Can Sadr and Sistani
Handle Bush?

Mortar attacks on the Green Zone, the American-controlled and massively fortified citadel in the heart of Baghdad, were already on the rise when, late last week, a suicide bomber managed to penetrate the parliament building inside the Zone and kill at least one legislator, while wounding others, in its cafeteria. Some parliamentary representatives were soon declaring the still unfolding American “surge” plan in the capital a dismal failure:

“‘Someone can walk into our parliament building with bombs. What security do we have?’ said Saleh al-Mutlaq, who heads the Sunni National Dialogue Front in the Iraqi parliament.

“‘The plan is 100% a failure. It’s a complete flop,’ said Khalaf al-Ilyan, one of the three leaders of the Iraqi Accordance Front, which holds 44 seats in parliament. ‘The explosion means that instability and lack of security has reached the Green Zone.'”

In the meantime, while the Americans could point to a drop in Iraqi civilian deaths in the capital (along with a rise in American ones), overall Iraqi deaths throughout the country were, not surprisingly, surging as guerrilla operations and sectarian struggles simply shifted to places of less American strength. Baghdad was hardly untouched though: a famous bridge across the Tigris River was severed by a truck bomb last week, while a fierce battle against Sunni insurgents was fought in central Baghdad, using helicopters.

Faced with intensifying fighting, rising casualties, and chaos, the Bush administration, which has resisted setting timetables of any sort in Iraq, finally set one. In a Pentagon news briefing on Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a set of “clear guidelines that our commanders, troops, and their families could understand and use in determining how future rotations in support of the global war on terror would affect them.” Thanks to the thoughtful timetable-setting of the Bush administration, Army families, who might previously have hoped that their loved ones would come home at the end of a 12-month tour of duty in Iraq, are now assured that they will definitively have to wait another three months. This is certainly a sign of desperation for the faltering all-volunteer military in a situation fewer and fewer Americans would care to volunteer to be part of.

Although administration-backing politicians such as Sen. John McCain and pundits such as David Brooks of the New York Times are urging that the surge plan be given “a shot to play out” before being consigned to the dust heap of history, the signs for the future in Iraq are grim indeed. Even in the more peaceful Kurdish north, there are signs of trouble. Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, head of Turkey’s military General Staff, raised the incendiary possibility of Turkish cross-border military operations into Iraqi Kurdistan to “crush” Kurdish rebels, causing a predictable storm of response in Iraq. Meanwhile, a dangerous game of chicken is being played out at the edge of some cliff by the Bush administration and its Iranian counterparts – with kidnapped Iranian diplomats-cum-Revolutionary-Guards held somewhere in America’s Iraqi prison mini-gulag, those British sailors taken hostage by Iranian Revolutionary Guards (and then freed), an American ex-FBI agent mysteriously missing in Iran, and the report from Robert Fisk of the British Independent that “the U.S. military intends to place as many as five mechanized brigades – comprising about 40,000 men – south and east of Baghdad, at least three of them positioned between the capital and the Iranian border. This would present Iran with a powerful – and potentially aggressive – American military force close to its border in the event of a U.S. or Israeli military strike against its nuclear facilities later this year.”

And let’s remember that all this has happened without the majority Shi’ite population having truly entered the Iraq War, which remains (however precariously) a struggle largely against a Sunni minority insurgency. This may slowly be changing as, in another desperately dangerous game of chicken, the American military tries to peel away and take out parts of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army – elements of which were engaged in street battles last week in Diwaniyah to the south of Baghdad, while Sadr’s followers peacefully protested for the end of the American occupation of the country in a vast, over 8-mile long march in Najaf.

After all these years, the Bush administration still seems not to grasp the full dangers it faces, including, as Juan Cole long ago pointed out, what might be called the Khomeini solution in which the majority Shi’ite population would take to the streets, a development against which the Americans could prove helpless. (“An urban insurgency/revolution,” Cole wrote back in 2004, “can in fact win, and win quite decisively, as the urban crowds won out over the shah [of Iran]. The shah tried everything to put down the urban crowds. He had them spied on. He had them shot at. Nothing worked. The urban crowds just got bigger and bigger.”) And don’t forget those endless supply lines from Kuwait, so crucial for the American war-fighting and base system – and so vulnerable.

Longtime expert on the region Dilip Hiro, whose latest book is Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the World’s Vanishing Oil Resources, offers a much needed reminder of what the Bush administration is actually up against in the highly publicized Moqtada al-Sadr and in a man who, these days, gets very little print at all – Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, against whose wishes, in crucial moments in the past, the Americans have proven remarkably helpless. Tom

Sadr’s Rising Star to Eclipse Bush’s Surge?

