Who is Moqtada al-Sadr?

Sadr3 We ought not to let the comic opera aspects of Moqtada al-Sadr’s theatricality deceive us into thinking he is not important in Iraq. 

I have listened to much learned  discussion of his immaturity, the "cloud" over his father’s credentials, the splintered nature of his movement and forces.  All true.  He does often seem to be channeling" the Mad Mullah stereotype that so thickly populated old movies like "Drums," one of my favorites.

In spite of all that I think he is probably the man of the future in Shia Iraq.  The coming departure of the British from the south of Iraq will signal the onset of all out struggle; political, paramilitary, and financial for ultimate authority in the Shia run parts of the country.

Shiism is a social construct (and faith) of the disinherited and hungry.  He stands for the Shia poor and their ultimate dreams.  The secular world thinks the idea of the return of the Mahdi/Occulted Imam is absurd, that this supposed belief must be a fraud on some level.  The poor men who carry guns for Moqtada do not think it is a fraud.  they believe that the Mahdi will return soon to restore justice to the earth and that Jesus will come with him.

Moqtada has had a difficult time disciplining his growing "forces."  This was inevitable in a grass roots movement made up of human material focused on salvation and looking to him for leadership rather than command.

Whether or not  one thinks that he was somehow responsible for the recent tragedy at Karbala, it is now clear that he is going to take the opportunity provided by that event to reform his movement and to seek command of those who say they follow him.  We will see if he can do that.

Sadr, IMO, is not really focused on the coalition or the American forces.  He is waiting for them to leave.  When that happens he will seek to become the power behind the prime minister.  pl


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30 Responses to Who is Moqtada al-Sadr?

  1. johnf says:

    >We think the idea of the return of the Mahdi/Occulted Imam is absurd, that this supposed belief must be a fraud on some level.
    As a Christian I believe Jesus Christ will return. Do you include this belief in your list of absurdities?

  2. frank durkee says:

    If Sadr is in fact a nationalist, building a social services network a la Hebz. and Hamas, less enamoured of Iran than other Shite leaders/groups, and a rallying point for the Shite poor; why haven’t we sought to coopt him rather than attack him? Perhaps it is that as we really didn’t understand tribal and religious dynamics, we also failed to consider basic 101 community organization dynamics. it is as though we simply didn’t have sufficient trained people in any of these catagories developing strategy and/or tactics. Especially as we wanted to reduce urban violence as well as iranian influence. We seem to have for too long marginalized the two groups that might have contributed to shifting that toward a more nationalistic response. given the Kurdish situation. defacto separation, that should have assisted our aims.
    How do we develop and promote people who are not hindered by the viewpoint of the so called ‘elite’ and have the capacity to understand and focus attention on the tactics and strategies of mobilazation of community building. How is it that Sadr and others can buld a community service infrastructure and those we support anre much less succesful? Security is probably key , but services and local organization are very close to it in significance. wh not then in a choatic situation with few ‘good’ choices seek to coopt those who are most effective at aiding those objectives.
    Perhaps the domestic organizers mantra of “no permanent allies-no permanent enemies” has some appicability here.

  3. wsam says:

    For what it’s worth, I think your comment about some elements within Iraqi’s Shia community looking for ‘leadership not command’ is spot on.
    By the way, in reference to your last post on airpower, are you familiar with Azar Gat? Among other things, he wrote a pretty good, though not uncontroversial, article on the foundational ideas behind theories of airpower.

  4. mo says:

    Again, I fail to understand the link you make between belief in the return of the Mahdi and support for Shia leaders. It may be likely that some, most or all of his followers believe in the return but I do not believe that that this makes them any more or less likely to follow him rather than Sciri. Surely, like HA, it is the promise of a better, fairer society, not run by and for a priveliged elite that gets him and HA support. There is quite clearly a swing in the Arab world towards these nationalistic groups as witnessed by HA’s popularity among Sunni, Christian and secular Arabs.
    Your question surely assumes this administration were looking for a strong nation builder and not a puppet on a dollar string.

  5. “The secular world thinks the idea of the return of the Mahdi/Occulted Imam is absurd, that this supposed belief must be a fraud on some level. The poor men who carry guns for Moqtada do not think it is a fraud. they believe that the Mahdi will return soon to restore justice to the earth and that Jesus will come with him.”
    Thank you for saying that, Col. Lang.
    Clifford Geertz’ definition of religion (in Interpretation of Cultures, NY: Basic Books, 2000, pp. 90-91) may be relevant:
    “a religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an air of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
    My own certainly do.

