Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 7 Table of Contents
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July 2003 

dossier Dossier: The Sadrist Movement

by Mahan Abedin
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Iranian politics, educated at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Muqtada al-Sadr
In an incendiary speech before thousands of Shiite Muslim worshipers in Kufa on July 18, a zealous young cleric condemned the 25-member Governing Council appointed by the United States to run Iraq as made up of "nonbelievers," declared that he was forming a religious army, and called for a "general mobilization to fight the American and British occupiers."[1] Although Muqtada al-Sadr, the son of a revered ayatollah killed by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1999, was careful to specify that his army would use "peaceful means" to achieve this objective and explicitly condemned attacks on coalition soldiers, his strident opposition to the presence of American troops on Iraqi soil has begun to generate concern in Washington.

Until recently, US officials in Iraq had largely ignored Sadr, regarded by the Shiite clerical establishment as a young firebrand with modest religious credentials who is capitalizing on the reputation of his late father. Not wanting to increase the allure of the young cleric (he claims to be 30-years old, but is widely believed to be in his early to mid-twenties), coalition forces allowed him to operate freely and impose Islamic law (sharia) in the Shiite suburbs of Baghdad, but excluded his followers from the Governing Council of Iraq. In recent weeks, however, it has become increasingly clear that the Sadrists (Sadriyuun in Arabic), as the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr have become known, are not fading away. Their integration of Iraqi tribalism with Shiite puritanism has yielded a potent social and cultural force that could create headaches for the United States.

The 2nd Martyr

Muqtada's father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (b. 1943), was a close relative of the legendary Islamic scholar Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr,[2] though his contributions in the field of Shiite jurisprudence were more modest. In 1960 he joined the editorial staff of the journal Al-Awa and by the end of the decade had written two books, entitled Al-Islam wal-Mithaq al-Alimiyah lil-Huquq al-Insan (Islam and the International Covenant on Human Rights) and Ma Wara al-Fiqh (What is behind Jurisprudence).

Unlike his cousin, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr did not overtly oppose the regime in the late 1970s and 1980s, despite the fact that Shiites were experiencing unprecedented levels of oppression by the ruling Baath party. Although Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was arrested three times (and on one occasion tortured), his detractors allege that he was later co-opted by the regime, which officially recognized him as Grand Ayatollah in 1992.

The origins of the Sadrist movement lies in the formation and dynamics of a triangular relationship between the Iraqi regime, the urbanized Shiite tribes and the missionary activism of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. Alarmed by the Shiite uprising that erupted in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Iraqi regime began a process of co-opting and privileging Shiite tribes - a significant ideological retreat for the ruling Baath party, which had spent the previous two decades curtailing their influence.

Historically, relations between Shiite tribes and the Shiite clerical establishment in Iraq have been acrimonious. Narrow tribal loyalties conflicted with universalistic Shiite religious precepts, while many tribal customs (such as the al-wasliyah tradition that facilitates the exchange of women) are anathema to Islamic law. By promoting tribal identities, the regime hoped to offset radical Shiite challenges.

It is partly for this reason that the government sponsored Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. In his controversial book Fiqh al-Asha'ir (Tribal Jurisprudence), Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr had sought to reconcile tribal customs with Sharia and conferred upon tribal leaders the right to administer religious law. Hoping to counterbalance the influence of radical religious leaders, the regime allowed Sadr to appoint prayer leaders in hundreds of towns and cities in Iraq.

Sadr's influence was greatest in the Shiite suburb east of Baghdad formerly known as Saddam City, but unofficially known by its original name, Madinat al-Thawra (City of the Revolution). While Madinat al-Thawra was originally built in the 1960s for the purpose of absorbing mostly-Shiite immigrants from the south of the country and promoting their assimilation, the 20 square km district's self-enclosed economy and its psychological, cultural and geographic separation from the rest of Baghdad had the effect of reinforcing the tribal identities of its inhabitants, who numbered over 2 million by the 1990s.