Nightmare scenarios for the Bush administration
by Dilip Hiro

Public opinion polls are valuable chips to play for those engaged in a debate of national or international consequence. In the end, however, they are abstract numbers. It is popular demonstrations that give them substance, color, and – above all – wide media exposure, and make them truly meaningful. This is particularly true when such marches are peaceful and disciplined in a war-ravaged country like Iraq.

This indeed was the case with the demonstration on April 9 in Najaf. Over a million Iraqis, holding aloft thousands of national flags, marched, chanting, “Yes, yes, Iraq/No, no, America” and “No, no, American/Leave, leave occupier.”

The demonstrators arrived from all over the country in response to a call by Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shi’ite cleric, to demand an end to foreign occupation on the fourth anniversary of the end of Ba’athist rule in Baghdad.

Both the size of the demonstration and its composition were unprecedented. “There are people here from all different parties and sects,” Hadhim al-Araji, Sadr’s representative in Baghdad’s Kadhimiya district, told reporters. “We are all carrying the national flag, a symbol of unity. And we are all united in calling for the withdrawal of the Americans.”

The presence of many senior Sunni clerics at the head of the march, which started from Sadr’s mosque in Kufa, a nearby town, and the absence of any sectarian flags or images in the parade, underlined the ecumenical nature of the protest.

Crucially, the mammoth demonstration reflected the view prevalent among Iraqi lawmakers. Last autumn, 170 of them in a 275-member parliament, signed a motion, demanding to know the date of a future American withdrawal. The discomfited government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki played a procedural trick by referring the subject to a parliamentary committee, thereby buying time.

Opinion polls conducted since then show three-quarters of Iraqi respondents demanding the withdrawal of the Anglo-American troops within six to 12 months.

What Makes Sadr Tick?

Though in his early thirties and only a hojatalislam (“proof of Islam”) – one rank below an ayatollah in the Shi’ite religious hierarchy – Moqtada al-Sadr has pursued a political strategy no other Iraqi politician can match.

The sources of his ever-expanding appeal are his pedigree, his fierce nationalism, his shrewd sense of when to confront the occupying power and when to lie low, and his adherence to the hierarchical order of the Shi’ite sect, topped by a grand ayatollah – at present 73-year-old Ali Sistani – whose opinion or decree must be accepted by all those below him. (For his part, Sistani does not criticize any Shi’ite leader.)

Moqtada’s father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and two elder brothers were assassinated outside a mosque in Najaf in February 1999 by the henchmen of President Saddam Hussein. The grand ayatollah had defied Saddam by issuing a religious decree calling on Shi’ites to attend Friday prayers in mosques. The Iraqi dictator, paranoid about large Shi’ite gatherings, feared these would suddenly turn violently anti-regime.

Moqtada then went underground – just as he did recently in the face of the Bush administration’s “surge” plan – resurfacing only after the Ba’athist regime fell in April 2003; and Saddam City, the vast slum of Baghdad, with nearly 2 million Shi’ite residents, was renamed Sadr City. As the surviving son of the martyred family of a grand ayatollah, Moqtada was lauded by most Shi’ites.

While welcoming the demise of the Ba’athist regime, Sadr consistently opposed the continuing occupation of his country by Anglo-American forces. When Paul Bremer, the American viceroy in Iraq, banned his magazine Al-Hawza al-Natiqa (“The Vocal Seminary”) in April 2004 and American soldiers fired on his followers protesting peacefully against the publication’s closure, Sadr called for “armed resistance” to the occupiers.

Uprisings spread from Sadr City to the southern Iraqi holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, as well as four other cities to the south. More than 540 civilians died in the resulting battles and skirmishes. Since the American forces were then also battling Sunni insurgents in Fallujah, Bremer let the ban on the magazine lapse and dropped his plan to arrest Sadr.

Later, Sadr fell in line with the wishes of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to see all Shi’ite religious groups gather under one umbrella to contest the upcoming parliamentary election. His faction allied with two other Shi’ite religious parties – the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and al-Daawa al-Islamiya (the Islamic Call) – to form the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA).

By so doing, in the face of American hostility, Sadr gave protective political cover to his faction and its armed wing, called the Mahdi Army. (U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington have long viewed Sadr and his militia as the greatest threat to American interests in Iraq.) Of the 38 ministers in Maliki’s cabinet, six belong to the Sadrist group.

When the Pentagon mounted its latest security plan for Baghdad on Feb. 13 – aiming to crush both the Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias – Sadr considered discretion the better part of valor. He ordered his Mahdi militiamen to get off the streets and hide their weapons. For the moment, they were not to resist American forays into Shi’ite neighborhoods. He then went incommunicado.

Moqtada’s decision to avoid bloodshed won plaudits not only from Iraqi politicians but also, discreetly, from Sistani, who decries violence, and whose commitment to bringing about the end of the foreign occupation of Iraq is as strong as Sadr’s – albeit not as vocal.

