Friday, June 15, 2007

As weazl has said, Muqtada setting himself up for bigger prizes

Muqtada: The born-again mullah

By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - A famous phrase was imprinted in our minds from the Hollywood classic of the 1940s, Casablanca. At the end of the film, an American (played by Humphrey Bogart) shoots a Nazi officer in Vichy-controlled Casablanca. The French police chief, Claude Rains, refuses to arrest Bogart and instead calls on his policemen to "round up the usual suspects". Bogart and Rains then walk off together, saying that this is the start of a "beautiful friendship".

That phrase kept coming to mind on Wednesday as the bombing of the Shi'ite shrines took place in Samarra (125 kilometers north of Baghdad), raising alarms in a country already divided by sectarian violence. Who are the "usual suspects" in Iraq? There is no single answer to that question. Simply, everybody in Iraq is a suspect. That was clear from the flurry of accusations that erupted shortly after the attack. The Americans blamed al-Qaeda. Shi'ite cleric Sadr al-Muqtada blamed the Americans. The Iranians blamed the Ba'athists loyal to the late president Saddam Hussein. The Ba'athists blamed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The truth is that it is not really important anymore to know who blew up the minarets of al-Askari Mosque (Golden Dome). What matters is that this single terrorist act exposed just how chaotic and infiltrated Iraq has become, how terrible incapable Maliki really is, how useless his security plan has become, and how confused the Americans are on what to do with the helpless premier.

It also proved, however, that one man emerged wiser from this entire ordeal: cleric turned politician and former rebel leader Muqtada.

When the Golden Dome was attacked in February 2006, starting the sectarian violence that has rocked Iraq for the past 16 months, there were plenty of "usual suspects" to blame.

Some accused radical extremist Sunnis, but that was hard to believe. The Sunni fundamentalists, headed at the time by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, do not carry out amateur terrorist operations. They strike with three objectives: collective death, pain, and destruction. Last year's attack (as well as this week's) was not intended to kill Shi'ites but to provoke them. Had Zarqawi wanted to kill, he would have detonated bombs in broad daylight, killing hundreds of Shi'ite worshippers in the process, and not strike when the shrine was empty.

Other observers blamed radical Shi'ites who wanted the crime to look like the dirty work of Sunni groups. They wanted to use the terrorist bombing to justify a massive killing campaign against Sunnis, telling the world: "They did it and we are taking revenge." To some Shi'ites it was indeed almost like a blessing in disguise - the perfect excuse they needed to justify striking at a traditional enemy - without a shred of evidence that "the Sunnis did it".

Supporters of this argument claim that those who set off the explosives last year did not want to kill Shi'ites. On the contrary, they wanted minimal destruction of human life, but a lot of political, collateral and sectarian damage. Others, mainly the Arab nationalists in Iraq, blamed the United States, arguing that the US objective is to see sectarian violence in Iraq, to ignite the fire and then play the role of the fireman, and justify its continued presence in Iraq.

Most of these arguments still hold in the latest bombing. The only real difference is that the Iraqi leaders have surprisingly - and for the first time in years - shown a lot of wisdom in response to the terrorist attack. Some tit-for-tat revenge attacks did take place nevertheless, but on a much smaller scale than what was expected, or compared with what happened last year. At that time, almost immediately Sunnis mosques were burned, clerics were assassinated, and entire Sunni neighborhoods were destroyed.

This time, hours after the attack, only four Sunni mosques were attacked, including the Grand Mosque of Iskandariyya. On Thursday, another two mosques were attacked by angry Shi'ites. Rather than order his followers to roam the streets and set Sunni communities ablaze, Muqtada spoke of restraint, and called on his followers to refrain from striking at the Sunnis because the were "innocent" of the Samarra bombings.

Instead, he called on the Americans to evacuate from Samarra, and withdrew his deputies from Parliament, making a political point that he would no longer support the United Iraqi Alliance that leads with a Shi'ite majority, unless the security problems are addressed. That was a sophisticated and civilized way of doing things - new for someone like Muqtada.

