The New Saddam

by , April 08, 2004

With Saddam captured, and the U.S. squaring off against a faceless enemy in Iraq, it was necessary to create a new demon figure, and the occupiers couldn’t have done a better job of it if they had gone to Central Casting: Moqtada al-Sadr is a radical, he’s got a big bushy beard, and is not exactly the voice of sweet reason. What’s interesting is that, instead of accusing Sadr of committing acts of sedition and rebellion against the Occupation Authority, and going after him on that basis, the CPA has announced that “an Iraqi judge” has issued a warrant for Sadr. His crime? The murder of “a rival cleric,” as most news reports put it, although few actually name the victim: Abdel Majid al-Khoei, who was killed last April, a few days after the Ba’athist collapse.

This is very strange. Because, at the time of al-Khoei’s death, the act was attributed to the Ba’athists by al-Khoei’s own followers. As Reuters reported:

“Al-Khoei’s nephew, Jawad al-Khoei, told Reuters from the Iranian holy city of Qom that Abdul Majid was stabbed to death at the Grand Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf. … Jabr and dissident Iraqi cleric Sheik Fazel al-Haidari said Abdul Majid was killed by Iraqi fighters loyal to Saddam. ‘We should not assume Saddam and his Baath party are finished. These Fedayeen [paramilitary] fighters worship Saddam like an idol, he is their preacher,’ Haidari told Reuters.”

Jawad commented to al-Jazeera that the attack, which took place in the sacrosanct Grand Imam Ali Mosque, “was aimed at inciting strife between Shiites. He did not elaborate.”

It was convenient, at one point, to attribute all violence – and resistance to the occupation – to Ba’athist “remnants” and “dead-enders,” as U.S. officials habitually put it. Now the Sadrists are having their turn. But who, at this point, is trying to incite intra-Shi’ite strife? Current news accounts inform us that al-Khoei was a key aide to the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority. But that obscures the tensions that arose between the two clerics as a result of al-Khoei’s abject fealty to the Americans. As Al Jazeera reported:

“Both grand Ayatollahs Seestani and Sa’eed Al-Hakeem refused to meet Majeed Al-Khoei when he returned to Najaf on 3 April – a snub that may have been intended to underline their disapproval of his close association with the pro US-led forces.”

In the mosaic of Iraq’s ethno-religious politics, overlaid with the intricacies of clan rivalries, it is often difficult for an outsider to discern the subtle patterns and decide who is on whose side, or, indeed, what interests the rival factions represent. This report blames, alternately, “Baath party operatives” and unnamed rival Shi’ite groups for al-Khoei’s assassination: it also mentions that two out of 16 suspects had been arrested. Where are these detainees, and who are they? And what of the other 14 suspects? It’s all very mysterious, if not downright murky. Suffice to say that al-Khoei’s murderers could have come from any of a multitude of rival factions contending for power in post-Saddam Iraq. I would merely point out that, in a Newsweek account that implicitly lays the blame at Sadr’s feet, we learn that, as the attack on al-Khoei was getting underway,

“An aide managed to get outside and call the U.S. commander in Najaf on a Thuraya satellite phone, but the officer said he had no orders to rescue them.”

On the occasion of his death, al-Khoei had somehow been persuaded to show up at the mosque with Haider al Kadar, a top Ba’athist party member and a key figure in Iraq’s Ministry of Religion, widely hated as Saddam’s Shi’ite shill. While there is no definitive evidence that al-Khoei was set up, he was certainly a sitting duck in that provocative situation. And it is certainly passing strange that the U.S. commander in Najaf should have been so indifferent to al-Khoei’s fate. It was the Americans, after all, who had previously escorted him around Iraq under the protection of American military personnel, as he distributed the $13 million in U.S. taxpayers’ money reportedly handed to him by the CIA, buying support. One telling detail of the murder, as reported by Newsday, underscores the irony of al-Khoei’s death:

“Witnesses to the slaying said that as al-Khoei was being stabbed, a number of $100 and $50 bills in U.S. currency spilled out of his clerical robes. ‘There was some American money flying around with lots of blood on it,” said one of the witnesses, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. ‘The money was hidden in his clothes, and that made the crowd even angrier at him.'”

It is a scene that gives new meaning that old libertarian homily: TANSTAAFL – “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Who made al-Khoei pay for his lunch with his life? The Sadrists, enraged by al-Khoei’s staged attempt to “reconcile” with the despised al Kadar – or his American sponsors, who were called and refused to come? If Sadr is to stand accused of al-Khoei’s murder, then why isn’t the American commander at Najaf an accessory?

As Juan Cole points out, the whole “judicial” farce staged by the occupation authority is a threadbare fiction:

“That an ‘Iraqi judge’ issued a warrant is just misdirection. The Coalition Provisional Authority appointed the judges, who are not independent actors. The CPA clearly decided if and when such a warrant would actually be used. For some reason the CPA decided to move against Muqtada on Saturday, provoking his reaction. Since we now know there was a warrant for his arrest, it is not even clear that it was an over-reaction. If the CPA was going to arrest him and execute him for murder, what would he have to lose by demonstrating that he would not go quietly? Journalists kept asking me today why Muqtada chose to act now, why he didn’t just wait for the Americans to leave. The answer is that the CPA had clearly targeted him, and forced his hand.”

If the Americans set up al-Khoei to take the hit, and framed Sadr for his murder, then here is yet another example of the Bush administration’s preemptive war doctrine in action. No wonder the President is warning us that the violence in Iraq is about to intensify. Everybody is criticizing the Bushies for not having a real post-occupation plan, but what if this is the plan?

This entire Sadrist episode has been an American provocation from start to finish. The only question is how and when it will end. My guess is that, with Sadr holed up in the Shi’ite holy of holies, we’re in for an Iraqi version of the siege of Waco. Heavily armed fanatic fundamentalists have barricaded themselves into a “compound” – you’ll note it’s always described in news accounts as a “compound,” never a home, or a church, but a militarized structure of some sort – and deserve to be cut down in cold blood. Maybe Team Bush can bring Janet Reno on board to sell this narrative to the American people.

Read more by Justin Raimondo