Through a process of tribal mergers and the distribution of patronage, the Baathist regime turned the urbanized tribes into real centers of power, albeit beholden to the regime. At the same time, however, Sadr gained a mass following and became a focal point for opposition to the regime. Beginning with a 1997 fatwa mandating the holding of Friday prayers in Madinat al-Thawra, Sadr began to assert his independence from the government. He effectively became a marked man when he publicly demanded that the Iraqi regime release 106 Islamic scholars jailed since the March 1991 uprising in southern Iraq. In February 1999, Sadr and two of his sons were killed by Saddam's loyalists in Najaf. After his father's death, Muqtada al-Sadr went into hiding, accompanied by some of the more fanatical adherents of his father's creed.

The Sadrist movement grew from the fertile soil of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr's martyrdom and retained his unique amalgamation of tribalism and puritanism. While the Sadrists go to great lengths in linking the two martyrdoms of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (who was killed by the regime in 1980) and Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, the movements they inspired differ sharply in ideology, organizational structure, and support bases.[3] The Sadrists aspire to purge the Najaf seminary and the wider Iraqi Shiite clerical establishment of Iranian and other external (notably Lebanese) influences. Their ideology envisages the creation of an Iraqi theocracy that respects scholastic diversity, tolerates tribal norms and - most importantly - is completely independent of the Iranian clergy. This sets them apart from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and some in al-Daawa, who have identified the creation of an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq as their ultimate ideological objective.

The Sadrists after Saddam

Upon the collapse of the Iraqi regime, the Sadrists quickly asserted control over Madinat al-Thawra, which they renamed Madinat al-Sadr (Sadr City), and mounted an impressive campaign to repair power installations and restore basic services and security to the population. The Sadrists control a network of mosques and Husseiniyats (Shiite mourning and religious training centers), operate courts in the enclave, and police its streets.

Although Muqtada al-Sadr has repeatedly called for US troops to leave, he has condemned attacks on coalition forces as "sabotage operations against Iraq and its people carried out by supporters of the former regime."[4] He knows full well that his undisputed grip on Sadr City depends on American forbearance and he has no intention at present to provoke the United States. The Sadrists have imposed strict Islamic practices in areas they control, under the direction of firebrand cleric Muhammad al-Fartousi, who preaches at the Hikmat mosque in Sadr City. According to reliable sources, the Sadrists have vandalized, and even firebombed, cinemas, liquor shops, and video stores in areas under their control. Adnan al-Shamhani, the official spokesman for the Sadrists, claims that such acts "did not take place at the instructions of our office, but were carried out by zealous young people spontaneously."[5] Recently, the Sadrists appear to have relaxed restriction, apparently so as to avoid antagonizing the Americans. "We had some imams saying women will be beaten in the streets if some of their hair is showing and liquor stores burned down," al-Fartousi told the Associated Press. "This is not what we are about. A gentle advice to such women or a tap on the shoulder should suffice."[6]

The Sadrists' support base is primarily confined to Sadr City, though the tribal ties of many of its residents have allowed the movement to gain influence in some southern towns, such as al-Amarah. The Sadrists' chief weakness is their isolation from the seminaries, where Muqtada al-Sadr (who often speaks in colloquial Arabic, rather than the classical Arabic typically used by clerics) is viewed with palpable disdain. They have little presence in Karbala, whose scholastic community is largely of Iranian origin. What meager influence they had in Najaf was undermined by the murder in April of Majid al-Khoei and the siege on Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's estate - both of which were attributed to Sadrist sympathizers.

In an attempt to compensate for his lack of support in the traditional seminaries of Najaf and Karbala, Muqtada al-Sadr has established the Hawzah al-Natiqah. This nascent hawzah (seminary) is largely staffed by loyalists of the slain Sadiq al-Sadr. The Natiqah promotes emulation of the late Sadr - a highly controversial stance in Shiite jurisprudence, where a great marja'a ceases to be a source of emulation upon his death.

