Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 6   No. 4 Table of Contents
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April 2004 


Iran, Sadr, and the Shiite Uprising in Iraq
by Gary C. Gambill

Muqtada al-Sadr
The uprising of radical Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr against US-led coalition forces in Iraq has stalled. His so-called "Mahdi army" has retreated from most areas it briefly controlled in early April and Sadr is surrounded in the holy city of Najaf by 2,500 coalition soldiers. What initially appeared to be an outpouring of popular support for the chubby 30-year-old rabble-rouser has proven to be immensely shallow. Though protected for the time being by American reluctance to storm the mosques and shrines he has desecrated with sandbags and machineguns, Sadr appears to be finished politically - he has drawn too much blood for the coalition to grant him a place in the post-war political order, and too little blood to seize one on his own.

At the height of the uprising, some American analysts argued that Sadr's revolt was a plot by Iran to derail Iraq's transition to democracy. However, while there is no question that the Iranians have provided some military and economic aid to Sadr, their intentions in so doing are not clear.

Iranian Aid

In a recent interview with the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, a senior Iranian intelligence official who defected to Britain late last year claimed that Iran has built an extensive intelligence network in Iraq, comprising hundreds of agents with a budget of roughly $70 million per month at their disposal to buy influence.[1] The former official, identified by the paper as "Hajj Saidi," did not offer a breakdown of this spending, but main recipients of official Iranian government aid are believed to be the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Daawa party, headed by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and the Hawza al-Ilmiya, a network of seminaries in the holy city of Najaf run by the country's senior Shiite clerics (marjaiyya). Significantly, all three have backed the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Hakim and Jaafari are members of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).

Iran denies having provided assistance to Sadr. However, while it may well be true that he does not officially receive government aid, it is evident that Sadr has received substantial funding from the quasi-governmental network of extremist Iranian "charities" that provide financing for the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, and that some members of the Sadrist militia have been trained by Qods division of Iran's Islamic Republic Guard Corps (IRGC). How much aid he has received is unclear. Earlier this month, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat quoted a source in the IRGC as saying that Sadr has received about $80 million in recent months and that the IRGC has trained 800-1,200 members of the Mahdi Army at three camps along the border with southern Iraq (the so-called "US and Israeli intelligence" estimates of Iranian financial and military aid to Sadr published in an "exclusive" New York Post report two days later were conspicuously identical).[2]

Sadr's rise to prominence would not have been possible without this assistance. While his anti-American rhetoric enhances his popular appeal, Sadr's power base - and the source of most of his militia's recruits - is the urban Shiite poor, particularly in Sadr City, a Baghdad slum home to two million Shiites. The loyalty of his core constituency was not won by fiery speeches, but by his movement's provision of social services to the needy - the same method employed by Hezbollah to establish itself in Lebanon.

Thus, the Iranians have pursued a two-track intervention in Iraq. On the one hand, they have supported the Shiite political and religious establishment, which has endorsed Iraq's transition to democracy and cooperated with the coalition, while on the other hand, they have supported Sadr, who has challenged the Shiite establishment and tried to mobilize the Shiite community against the occupation. The magnitude of this contradiction is not fully appreciated by most Western observers because the media has greatly understated the level of antipathy between Sadr and the Shiite establishment. Sadr's father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, cooperated with the Baathist regime during the 1980s and frequently denounced SCIRI as an "Iranian lackey." Then, after breaking with the regime in the 1990s, he denounced the "silent hawza" of Sistani for failing to speak out against Saddam. Although popular among the urban poor, Sadr's father was hated by both quietist and opposition Shiite leaders. Moqtada, who lacks his father's religious credentials, is hated even more. Sistani, whose office in Najaf is only 300 yards from Sadr's, has refused even to meet the young firebrand. In light of the immense strain that Iran's covert support for Sadr places on relations with its allies in the Shiite establishment, there are only three plausible explanations for it.

Iranian Intentions

The first is that Iran's two-track policy in Iraq is a result of divisions within the Iranian ruling elite. According to Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the key officials involved in Iran's military assistance to Sadr are Ali Agha Mohammadi, an advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; Bagher Zolghadr, the assistant head of the IRGC; Ghasem Sulaymani, the commander of the Qods Corps; Murtada Rada'i, head of the IRGC intelligence service; and Hassan Kazimi Qummi, a former assistant head of the IRGC who was appointed Iranian charge d'affaires in Iraq.[3] The key figure overseeing financial aid to Sadr is believed to be Sayyid Kazim al-Ha'iri, an influential hard-line cleric. Sadr's backers in the Iranian security and clerical establishment operate independently of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, presumably with at least tacit support from Khamenei. Sadr's backers could have a number of possible motivations for sabotaging the democratic transition in Iraq. Some may not believe that the United States truly intends to establish a democratic system that will empower Iraq's Shiite majority. Those who do believe that this is the intent may fear that the establishment of a stable democracy in Iraq will encourage Iran's pro-democracy movement.