These calls were repeated by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who called on Shi'ite "believers" to refrain from seeking revenge for the bombings, which he described as "heinous". The Kurds made similar remarks, through President Jalal Talabani, and so did his Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi.

Of all the remarks, Muqtada's was by far the most interesting - and powerful. He said: "Let the Iraqi people be aware that no Sunni has attacked the shrine, but it is the occupation's hidden hand, which wants bad things to happen to us."

Two weeks ago, when an attack took place on a Sunni mosque in Iraq, he contacted the Sunni imam and offered to send his Shi'ite militiamen to protect Sunni places of worship. He also suggested a joint prayer between Sunnis and Shi'ites. Many dismissed his calls then as nothing but empty rhetoric, aimed at convincing Sunnis, Americans and Iraqi officials that he was not a criminal.

Muqtada's history speaks volumes about his credentials as a Shi'ite nationalist and his involvement in guerrilla warfare against the Sunnis after 2003, wanting to punish the entire community for having produced Saddam Hussein, who ruled from 1979-2003. When Muqtada first rose to prominence after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, however, he was believed to have much in common with Iraqi Sunnis.

He was opposed to the US invasion and a fervent critic of the "political process" that was instigated by former Iraqi administrator Paul Bremer. As things became clearer in Baghdad, he became an opponent of Iran-led Shi'ite politicians, accusing them of being agents for the mullahs of Tehran. First on his hate list was Iran's No 1 man in Iraq, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim.

Muqtada refused the partitioning of Iraq - echoing what the Sunnis have been saying all along - and vetoed giving more autonomy to the Kurds, or control over oil-rich Kirkuk. He established himself, like Sunni nationalists, as both anti-American and anti-Iranian, maintaining his militia to fight the Americans and not get involved in sectarian violence with Iraqi Sunnis.

This changed after his war with ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi in 2004, when Muqtada realized that the only people willing to stick heir necks out for him were Iraqi Shi'ites. Before establishing himself as a serious Iraqi leader (his young age did not help), as he is trying to do today, he had to make a name as a Shi'ite one. In a certain way, he wanted to do what Hassan Nasrallah - his friend and idol - had done in Lebanon with Hezbollah.

Nasrallah started off as a local Shi'ite chief in 1992 and over a 15-year period managed to establish himself as a pan-Lebanese, and

eventually pan-Arab, statesman and leader, matched by none in the Arab world except Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. If Nasrallah is the next Nasser, then Muqtada wants to be the next Nasrallah.

Today, Muqtada is expanding his power base and trying to write off his sectarian past and build bridges with the Sunnis, to repeat what Nasrallah did in Lebanon. Hezbollah started off in 1982 as a Shi'ite organization that was funded by Iran and planned to establish an Iran-style theocracy in Beirut. With time, its agenda, and image, changed in the minds of the Lebanese.

Muqtada's Shi'ite credentials are no longer in question, if they ever were, and he is probably the most popular Shi'ite leader in Iraq, matched only by the old and wise Sistani. He is a man of the masses, popular within the slums of Baghdad and among the urban poor, who see him as an honest, dedicated, and uncorrupted nationalist who does not seek political office or wealth, only the freedom of his country and respect for his community.

He has arms, a large following (estimated at more than 60,000 armed men), family heritage (his father and uncle were famous leaders), and religious legitimacy (being a "Sayyed" because of being a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed). After having disappeared from public life for nearly three months this year, Muqtada re-emerged a few weeks ago, almost reborn. The first thing he did was dismiss 11 commanders of his Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi), because they had been involved in illegal conduct during his absence, such as kidnapping Sunni notables.