  6. Homer says:

    PL: In spite of all that I think he is probably the man of the future in Shia Iraq.
    Is it not saddening to know that in direct response to the horrific attacks of 9/11 George W. Bush inadvertently made `Moqtada al-Sadr the man of the future in Shia Iraq’?
    Is it not gut wrenching to know that oceans of blood and treasure have been spilled ultimately for the sake of Moqtada al-Sadr who is rabidly anti-American?
    Does anyone think Moqtada al-Sadr and Shia Iraq will ever be a `loyal ally’ in Bush’s so-called `war on terror’?
    Does anyone think Moqtada al-Sadr will recognize Israel’s right to exist?
    Does anyone think Moqtada al-Sadr will warmly call for the continued presence of the US or will he wield S/RES/1723 (2006) and S/RES/1546 (2004) and expulse the US ?
    S/RES/1723 (2006)
    S/RES/1546 (2004)

  7. Who is Moqtada al Sadr?
    He is oil company’s worst nightmare. He is also a nationalist, USA’s and Iran’s worst nightmare.
    He’s moving his caravan south to Basra.

  8. Suggestion PL. You must delete a shit-load of crazy fucked-up comments, given the expertise of this blg, how about sharing that with us for a laugh and reality check?

  9. Jimmy Wu says:

    It would have been nice if we could have co-opted Sadr, but some people are not co-opt-able. By allying with us, he would have lost all legitimacy as a nationalist leader. Either he would have refused our offer, or another politician would have taken up his nationalist anti-American constituency.
    In addition, at that time we could not co-opt Sadr because we were already in bed w/ SCIRI kinda sorta. The model I found useful is to compare Sadr vs SCIRI as a class conflict, where Sadr represents the poorer Shiites.
    SCIRI (and us) under-estimated Sadr’s political appeal, and we’re paying the price now.

  10. Binh says:

    I agree with your analysis 100% on the importance of Sadr. He has a lot more street support than SIIC/Badr/Dawa but SIIC has the support of Shia big business and the top of their clergy based in Najaf.
    One big question is will or how will he will reach out to Sunnis most of whom view him, or his militia, as responsible for so much of the sectarian bloodletting over the last 2-3 years. How the answer to that one plays out will determine how much national importance he will have.
    If he can extend his influence over a good portion of the Sunnis and not lose his base among the poor, unemployed, working-class Shia he will be the power behind whoever sits on the Iraqi throne.

  11. verc says:

    He’s arguably one of the most powerful men in Iraq. He isn’t going away, that’s for sure.
    The US doesn’t seem to know what it wants in Iraq. First we back the Shia government until they start to get too strong, and now we’re arming the Sunnis.
    And of course we’ve got the whole “War with Iran” thing to throw into the mix.
    The future there doesn’t look good.
    Gen Odom has long argued that a civil war in Iraq is necessary. I’ve always agreed with him.
    We need to take the training wheels off the bike. It’s all on the Iraqis now.

  12. walrus says:

    I find verc’s comment about the Bush Administration the most telling:
    “The US doesn’t seem to know what it wants in Iraq.”
    Thats not true because the Bush Administration, and previous Administrations for that matter, “know what they DON’T want”.
    Viewed through that lens, many of the stupid decisions and actions make perfect sense.
    “Do we want to support Sadr? A champion of the poor and a believer in social justice?” – Of course not! That’s Socialism!
    “Do we engage with and support the democratically elected Hamas – also a champion of the poor, and a believer of social justice?” – of course not! We support freedom and democracy….but not the way Hamas practices it! Thats socialism!
    …Castro, Allende, Chavez….the list goes on, we are are all for fine word and principle, as long as others see things exactly the way we do. We even supported, and probably still support the odd Dictatorship, as long as they didn’t dabble in….socialism.
    Will we ever support Sadr? No way! That would be supporting socialism!

  13. Chatham says:

    I remember Nir Rosen hinted a while back that he wasn’t sure if there was someone else behind Sadr. I was wondering what you thought about this, Col. Perhaps leaders in his father’s/uncle’s movement that thought the son would make a better front man? Underlings with a great deal of influence like in the Bush administration?

  14. Jon Stopa says:

    Some time ago I thought that either al Sader or al Zarcowi (sp?) would end up runing Iraq. Of course, the US has determined the outcome of that struggle. We voted in al Sader!

  15. frank durkee says:

    Remember that the US siught to capture him and reduce the importance of his following in the ’03-04 and into ’05. he may never have been cooptable but we didn’t need to make him an enemy.