Why Sadr's backers would choose to authorize an uprising now is not entirely clear. Some analysts have suggested that the upsurge in Iraq's Sunni insurgency may have convinced them that conditions were ripe for a popular uprising against the coalition. This is doubtful. According to a February 2004 public opinion poll by Oxford Research International, less than a quarter of Iraqis believe that their lives have gotten worse under American occupation - and most of this discontent probably overlaps with the quarter of the population that is Sunni.[4] It is unlikely that the Iranians somehow imagined that masses of Shiites would risk life and limb for Sadr.

Another possibility is that Sadr's backers recognized that their protege was incapable of fomenting a popular uprising, but authorized it in pursuit of a lesser objective. "We may be unable to drive the Americans out of Iraq, but we can drive George W. Bush out of the White House," Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is said to have recently boasted.[5] To be sure, most Iranian hardliners would probably see Bush's defeat as advancing their interests. However, if they correctly calculated that Sadr's uprising would be short-lived, then the timing was much too early to affect the American presidential election.

A more likely reason is that Sadr's backers feared that a coalition crackdown on their proxy was imminent. In the weeks prior to the uprising, the CPA closed Sadr's newspaper for 60 days, raided money-changing shops that funnel Iranian money to him, and arrested one of his senior aides, while press leaks indicated that an arrest warrant had been issued for Sadr for his role in the April 2003 murder of moderate Shiite cleric Abdul Majid Khoei. The London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat quoted an Iraqi security source as saying that the coalition's expulsion of Qummi - Sadr's Iranian overseer in Baghdad - likely contributed to the onset of the uprising.[6]

A second plausible explanation for this two-track intervention is that Iran is hedging its bets. If Iraq's transition to democracy is successful, Iran would be able to exercise influence through SCIRI and Dawa; if it is derailed, Iran will have good relations with a political movement that is untarnished by association with the failed political process, capable of seizing control over the Shiite heartland and, if necessary, fighting coalition troops or resurgent Sunni Arab forces. A related argument holds that Iran is hedging its bets with respect to relations with the United States - its support for the Shiite establishment advances Iranian interests within a context of continued American-Iranian detente, while its sponsorship of the Sadrist movement will come in handy should Washington confront Tehran over its nuclear weapons program or support for terrorism.

Neither variant of this explanation offers a very compelling rationale for the timing of Sadr's uprising - the democratic transition in Iraq may have encountered obstacles, but it was still on track, and there had been no significant changes in the Bush administration's policy toward Iran. Moreover, it is not clear why Sadr would of much use to Iran in the event that the democratic transition in Iraq does derail - in this event, SCIRI would be a more effective and reliable surrogate than Sadr. SCIRI's militia, the Badr Corps, is much more powerful than the Mahdist militia, which, according to American military intelligence estimates, consists of 300 to 400 trained, full-time fighters and between 3,000 and 6,000 reservists, and by all accounts has fought very poorly in engagements with coalition forces.[7] Moreover, SCIRI was a reliable proxy of Tehran even during the Iran-Iraq war and is dominated by Iraqis of Persian descent. Sadr, on the other hand, has only been involved with the Iranians for about a year and clearly accepted their patronage for opportunistic reasons. Even if Iran could count on Sadr's loyalty, there is no reason to believe that his militia's rank and file would be willing to submit themselves to Iran. In a recent interview, one of Sadr's aides attributed tensions between Mahdist and Badr fighters stationed in Najaf to "Arab-Persian sensitivities."[8]

A third possible explanation is that Iranian support for Sadr is intended neither to derail the democratic process nor to cultivate an alternate Shiite political contender in the event of its failure, but to exert pressure on the Shiite political establishment. The refusal of most mainstream political and religious Shiite leaders to express unmitigated criticism of Sadr (in spite of their immense personal distaste for him) underscores how easily they can be intimidated by anyone who raises the banner of anti-Americanism. Iranian support for Sadr may be, above all, motivated by the desire to control if and when this banner is raised during the political transition process.

Notes

  [1] Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 3 April 2004.
  [2] Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 9 April 2004; "Iran, Hezbollah Aid Crazed Cleric," The New York Post, 11 April 2004.
  [3] Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 15 April 2004. A reliable Iranian source told MEIB that "Murtada Rada'i" is not head of IRGC intelligence and questioned whether Ali Agha Mohammadi was an advisor of Khamenei.
  [4] Iraq's hopes split along class divide, BBC, 18 March 2004.
  [5] "The Road to Iraq's Riots," The New York Post, 6 April 2004.
  [6] Al-Hayat (London), 6 April 2004.
  [7] "US Prepares a Prolonged Drive to Suppress the Uprisings in Iraq," The New York Times, 11 April 2004.
  [8] "Current standoff may cause Shiite upheaval in Iraq," Agence France Presse, 28 April 2004.


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