to a safe place. I have even made a will, and I move around constantly, acting in such a way that only very few people know exactly where I am. But even if I were to die, the Al-Mahdi Army would continue to exist. Men can be killed, but faith and ideas cannot. . .
. . . In my view, there is only one option for achieving a solution: immediate US withdrawal.
Source: La Repubblica, Rome, in Italian 19 Jan 07 ‘
Muqtada admitted that he had moved his family to a safe place, and also said that he was in hiding and was varying his place of residence.
On January 22, al-Hayat carried a denial from Sheikh Muayyid al-Khazraji that Muqtada had left Najaf for Iran. As translated by BBC World Monitoring, it reads:
“Shaykh Mu’ayyid al-Khazraji, one of Muqtada al-Sadr’s aides, denied that the Shi’i leader had left Al-Najaf city and told Al-Hayat: “Media reports that Al-Sayyid Muqtada and his family had left Iraq and went to Iran after Al-Darraji’s arrest are baseless.” He added that “Al-Sayyid Muqtada is still in his house in Al-Hananah, old city of Al-Najaf, and has received several pilgrims after their return to the city”, calling reports that he had left Al-Najaf for Tehran “a tendentious rumour” aimed at harming his image. The Iranian Embassy in Baghdad also denied any knowledge that Al-Sadr is visiting the country and a diplomatic source in it told Al-Hayat: “Al-Sayyid has not asked for a visa to enter Iran. We have no knowledge so far that he is in Iran.” ‘
The rumors were not laid to rest. On Feb. 7, as translated by BBC World Monitoring, the London pan-Arab daily reported,
‘There is much talk in Al-Najaf streets, and specifically among Al-Sadr’s supporters, about Muqtada al-Sadr’s disappearance and travel to Iran. But Hasan al-Hilu (one of the staff in Al-Sadr’s office) told “Al-Hayat” that “Muqtada al-Sadr disappeared after having a meeting with former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja’fari during his recent visit to Al-Najaf.” ‘
The “but” in al-Hilu’s statement suggests that he did not agree with the story that Muqtada went to Iran, though he admitted the disappearance. The detail about the disappearance coming after Jaafari’s visit to Najaf on Jan. 16 gives us an idea of the time frame. It may be that this al-Hayat story about gossip in Najaf is the basis for the USG announcement about Muqtada having fled to Iran. If so, it isn’t a very solid story. And its details are contradicted by the Jan. 22 al-Hayat article.
On January 26, Borzou Daragani reported that Muqtada’s spokesmen were announcing his cooperation with the new security plan. Daragahi quotes US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad:
‘ “There’s a change of behavior that we can see,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters this week. “If it’s a change of heart, that’s a good thing. If it’s a change of tactic, we need to be cautious.”
Allies of Sadr suggest he has begun heeding the appeals of other Shiite leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, to temper his actions in order to preserve unity in the Shiite-dominated government.
“We were not going to be dragged into a trap to clash with the government or any other of our people,” said Nassar Rubaie, a member of parliament who is close to Sadr. “We are aware such a thing could happen.” ‘
At this point, neither the well-connected Daragahi, nor US ambassador Khalilzad, gives evidence in his diction that he thinks Muqtada has fled the country. On the contrary, they speak of him as a local power to reckon with.
On January 29, Liz Sly of the Chicago Tribune reported that Muqtada al-Sadr “has ordered his militia not to confront U.S. forces and has endorsed negotiations aimed at easing the deployment of American troops in his strongholds, according to Sadrist and other Shiite officials.” It doesn’t sound as though he was doing so from abroad.
The Jan. 17 disappearance is brought into question by a February 2 article in al-Hayat. It says that Muqtada al-Sadr was giving the responsibility for deciding if the Mahdi Army should be dissolved to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Ayatollah Kadhim al-Ha’iri (or Haeri, resident in Qom, Iran)
The article ends with this passage: ‘For his part, Suhail al-`Iqabi, a Sadr aide and official in charge of publicity in Baghdad, told al-Hayat, “Al-Sadr visited Sistani and discussed the issue of dissolving the Mahdi Army, and the latter declined.”
So al-`Iqabi is alleging that Muqtada surfaced in Najaf and held consultations with Sistani there. Why is this offer to the grand ayatollahs to dissolve the Mahdi Army being publicized on February 2 unless the offer was made on Feb. 1 or in very later January? The article does not say that it is reporting weeks-old news. Hence, Muqtada was likely in Najaf for a meeting with Sistani in late January.
The Feb. 7 al-Hayat story continues,
‘An aide to Al-Sadr in Al-Najaf told “Al-Hayat” that the “American forces have closed all Al-Sadr City’s exits with armoured vehicles and tanks with the support of the Iraqi army” and pointed out that Muqtada al-Sadr instructed all leaders of “Al-Mahdi Army” and the “Trend” “to hide and leave Baghdad because we are certain that this plan is targeting the Trend and its supporters.” He added that the recent bombings, which claim the lives of hundreds of Shi’is every day, “will continue because there is no response in the absence of leaders like Abu-Dar’ and Abu-Sijad who had left Iraq to a neighbouring country.” He stressed that the “takfiris have exploited this gap with the Americans’ help and started to send the booby-trapped vehicles to the Shi’i markets.” ‘
This report suggests that the most notorious death squad leaders among the Sadrists and the Mahdi Army have fled to Iran. But it doesn’t give evidence that Muqtada has.
The press record shows that Muqtada is in hiding inside Iraq, not in Iran. It also suggests that he has ordered his Mahdi Army to keep a low profile during the present security operation.
But we’ll see. Stay tuned.