On May 1, 2003, George W. Bush declared victory in Iraq while preening in a flight suit in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner. Three years later, the country he had invaded descended into a bloody civil war. Eight years after that, the northwest of Iraq was conquered by ISIS.
As I write this, thirteen years to the day after Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech, the heavily-fortified “Green Zone” compound of government buildings in Baghdad (including the U.S. Embassy complex) is occupied by anti-U.S. Iraqi protesters. Having proven their point, they are now voluntarily withdrawing. As the ultimate stronghold of the U.S.-installed Iraqi government was taken without a fight by unarmed marchers, the last shred of that “Mission Accomplished” banner symbolically went up in smoke.
However, what is a humiliation for the U.S. empire may ultimately be a saving grace for the Iraqi people, if Washington would take the hint and get out of Iraq completely.
The demonstrators that flooded Baghdad are followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the wildly popular Shia cleric, politician, and militia leader. Under Sadr’s urging, they are demanding an overhaul of the Iraqi government: the replacement of many of the corrupt and sectarian ministers with impartial “technocrats.”
But there is something far more important about Sadr than his concern with waste, fraud, and abuse, or his misplaced confidence in civil servants. That is Sadr’s championship of Iraqi independence and his current denunciation of sectarian violence.
Sadr comes from a long, illustrious line of Iraqi resistance figures and martyrs. One of his great-uncles was, according to Matt Duss in Foreign Policy in Focus, “among the leaders of the 1920 Iraqi revolt against the British occupation.” His uncle Grand Ayatollah Baqr al-Sadr is widely considered to have been, “the most significant Shi’ite scholar of the 20th century.” After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Saddam Hussein feared a similar movement might coalesce around Baqr. And so in 1980 the dictator ordered, “the first execution of a grand ayatollah in modern history.”
And in 1999, Muqtada’s own father, cleric Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was assassinated by Saddam’s agents for criticizing the regime. Sadr was 25 years old at the time, and was held under house arrest until Saddam was overthrown in 2003.
While many other victims of Saddam welcomed and collaborated with their “liberators,” Sadr would have none of it. In a 2013 interview with the great war correspondent Patrick Cockburn, Sadr lamented that:
“…Iraqis make the mistake of trying to solve one problem by creating a worse one, such as getting the Americans to topple Saddam Hussein but then having the problem of the US occupation. He compared Iraqis to ‘somebody who found a mouse in his house, then he kept a cat, then he wanted to get the cat out of the house so he kept a dog, then to get the dog out of his house he bought an elephant, so he bought a mouse again’.”
And so Sadr’s “Mahdi Army” fought to drive out the Western occupiers from Iraq, and succeeded in briefly expelling them from certain towns. In this, the Shia cleric made common cause with much of the Sunni resistance, even voicing support for the Sunni defenders of Fallujah against their American besiegers in 2004.
After the invasion, Sadr was the leading champion of Iraqi nationalism: for a unified Iraq shared by both Shia and Sunnis, and independent of both the West and Iran.
The U.S. also affected to want a unified Iraq, but preferred it to be dependent and subservient. And as it turned out, subservience was a higher priority than unity. So rather than withdrawing, leaving Iraq to the Iraqis, the U.S. sought to destroy Sadr and his following. Moreover, the U.S. proceeded to do everything you might expect a power to do if it was hellbent on preventing national unity, and instead fomenting national discord.
Its de-Baathification policy destroyed the lives of the Sunni leading classes. The Shias that the U.S. backed, rather than Sadr’s local patriots, were the expatriates who had years ago fled to Iran where they dreamed of importing the Iranian Revolution into Iraq. Then the U.S. engineered an election that guaranteed a hyper-sectarian government dominated by this Iran-backed coterie.
After all these divisive policies, the purple fingers of the celebrated first election predictably gave way to the bloodstained hands of a sectarian civil war. As in all such wars, the most violent factions of each side came to the fore: the suicide bombing terrorists of Al Qaeda in Iraq on the Sunni side, and the head-drilling death squads of the Badr Brigade on the Shia side.