When members of the Mahdi Army seized Sunni neighborhoods in south and west Baghdad, trying to uproot their residents, Muqtada condemned and disavowed the attack through his spokesman Salah al-Obaidi. The latter said that local commanders in the Bayaa and Amil neighborhoods had acted on their own instinct, without orders from Muqtada. The spokesman added, "Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr refuses all kind of violence and he refuses to answer violence with violence."

That is new talk for the Sadrists, who used to answer violence with - to say the least - double violence. If authentic, it is evidence that Muqtada is in fact a reborn man. The fact that elements from Muqtada's following might have acted without authorization from him were confirmed by Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Garver, the US military spokesman, who said: "We have seen a fracturing of Jaysh al-Mahdi in the last few months. We see elements acting on their own. He may be trying to prevent that. It could be a positive thing for Iraq, the coalition, and the Iraqi people or it could be a negative thing, depending on how these new leaders are going to behave."

The record of the Sadrists over the past few weeks has shown that they indeed have been behaving themselves - especially after the new bombings in Samarra. Another Muqtada aide, Abdul-Hadi al-Mohamaddawi, who heads Muqtada's office in Karbala, added, "Many of the people in the Sadr trend are not real Sadrists and they don't have a real belonging to the Sadr front. They corrupted the reputation of the Sadr office."

Muqtada himself had repeated that in an interview with the government daily Al-Sabah early this month, saying that the Mahdi Army is not a political party but a populist movement "with the good and the bad" in it. Last week, he gave another interview to Iraqi television, blaming all of Iraq's troubles on the Americans and praising the Sunnis and Shi'ites who collaborated to fight al-Qaeda.

Muqtada is working to please not only the Sunnis but the Kurds as well. On Monday, he sided with the Kurds against Turkey, which is amassing troops on Iraq's northern border, threatening to invade Iraqi Kurdistan to root out Kurdish nationalists. Although Muqtada is ideologically opposed to the Kurdish district - and distrustful of the Kurds at large because of their good relations with the Americans - he nevertheless cannot let his own views get in the way of becoming a pan-Iraqi leader. Muqtada warned Ankara on the bombing of Iraqi Kurdistan: "We will not be silent in front of this threat." This came after Turkey had shelled villages in Dohuk, a northern province of Iraq.

Last week, Muqtada visited Sistani at his home in Najaf. The meeting was ostensibly to inquire on Sistani's health. The elder cleric had announced last year that he would halt his political consultations because he was being overshadowed by younger, radical, and unwise politicians (in clear reference to Muqtada, although he did not mention him by name). It was believed then that Sistani was saddened by how popular Muqtada was becoming at his own expense.

At times of war, Iraqis need the protection that Muqtada offers, not wise words from the venerable Sistani. When a young Shi'ite complains to Sistani that his brother had been killed, for example, the ayatollah reads him a few phrases from the Koran, then tells him to go report to the police. That has little effect on angry young Shi'ites, especially in a region where revenge is so deep-rooted in Arab culture. When a similar case occurs with Muqtada, he not only promises revenge but actually takes it.

That pleases young Iraqis and explains why Muqtada's clout would be increasing at the expense of Sistani. The latter's seclusion lasted for some time but he has recently re-emerged and still gives occasional advice on matters related to politics, concentrating more, however, on religious, social and philosophical affairs. The importance of the Sistani-Muqtada meeting (the first since Muqtada re-emerged from three months in hiding) was in how the Sadrists reported it to the media.

The Sadrists depicted their leader and Sistani as equals, "two religious authorities". The difference in titles, ranks, history and legitimacy was glossed over by the Sadrist media. They were there to consult as partners in the Shi'ite community and not, as one would expect, to hear out the grand ayatollah's views. That is testimony to how "involved" and active Muqtada is in creating a new image for himself, not only as an Iraqi nationalist, but as a religious heavyweight as well, in the Shi'ite community.

Clearly, Muqtada al-Sadr is very serious about his new image, and the days to come will witness more gestures - both symbolic and tangible - to prove to the world that he is not just a Shi'ite nationalist.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

Original article posted here.

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