  16. Cold War Zoomie says:

    He’s crazy…like a fox. Interesting how he calls a “cease fire” a few weeks before the Big Report From On High.
    He’s not the only one waiting for us to leave. The Sunnis are working with us now because they:
    1. Hate AQ.
    2. Recognize a stalemate when they see one.
    3. Know we’ll leave faster if there is enough progress for us to declare victory and have a parade.
    Sadr and his rivals understand that our standards for success, leading to withdrawal, are getting lower and lower. Twenty-four months is nothing to them.
    Completely off topic: anyone catch “The Man Who Would Be King” at the American Film Institute here in Washington DC a few weeks ago? Col Lang, that seems like your kind of flick. It was fantastic on the big screen!

  17. Jose says:

    Check out this interesting article from time.com:
    Compare the last sentence in the article to the Colonel’s last sentence in this post.
    Interesting that both writers seem to predict that al-Sadr will emerge the winner of this mess.

  18. W. Patrick Lang says:

    “Sadr, IMO, is not really focused on the coalition or the American forces.
    He is waiting for them to leave. When that happens he will seek to become the power behind the prime minister”.
    I have been studying the guy for four yrs now, I agree with what you wrote and even more. It seems to me that there is sufficient evidence that he is preparing for a takeover of the Shi’i part of Iraq and Baghdad. Basra’s oil, the holy cities’ donations. He will then try to forge an alliance with Sunni fundamentalists excluding al-Qa’ida, but his reliance on Iran will make it very difficult.”
    Amatzia Baram

  19. JohnH says:

    “Sadr, IMO, is not really focused on the coalition or the American forces.” Whatever his motivation, it came at an opportune time for the Iranians. How can the administration continue to claim Iranians are killing Americans when the main shiite militia stands down for six months? Oh, I know, the Iranian shia must hate Iraqi shia, so they arm Sunnis to kill Americans along with Iraqi shia. Yadda, yadda, yadda…
    Look for this story to be totally forgotten after Labor Day.

  20. Jay says:

    I think johnf’s comment, the first post on this topic is terribly telling. It is that total disregard for the beliefs of others that has caused so much of these problems. The utter arrogance of his response that the Mahdi returning is impossible is what has gotten us so far down the wrong road. That is what the Shiia believe. Just because we don’t believe it doesn’t make it any less valid to them. We seem to think that they want to be just like us. They don’t, they don’t see thing like we do, just as we don’t see or think like they do. There are precious few Americans who have developed or are willing to develop the insight that you have into the arab world. Those people who refuse to accept that they don’t want what we have or see things our way need to SHUT THE HELL UP AND STAY OUT OF IT. LEave the policy and dealings with that part of the world to the people whp understand it. We don’t need dilettantes, we need experts.

  21. kim says:

    as long as he doesn’t meet up with an “iranian” (or “syrian”, whatever works, ya know?) truck bomb.

  22. According to an article from Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) two days ago entitled “World awaits you o Mahdi!” the Imam Mahdi’s birth anniversary fell on 15 Shaban, which would have been Tuesday 28th August this year, 1428 A.H..
    The article also tells us, without offering a date certain:
    “The Imam (AS) will appear at the Ka’aba in Mecca as “Mahdi”, generate a global revolution as the “Qa’em”, make Kufa in Iraq his seat of world government of justice, and march upon Beit ul Moqaddas to lead the prayers with the exalted messenger Jesus Christ (AS) as his deputy.”
    Col. Lang, would I be right in thinking the Beit ul Moqaddas would be the Noble Sanctuary / Temple Mount in Jerusalem, known as Beis HaMikdash in Hebrew?

  23. johnf says:

    There seems to be rather a car crash of meanings and understandings here. Irony never works on the net.
    I first misunderstood Pat Lang to say that he thought the Shia belief of the return of the occluded Imam was absurd and a fraud. I pointed out that, as a Christian, my belief in the return of Christ, must be equally absurd and based on a fraud. This was intended as an ironic statement in support of the Shia and their beliefs, and a way of pointing out that some Western beliefs are equally founded on seemingly “absurd” and “fraudulent” events. The Shia, as I’m sure you know, believe in the return of Christ at the same time as The Imam.
    On the question of al-Sadr, I think, from the start, he’s had the measure of the invasion and has therefore, alone in Iraq, followed a consistent path which will, if he avoids assassination, mean that history will see him as the only statesman in the whole Iraq imbroglio. He not only has decent relations with non-jihadi Sunni, but also with Christians – who he has promised to protect – and the Turcomens (among whom are many followers of his).
    Apologies for all the misunderstandings all around.

