Return of the Mahdi

It seems that the movement of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is getting ready for a major push against the occupation. In his first public address in months, the scion of one of Iraq’s most important religious families called for an immediate end to U.S. occupation.

“I demand several things,” the black-robed cleric told a press conference in the holy city of Najaf, “including punishing Saddam and calling on the Iraqi government, religious movements, and political factions to work hard to kick out the occupier. I want the immediate withdrawal of the occupation forces.”

While Sadr has issued similar statements over the course of the two-year foreign occupation of his country, the timing of Monday’s press conference was important, as it came just a day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the country’s newly elected Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

During the campaign, Jaafari and his Muslim cohorts had pledged to demand a timeline for U.S. withdrawal for Iraq. Indeed, as far back as May 2003, Shi’ite leader Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim (since assassinated) had given a fiery speech to his congregation:

“Do the Americans accept it if the English govern their country, even though they share a similar culture? How can we accept a foreign government whose language is different than ours, whose skin is different than ours? Our brothers, we will fight and fight so that the government we have is independent, that it is Iraqi.”

Now that they’re in power, however, the Shi’ite slate has been making more accommodating sounds toward Washington. At a press conference with Rice, Jaafari didn’t flinch when Rice again rebuffed efforts to put a timeline on ending the occupation.

Never mind the fact that nearly everyone in Iraq wants the U.S. military to start withdrawing its 150,000 troops as soon as possible.

Enter Moqtada al-Sadr. The young cleric is perceived by many in the country as a reckless fundamentalist, but he nonetheless enjoys wide support in Iraq because he is one of the few politicians to stand up strongly against the occupation of his country. In addition, he gains credibility from the fact that his father and uncle – both grand ayatollahs – were killed for fomenting rebellion against Saddam’s regime.

On April 9th, on the second anniversary of Saddam’s ouster, as many as 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Baghdad demanding America leave their country. Then, this past Friday, movement leader Sheik Aws al-Khafaji read a sermon by Sadr in which he threatened to remilitarize his Mahdi militia, which clashed with U.S. troops for months before clerical authorities brokered a U.S. withdrawal from Najaf.

“If you leave us in peace, we will leave you in peace. You should be aware of the fact that the Mahdi Army is still alive and has its finger on the trigger,” AFP quotes Sheik Aws reading.

The new Iraqi government would be wise to listen to Sadr’s rumblings. Going back on promises to end the unpopular U.S. occupation would certainly delegitimize the new elected Iraqi government and make a firebrand fundamentalist like Moqtada al-Sadr much more popular.