Until recently, it was easy to find Sheikh Salim Mejid Jumar, one of Muqtada Sadr’s top leaders in Baghdad.
The cleric dressed in flowing white robes could be found most days in the municipal building of Baghdad’s poor and primarily Shia neighborhood Showle. He is a member of the municipal governing council and he came to power last June in an election organized by Sadr’s forces.
"It wasn’t a perfect election," the Sheikh concedes. "But it was fair. It was overseen by academics and religious people and one man from every house was allowed to vote. When we were finished we had a local council that represents the people."
It was not supposed to be this way. The occupation Coalition Provisional Authority had declared that Iraq was not ready for elections and had hired the U.S. firm Research Triangle International (RTI) to hand-pick and train local persons to replace politicians appointed by Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath regime.
"It took two months of arguing until we reached a settlement with RTI," Sheikh Jumar told IPS. "First there were two councils in the neighborhood, one elected and one appointed. So RTI had a problem. They didn’t want to dismiss the elected body and they didn’t want to dismiss their body. Eventually, of the 21 people appointed by RTI five got to stay and the elected ones made up the rest."
This tug of war between supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr and the officials and contractors of the occupation authority is playing itself out all around Iraq. Sadr’s forces have organized elections in much of the Shia dominated south of Iraq.
In some cases they have resorted to violence or intimidation to get their leaders elected. "Around the beginning of the year the mayor of Nassiriyah was kicked out," says James Longley, a U.S. documentary filmmaker who has been following the Sadr movement. He says about 2,000 people armed with kalashnikovs protested that he had been appointed by the Americans.
After that, Longley says the appointed mayor of Nassiriyah stepped down and a new mayor was appointed following an election organized by supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Longley says he is not surprised Sadr’s supporters have put so much of their effort into organizing elections. Fair elections would bring Shia dominance since they are the majority of Iraq’s population, but he says that is not the most important dynamic in play.
"Because real democracy is seen by many Iraqis as the enemy to United States occupation and United States interests in Iraq, real democracy is something people who are opposed to the United States occupation support," he says.
All of this has not gone unnoticed by U.S. officials who have now surrounded the holy Shia city of Najaf with tanks and troops, looking to capture or kill the leader of the movement.
"He’s effectively attempting to establish his authority in place of the legitimate Iraqi government," declared U.S. Administrator L. Paul Bremer the same day he announced a warrant for Sadr’s arrest. "We will not tolerate that."
Indeed, Sadr’s organization is establishing its authority across much of Iraqi society. In a report issued in September last year, the Belgium-based International Crisis Group credits al-Sadr’s organization for keeping the peace in poor Shia sections of Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
"Within weeks of the regime’s collapse, al-Sadr’s representatives claimed to have employed 50,000 volunteers in east Baghdad to provide refuse collection, hospital meals and traffic control," the report says.
"Religious seminaries run by al-Sadr’s followers have proliferated," it adds. "In the absence of a functioning public judicial system, Mohammed Fartousi, al- Sadr’s agent in (the Baghdad neighborhood) al-Sadr city used his Hikma mosque to establish rudimentary personal status courts. Al-Sadr’s wakils, or agents, distributed vests to traffic wardens emblazoned with the words ‘hawza police’."
But now with Muqtada al-Sadr declared an outlaw, most of the Sadr organization’s nation-building activities have been suspended. Al-Sadr has called for a jihad against the United States and its partners in occupation.
"The elections were a long time ago, before all this," Sadr’s chief in Showle Sheikh Nasser al-Sa’adi told IPS a day after his office was attacked by U.S. Apache helicopters. "Everything is clear. The decent men didn’t want to sit on the Governing Council. They are traitors. They’re only serving to personal wealth and position."
Once the occupation is over, "history will remember who stood where," he says. "The Arab people stand for their history and we will recall where these Governing Council people stood and where the decent people were standing."