Welcome Back, Sadr

sadrThe populist Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr returned to Iraq yesterday after almost four years in Iran, to great acclaim from his followers, who make up one of the largest political movements in Iraq.

The New York Times’ Anthony Shadid, who was one of the earliest to report the significance of the Sadr movement in the wake of the U.S. invasion (much of it detailed in his excellent book Night Draws Near), notes that, upon his return, “Sadr becomes one of the few national leaders with the grass-roots support to compete with Mr. Maliki, whom Mr. Sadr’s supporters had derided only recently as an heir to Saddam Hussein and an American lackey”:

Mr. Sadr’s support for the prime minister came with a high price: hundreds of his followers were released from prison, and the movement was given leadership of a province, positions in the security forces and control of some ministries.

The Sadr-Maliki rivalry may become more intense as the deadline nears for all United States troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. Some American officials have suggested that Mr. Maliki would be open to an extension for at least some troops — a position that Mr. Sadr would almost certainly refuse.

Babak Rahimi, an Islamic studies professor who is preparing a paper on Sadr’s religious development, told the Washington Post, “Sadr left Iraq because his political influence was waning and he thought he could regain that by achieving religious authority”:

“Now things have changed. He’s already gained that influence. He was able to get Maliki’s attention and he’s returning a confident man, thinking it’s time for him to play a significant role in Iraqi politics.” […]

There are large gaps in what is known about Sadr’s Islamic tutelage in Iran, Rahimi said, including whether he ever worked one-on-one with [Grand Ayatollah Kazem Husseini] Haeri. Rather, there were suggestions in Qom that Sadr was actually studying more in Tehran, under Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s spiritual adviser, or that he was working with a combination of clerics, Rahimi said.

A senior Sadrist in Najaf said Wednesday that Sadr was studying under a cleric close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The thing that seems most likely is that he trained under someone with hardline influence… and therefore he has the backing of Tehran,” Rahimi said.

Rahimi has done some great work on Sadr, including this piece in July 2009 on Sadr’s efforts to boost his scholarly credentials, and this article in 2007 on the evolution of Sadr’s relationship with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Najaf’s leading ayatollah, considered the most authoritative Shia jurist in the world.

In regard to Sadr’s relationship with Iran, it’s important not to confuse “backing” with “control” here. A number of analysts have made the mistake of treating Sadr simply as an instrument of Iran, when in fact his movement is deeply nationalistic, deriving significant credibility from the fact that leaders like Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr remained in Iraq, opposed Saddam, and paid with their lives, while many other clerics fled to Iran or elsewhere. Iran’s considerable success at drawing the young firebrand cleric more closely into its own orbit has been one of the more under-recognized aspects of Iran’s multi-pronged strategy since 2003. (I dealt with this in some detail in my January 2009 report The Fractured Shia of Iraq.)

Given that Sistani is currently 80 years old, and has no immediately apparent successor among Najaf’s leading ayatollahs, Iranian influence among the clerical establishment will be a real concern in the event if Sistani’s passing. Indeed, WikiLeaks revealed that Sistani — himself an Iranian by birth — was so paranoid about IRGC infiltration in Najaf that he “does not allow Iranian students to enroll in the howzeh (religious seminary).” It’s pretty clear that Iran’s relationship with Sadr provides them a friend in Najaf with inherited legitimacy and street cred that even Sistani cannot dismiss, while also making Iran even more of a player in the inevitable jockeying to name Sistani’s successor. The potential implications of this for Iran’s influence among Shia communities throughout the Middle East, and therefore for U.S. policy in the region, are significant.

Finally, it’s important not to forget that, whatever the practical realities of Sadr’s political strength, there’s the still an outstanding warrant for his arrest for his alleged part in the murder of rival cleric Seyyid Abdel Majid al-Khoei back in 2003 shortly after the U.S. invasion.

In today’s Guardian, Hayder al-Khoei writes, “My father’s murder was not a mysterious assassination carried out in pitch-black darkness but rather shamelessly executed in broad daylight under the watchful eyes of hundreds of witnesses.”

It was the testimonies of some of these witnesses, who saw my father being dragged to Sadr’s office, and then to a nearby roundabout where he was killed, that led to the arrest warrants being issued for Sadr and a dozen of his lieutenants and followers.

Sadr himself denies having a role in the murder – in which case, why does he not go before an Iraqi court where he will have a chance to clear his name? […]

The Iraqi government has a chance to send a strong signal to the Iraqi people by first enforcing the rule of law on itself before it does so on others. Or, it can rig the judicial file and whitewash this case before a kangaroo court in exchange for Sadr’s guarantee that he will calm down for the next four years and leave armed insurgency behind him for good.

Khoei also told Asharq al-Awsat today that the Khoei family is prepared to “internationalize” the case if the Iraqi judiciary fails to take action against Sadr.