As violence provoked by Muqtada al-Sadr’s fringe Jaysh al-Mahdi militia enters its third day, Washington remains in a frenzy of misplaced panic. Senator Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.), in remarks rebroadcast throughout the Arab world on the al-Jazeera satellite television, declared “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam and this country needs a new president.” Senators Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) and Joseph Biden (D., Del.) raised the spectre of civil war in separate April 6 interviews. Speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate on April 7, Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.) went further, calling on the United States to pull out of Iraq.
Allies and adversaries alike interpret such statements as weakness. For Arab liberals, they raise the spectre of American abandonment, an obsession brought on by our failure to support Iraqi freedom in 1991. For militant Islamists and potential Jihadist recruits, the senators’ statements reinforce the notion that Americans will reward violence, just as did the Spanish electorate in the wake of the March 11 train bombings. While headlines may scream doom and gloom, more telling is the reaction of the Iraqi street. Muqtada al-Sadr’s uprising and the fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi have put Iraq to the test. And Iraqis have passed with flying colors.
Take the news out of Najaf where Governing Council member Sayyid Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, himself a Shia cleric, has said that Muqtada al-Sadr refuses to speak with representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s religious establishment: Muqtada’s petulant behavior counters any suggestion that he and Iraq’s religious establishment will unite in a common front. Indeed, on April 7, Sistani’s office issued a statement calling for calm, pointedly refusing to endorse Muqtada. News from other cities is also positive. In Nasriyyah, a predominantly Shia town famous as the site of the rescue of PFC Jessica Lynch, leading local Shia cleric, Wael al-Rukadi, explained, “Triggering the violent incidents were people from the outside, to be exact, from Fallujah and the Western part of the country… A withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq at this time would lead to an all-out civil war.”
Muqtada al-Sadr is a desperate man. The youngest son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, Muqtada was never able to acquire the religious legitimacy of his father or brothers, murdered by Saddam Hussein in 1999. Nevertheless, Muqtada has remained fiercely ambitious and has sought to cash in on his family name. On October 10, 2003, he declared himself president of a parallel government, only to find that Iraqis wanted nothing to do with him. Muqtada al-Sadr did initially have some support in Sadr City, a sprawling slum on the outskirts of Baghdad named not after Muqtada, but after his father. However, Muqtada’s support has hemorrhaged over the past several months as Shia politicians like Ibrahim Jaafari of the Dawa party and Abdul Aziz Hakim of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, make inroads. I visited Sadr City often between July 2003 and March 2004, walking through markets and along apartment blocks. Posters of Muqtada al-Sadr, once omnipresent, faded or disappeared, replaced by posters of late ayatollahs like Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, killed in an August 29, 2003, car bomb. This week’s violence appears to have less to do with Iraqi sentiment than with Muqtada al-Sadr’s quest for power. Abu Muhammad Sadiq, a self-described leading figure in Muqtada’s militia, told the Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat on April 6, 2004, that the goal of the movement was to give Muqtada “an opportunity to lead Iraq.”
The reason for the Iraqi Shia community’s aversion to Muqtada goes beyond his lackluster scholarship, to the very nature of his character: Iraqis see Muqtada as a murderer. On April 10, 2003, he ordered the murder of moderate cleric Majid al-Khoei, who was subsequently hacked to death in the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the world’s holiest Shia shrines. Muqtada later published a list of 192 Iraqi figures “to be killed.” Several subsequently were.
Rather than see Muqtada as a grassroots leader, most Iraqis see him as a proxy of the Iranian government. Muqtada receives funding through Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, a close confidant of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khameini. Unlike many of Iraq’s traditional clergy who believe that clerical rule in a secular world would by nature corrupt religion (as it has in Iran), Muqtada al-Sadr subscribes to Khameini’s vision of clerical dictatorship.
Iraqis are not without complaint with regard to the American action. It has been more than a half-year since an Iraqi magistrate issued a warrant for Muqtada al-Sadr’s arrest on charges stemming from the Khoei assassination. Contrary to off-the-cuff statements by some pundits, the magistrate was not a Coalition-appointee, but rather an ordinary, non-political judge with several years of service. Many Iraqi judges used the collapse of Saddam’s regime to reinvigorate their defense of the law, no longer intimidated by Baath-party political commissars. Nevertheless, nervous hand-wringing in Washington prevented Coalition forces from taking any action. An April 7, 2004, open letter to Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer signed by 19 Iraqi intellectuals, both Sunni and Shia, lauded “the decision of the Coalition Forces to capture and remove destructive cells, which are enemies to law and order,” but added, “It would have been preferable had these forces been captured before the recent events. This is the only way to deal with violent protests that bring harm to both our country and the establishment of democracy.”
The path to democracy is not easy. A successful Iraq creates a crisis of legitimacy for remnants of Saddam’s regime, as well as Iraq’s decidedly undemocratic neighbors: Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and the proxy groups they fund, equip, and train. But, if there is a lesson to Muqtada al-Sadr’s rise and violent fall, it is not to ignore a challenge, or to cut-and-run, but to meet challenges head on in defense of freedom and democracy.
–Michael Rubin is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He spent 16 months in Iraq, most recently as a Coalition Provisional Authority governance adviser.