  24. bh says:

    We in the US have to be very careful about accepting Cheney’s insistence that Iran is backing the Shia exclusively. Michael Ware and Nir Rosen have been reporting for a long time that the Iranian military and intelligence services have contacts throughout Iraq among all sectors of the population. Ware and Rosen, both of whom have regular contact with a wide spectrum of Sunni and Shia militias, report that they are all in regular contact with Iranian agents. Iran has regular contacts with Kurdish political leaders.
    When Cheney begins the Iran assault, the US military may again be surprised at the way things play out on the ground in Iraq. Things might break down on sectarian lines, but then again, they may not.

  25. W. Patrick Lang says:

    I think it likely that Sadr is someone focused on his own destiny.
    As for theological relativism, I reserve the right to believe whatever I like.
    My original comment about belief in the Mahdi was intended to illustrate that religio/political fervor is often not shared across cultural boundaries and for that reason people foolishly tend to discount the significance of adversaries beliefs. pl

  26. Homer says:

    The other strain of radicalism in the Middle East is Shia extremism, supported and embodied by the regime that sits in Tehran. Iran has long been a source of trouble in the region. It is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Iran backs Hezbollah who are trying to undermine the democratic government of Lebanon. Iran funds terrorist groups like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which murder the innocent, and target Israel, and destabilize the Palestinian territories. Iran is sending arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan, which could be used to attack American and NATO troops. (President Bush Addresses the 89th Annual National Convention of the American Legion, August 28, 2007)
    If the Iranians are such a menace, why did President Bush cause the reins of power to be thrust into the hands of their `brothers’, e.g. al-Maliki, al-Hakim, Bayan Jabr, et al.?
    Why exactly was al-Dawa (i.e. PM Maliki’s party), for whose sake Hezbollah took hostages for in the 1980s, taken off the US’ terrorist list?
    A Glimpse from the past of the terrorist group al-Dawa:
    Beirut Bombers Seen Front for Iranian-Supported Shiite Faction, The Washington Post, January 4, 1984
    The terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the bombing of the U.S. Marine compound and the French military headquarters here may be a front for an exiled Iraqi Shiite opposition party based in Iran, in the view of a number of Arab and western diplomatic sources.
    Authorities in Kuwait say their questioning of suspects in the recent bombing there of the U.S. and French embassies indicates a clear link between Islamic Jihad, a shadowy group that says it carried out the Beirut attacks, and Al Dawa Islamiyah, the main source of resistance to the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
    Al Dawa (The Call) has been outlawed in Iraq, where it wants to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state to replace the secular Baath Socialist government of Saddam Hussein, who is a Sunni Moslem.
    It draws its strength from the large Shiite population in southern Iraq. Thousands of its most militant members were expelled to Iran in 1980 before the outbreak of the Iranian-Iraqi war and joined Al Dawa there. But it also has a large following in Lebanon among Iraqi exiles and sympathetic Lebanese Shiites.
    While Al Dawa operates out of Tehran, it is not clear whether its activities abroad are under direct Iranian control or merely have Iran’s tacit acceptance.

  27. David W says:

    How can al-Sadr run Iraq when he doesn’t even have a lobbyist in Washington? It is most interesting that Allawi is bigger in Washington than Baghdad, no doubt because he is the kind of stooge that the DC players would like to install in Iraq.
    al-Sadr is anathema to the US position, because he isn’t reachable with the ‘classic’ Western enticements of money, women, drugs, etc. While this isn’t to say that he’s uncorruptable, I think that his ‘unapproachability’ is a key illustration of why the US govt. fears Muslim religious leaders.

  28. walrus says:

    Col. Lang: “As for theological relativism, I reserve the right to believe whatever I like.”
    I agree, I’m thinking from changing from a Monopolar Manichean (ie: there is only evil in the world, the good comes from the Devil screwing up so often) to an orthodox agnostic.

  29. pw says:

    “How can al-Sadr run Iraq when he doesn’t even have a lobbyist in Washington?”
    Arguably no-one with a lobbyist in Washington is capable of running Iraq. Legitimacy in the eyes of a majority of the locals means opposing the US, not supporting it. That, like it or not, is where we are now. It didn’t have to be this way but it’s too late now.

  30. Charles I says:

    John F, count me in, absolutely, crediting the most outlandish mythological, fetishistic, inventions and accretions of the great religious as anything but apocryphal parable in the very human transmission of great and universal truths is inerrantly absurd.
    I no more expect the corporeal return of Jesus than I do the dinosaurs, but I pray to my little pagan gods he returns to you each morning when you wake in this life rather than having to await His post-apocalyptic next one.

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