Although Muqtada al-Sadr is accepted by most in the movement as its symbolic leader, it is not entirely clear who makes important decisions. Attempts to remedy this defect have hitherto proved either ineffective or divisive. A case in point was the attempt to organize the movement by Sheikh Mohammad al-Yaqubi, who was a close companion of the late Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. As a result of this endeavor Yaqubi became embroiled in a dispute with Muqtada al-Sadr, subsequently split from the movement and established the Hizb al-Fadila al-Islamiyah (Islamic Virtue Party).

One of the reasons the United States has shown little interest in dealing with the Sadrists is that the movement's amorphous structure makes it difficult to co-opt as a whole into the post-Baathist political order. However, its organizational deficiency also makes it easier for the US and its Iraqi allies to fragment the Sadrist camp by exploiting tribal rivalries and competing ambitions within it. Muqtada al-Sadr's announcement about the establishment of the Jaish al-Mahdi (Army of the Mahdi) is unlikely to amount to much due to American disapproval of private armies and the Sadrists' own lack of experience in these endeavors.

The Sadrists' chief strength is the legacy of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr's martyrdom - this is what enables Muqtada al-Sadr to draw tens of thousands of people into the streets at a moment's notice. When Sadr mistook a recent military deployment near his house for American preparations to arrest him, he even managed to mobilize 10,000 demonstrators in Najaf (many, if not most, of whom traveled from Sadr City to put on the show of strength).

However, while Muqtada al-Sadr is undoubtedly charismatic, the inexperienced leader has needlessly antagonized other Shiite groups in his speeches, particularly SCIRI. In early May, he was quoted as saying that SCIRI head Ayatollah Mohammed Sayed al-Hakim "betrayed the people of Basra and the south when he urged them to fight [in the 1991 intifada against Saddam], and didn't come in to help them, causing the intifada to fail."[7]

The Sadrists have recently sought to mend relations with Iran. Pictures of the late Ayatollah Khomeini have been allowed to proliferate in Sadr City and pro-Iranian figures in the movement have been given positions of authority.[8] Muqtada al-Sadr visited Iran to attend events commemorating the fourteenth anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's death on June 4 and spent a week meeting with top Iranian officials, including Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the head of the judiciary, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi He was also reported to have met secretly with Qasim Suleimani, the commander of the Qods Brigade (a special external department within IRGC intelligence).[9]


The phenemenon of the Sadrists is likely to cast a shadow over the transition period in Iraq. Even if the movement splits up and the charismatic leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr is either restrained or brought to a sudden halt, the tribal puritanism that is the legacy of his murdered father is likely to remain a significant force in Iraqi politics. Given these realities the optimum strategy for the U.S. and Iraqi planners is to address the problems associated with the country's tribal heritage and its manipulation by both the state and the seminaries.


  [1] Iranian Labour News Agency - ILNA (Tehran), 21 July 2003.
  [2] There is some confusion over the exact nature of the blood ties between the two Sadrs - some reliable sources say they were cousins, while others say that Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was a nephew of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr.
  [3] The only link between the two movements was Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr's surprising designation of Kazem al-Haeri as a source of emulation in the event of his death. Haeri is known to have links with Daawa and is a loyalist of Seyed Ali Khamenei. According to some analysts, Haeri has been adept at fostering relations with all three main Shiite factions - SCIRI, al-Daawa and the Sadriyuun - and effectively acts as a "point of convergence" among them. In any event, Muqtada al-Sadr's spokesmen frequently characterize him as an "agent" of Haeri, as this confers a degree of religious legitimacy on their young leader. See Al-Arabiyah al-Alamiyah (London), 24 June 2003.
  [4] Al-Hayat (London), 27 June 2003.
  [5] Al-Hayat (London), 27 June 2003.
  [6] The Associated Press, 28 July 2003.
  [7] Shiite Contender Eyes Iraq's Big Prize, Time, 3 May 2003.
  [8] For example, Ali al-Baydani, who spent many years in the Qom seminaries, is reported to be a top commander in the Jaish al-Mahdi.
  [9] Corriere della Sera (Italy), 25 June 2003.

2003 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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