Eight American troops died in Baghdad, as fighting erupted between Coalition troops and followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. Hearing the news, Senator Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) declared Iraq to be “George Bush’s Vietnam.” Evening-news anchors question whether this weekend’s violence marked the start of a Shii revolt. Quite the contrary.
Far from rebelling, the majority of Shia are breathing sighs of relief. Iraqis consider action to rein in Muqtada al-Sadr long overdue. An Iraqi judge issued a warrant for Muqtada’s arrest last summer, charging him with instigating the April 10, 2003, murder of respected cleric Majid al-Khoie, hacked to death in Najaf’s holiest shrine. American hand wringing and delay has allowed Muqtada al-Sadr’s operation to metasticize into a more lethal network.
In Najaf, Baghdad, and Basra, followers of the 30-year-old firebrand cleric have terrorized the local population. Since liberation, Iraqis have had the freedom to watch satellite television stations, except in Najaf, where Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia members invade homes and smash satellite dishes in a scene more reminiscent of the Taliban’s Afghanistan than of Iraq. In Baghdad and Basra, Muqtada’s vigilantes beat and harass women. Doctors, lawyers, tribal leaders, and shopkeepers repeatedly ask visiting Americans why the Coalition has failed to rein in Muqtada al-Sadr.
Muqtada al-Sadr does not represent Iraq’s Shia community. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the leading Shii religious figure in Iraq, will have nothing to do with him, nor will the myriad of lesser ayatollahs or the large, secular Shia community. Even in Sadr City, a large Shia slum on the outskirts of Baghdad (named not after Muqtada but rather the late Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr), Muqtada’s support is weak. Since his power peaked shortly after Baghdad’s liberation, Muqtada has steadily lost his Sadr City constituents to Ibrahim Jaafari of Dawa and Abdulaziz Hakim of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Muqtada al-Sadr’s real symbolism is not as the personification of Shia struggle, but rather in his challenge to rule of law. On March 8, Governing Council members representing Iraq’s major political trends agreed to an interim constitution. Salma al-Khufaji, whom Governing Council colleagues identify as Muqtada al-Sadr’s de facto proxy, signed off on the document. Most members I spoke with acknowledged the transitional law was a political compromise ideal to none, but fair to all. Some pundits may say that the Coalition Provisional Authority imposed the TAL on a rubberstamp Governing Council. Such a charge is not only false (negotiations and drafting occurred absent the presence of Coalition officials), but also racist in its assumption that Iraqis are not sophisticated enough to operate independently.
While President Bush hailed the signing of the Iraq’s interim constitution “as a historic milestone in the Iraqi people’s long journey from tyranny and violence to liberty and peace,” Iraqis are cynical. The Baath party has long ignored legal and constitutional guarantees. Constitutions are not worth the paper upon which they are printed if they are not enforced. Shia in Najaf and Nasriyah as well as Kufa and Kut, watched as Muqtada al-Sadr’s 3,000-member militia, the Jaysh al-Mahdi, kidnapped people off the street, tried them before ad hoc courts, and meted out medieval punishment. In recent days, Muqtada al-Sadr has increased the virulence of his rhetoric and threats. On April 2, Muqtada announced “solidarity” with Hezbollah and Hamas. “Let them consider me their striking hand in Iraq when the need arises,” he declared in his sermon. On April 4, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network reported Sadr’s call to commence armed operations.
Most Iraqis recognize that Muqtada al-Sadr is not a true grassroots figure. He receives money through Ayatollah Kazim al-Husayni al-Haeri, an Iraqi cleric based in Iran who himself is a close confidant of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In a brazen power grab deemed illegitimate by Iraq’s entire Shia hierarchy, on April 7, 2003, Haeri sent a handwritten note to the houzeh declaring Muqtada al-Sadr his representative in Najaf. “His position is our position,” Haeri declared. Muqtada, not educated enough to write his own sermons, relies on supporters in Iran. He has made several trips to Qom to pick-up instructions and money. Much of his violence has been directed not against “occupation forces,” but against tolerant, traditional clerics like al-Khoie, who in challenge to Khamenei, favored separation of mosque and state. While pundits and ivy-tower academics speak of Muqtada’s appeal to the poor and downtrodden, they fail to question where he gets the money to charter hundreds of buses each weak to transport followers the two hours from Baghdad to Kufa, where they listen to his sermon and enjoy a free meal.
The sky is not falling. The decision to confront the Muqtada al-Sadr’s challenge to rule-of-law and liberty will cause a short-term spike in violence, but lead to long-term improvement. Iraqis see any failure to defend rule-of-law as Coalition weakness. How could the United States be serious about democracy, Iraqis ask, when we left such a challenge to rule-of-law go unchallenged? Thankfully, Iraqis now know that we will meet challenges head-on. It is a lesson that should also be understood in Syria and Iran.
–Michael Rubin, a former CPA political officer–the only one who lived outside the American security bubble–is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.