In a message to the nation, on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the demise of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime, Sadr coupled his order to the Mahdi fighters to intensify their campaign to expel the Anglo-American troops with a call to the Iraqi security forces to join the struggle to defeat “the arch enemy – America.” He urged them to cease targeting Iraqis and direct their anger at the occupiers.

It was the Mahdi Army – controlling the shrine of Imam Ali, the founder of Shi’ite Islam, in the holy city of Najaf – that battled the American troops to a standstill in August 2004. The impasse lasted a fortnight, during which large parts of Najaf’s old city were reduced to rubble, with the government of the U.S.-appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, favorite Iraqi exile of the CIA and the State Department as well as leader of the exiled Iraqi National Accord, failing to defuse it.

By contrast, it took Sistani – freshly back in Najaf, his home base, from London after eye surgery – a single session with Sadr over dinner to resolve the crisis. A compromise emerged. The Mahdi army ceded control of the holy shrine not to the Americans or their Iraqi cohorts but to Sistani’s representatives, and both Mahdi militiamen and U.S. troops left the city.

The Towering Sistani

Ali Sistani established his nationalist credentials early on. As the invading American forces neared Najaf on March 25, 2003, he issued a religious decree requiring all Muslims to resist the invading “infidel” troops. Once the Anglo-American forces occupied Iraq, he adamantly refused to meet American or British officials or their emissaries, and continues to do so to this day.

In January 2004, when Washington favored appointing a hand-picked body of Iraqis, guided by American experts, to draft the Iraqi constitution along secular, democratic, and capitalist lines, Sistani decided to act. He called on the faithful to demonstrate for an elected parliament, which would then be charged with drafting the constitution – and he succeeded.

Sistani then issued a religious decree calling on the faithful to participate in the vote to create a representative assembly committed to achieving the exit of foreign troops though peaceful means. The Bush White House, however, exploited Sistani’s move as part of its own “democracy promotion” campaign in Iraq, with Iraqi fingers dipped in indelible purple ink becoming its much flaunted “democracy symbol.”

When Allawi began dithering about holding the vote for an interim parliament by January 2005, as stipulated by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1546, Sistani warned that he would call for popular non-cooperation with the occupying powers if it was not held on time. In the elections that followed, the United Iraqi Alliance – the brainchild of Sistani – emerged as the majority group and thus the leading designer of the new constitution. Respecting Sistani’s views, the Iraqi constitution stipulated that Sharia (Islamic law) was to be the principal source of Iraqi legislation and that no law would be passed that violated the undisputed tenets of Islam.

In the December 2005 parliamentary general election under the new constitution, the UIA became the largest group, a mere 10 seats short of a majority. Though Ibrahim Jaafari of al-Daawa won the contest for UIA leadership by one vote, he was rejected as prime minister by the Kurdish parties, holding the parliament’s swing votes, as well as by Washington and London. A crisis paralyzed the government. Once again, Sistani’s intercession defused a crisis. He persuaded Jaafari to step down.

Jaafari’s successor, Maliki, is as reverential toward Sistani as other Shi’ite leaders. For instance, in December 2006, when American officials reportedly urged Maliki to postpone Saddam Hussein’s execution until after the religious holiday of Eid Al Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice), Maliki turned to Sistani. The grand ayatollah favored an immediate execution. And so it came to pass.

Sistani’s next blow fell on the Bush administration earlier this month. He let be known his disapproval of Washington-backed legislation to allow thousands of former Ba’ath Party members to resume their public service positions. That undermined one of the White House’s pet projects in Iraq – an attempt to entice into the political mainstream part of the alienated Sunni minority that is at the heart of the Iraqi insurgency.

In sum, while refraining from participating in everyday politics, Sistani intervenes on the issues of paramount importance to the Iraqi people, as he sees them. Western journalists, who routinely describe him as belonging to the “quietist school” of Shi’ite Islam (at odds with the “interventionist school”), are therefore off the mark. Given Sistani’s uncompromising opposition to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq, his staunch nationalism, and the unmatched reverence that he evokes, particularly among the majority Shi’ites, he poses a greater long-term threat to Washington’s interests in Iraq than Moqtada al-Sadr; and, far from belonging to opposite schools of Shi’ite Islam, Sadr and Sistani, both staunch nationalists, complement each other – much to the puzzled frustration of the Bush White House.

What must worry Washington more than the massive size of the demonstration on April 9 was its mixed Shi’ite-Sunni composition and nationalistic ambiance. The prospect of Sadr’s appeal extending to a section of the Sunni community, with the tacit support of Sistani, is the nightmare scenario that the Bush administration most dreads. Yet it may come to pass.

Dilip Hiro is the author of Secrets and Lies: “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and After and, most recently, Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the World’s Vanishing Oil Resources (Nation Books).

Copyright 2007 Dilip Hiro

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from