Factions within the Mahdi Army were also implicated in the bloodshed. Sadr denounced them as infiltrators (a dubious claim) and retired to Iran to study theology in 2007. This exit was the first of many. Each was greeted by his American enemies as the end of his career, but each was followed by a return to Iraq. And his grassroots support, based on both his pedigree and personal record of patriotic resistance, has proven to be indestructible. This was attested recently by his ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to march on the Green Zone.
Over the years, Sadr’s tactics have evolved: from armed resistance to working within the political system, and now to street protests. The masters of the universe in Washington bewail the anti-corruption demonstrations as “destabilizing.” Yet they have no qualms about themselves funneling billions of dollars through NGOs into similar protests around the world to foment “color coded revolutions” against regimes it disfavors. Among many others, there was the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Green Revolution in Iran. Apparently the “Green Zone Revolution” underway in Iraq is a shade of green that Washington doesn’t fancy.
The Obama administration frets that the political turbulence will distract from the all-important fight against ISIS. Yet a Sadr-led, independent Iraq might handle that offspring of American warfare far better than the U.S. and its client government in Baghdad has. Sadr is currently the most anti-sectarian leader of Iraq’s majority Shia population. And sectarian strife is what spawned ISIS and feeds it to this day.
Even a regime as brutal as ISIS cannot maintain its grip on a totally recalcitrant population. The people of Sunni Iraq only tolerate ISIS’s onerous rule because they are terrified of the alternative, which is to likely be “cleansed” by vengeful anti-Sunni forces. But if they got wind of a Sadr-led government making gestures toward sectarian reconciliation, that may be all the hope the Sunni tribes need to cast of the ISIS yoke, just as they turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) during the Anbar Awakening of 2006.
It is worth noting that the government reforms now demanded by Sadr are also supported by the remaining Sunnis in parliament. And when Sadr addressed the Baghdad protesters the Shia cleric said over the loudspeakers, “This demonstration is the voice of the displaced people and the oppressed Sunnis.”
Furthermore, according to an Al Jazeera report:
“During the 2013 Arab Sunni protests in the Anbar province against the government of Nouri al-Maliki, Sadr expressed solidarity with the demonstrators, labelling the protests as ‘Iraq’s Arab Spring.’”
Sadr later characterized those protests as the government’s last chance to pursue reconciliation with the Sunnis before things got ugly again: a chance that was squandered. As Cockburn wrote:
“He thinks that the Iraqi government lost its chance to conciliate Sunni protesters in Iraq who started demonstrating last December, asking for greater civil rights and an end to persecution.
‘My personal opinion is that it is too late now to address these [Sunni] demands when the government, which is seen as a Shia government by the demonstrators, failed to meet their demands,’ he said.”
Sadr therefore concluded that, “The near future is dark.” Indeed, mere months later Sunni Iraq fell into the hands of ISIS.
As Cockburn reported, Sadr’s anti-sectarianism and anti-colonialism go hand in hand:
“The future of Iraq as a united and independent country is endangered by sectarian Shia-Sunni hostility says Muqtada al-Sadr… He warns of the danger that ‘the Iraqi people will disintegrate, its government will disintegrate, and it will be easy for external powers to control the country’.”
Indeed, for some in the war party, that may be the method to the madness of U.S. foreign policy. “Divide and Conquer” has been the byword for colonial powers since time immemorial. In the special case of Iraq, the specific formula is: “Stoke Sectarian Strife and Subjugate.”
And perhaps that is why so many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment revile Sadr so much. The last thing they want is for Iraqis (or Syrians, or Libyans, etc) to stop fighting among themselves long enough to join together and assert their independence from their foreign oppressors.
None of this is to whitewash Sadr. Like almost all politicians, he is a criminal. And like almost all army leaders, he is a murderer. His anti-sectarian declarations may be mere rhetoric. Yet, Iraq would still likely fare less badly under Sadr’s leadership than under the thumb of American and/or Iranian puppets. As I argued in a recent column, that government is least-bad which is most local. And as Muqtada al-Sadr insists, “The destiny of Iraqis should be decided by Iraqis themselves.”
Dan Sanchez is Digital Content Manager at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE.org), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and an independent journalist for TheAntiMedia.org. Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or TinyLetter.