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Profile: Muqtada al-Sadr

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Profile: Muqtada al-Sadr

Unlike his late father, Muqtada al-Sadr has no Shiite credentials as a spiritual leader, but he has a large, and so far indomitable, following in Iraq, much to the chagrin of the American-led coalition and the Iraqi government.

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Birth and Family Background:

Muqtada al-Sadr was reportedly born in Iraq on Aug. 12, 1973 (the date is unconfirmed). He holds no official position, but he is one of Iraq’s most influential Shiite leaders.

Al-Sadr was born into one of the most highly regarded families of Shiites in the Middle East. He is the youngest son of Muhammad Sadiq Sadr, a Shiite cleric with a wide following in Iraq until his assassination in 1999 by agents of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Sadiq Sadr had defied the regime by issuing a call to Shiites to attend Friday prayers despite a government order forbidding the gathering of large crowds.

Defiance is a Sadr family tradition.

A History of Assassinations:

Muqtada al-Sadr is also the son-in-law of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr, a highly regarded cleric, philosopher, and founder of Islamic Dawa Party, currently one of the two main Shiite parties in the Iraqi government. Bāqir al-Ṣadr was imprisoned, tortured and executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1980 for lauding Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution.

Sadr City (formerly Saddam City), the poor, sprawling Shiite suburb of Baghdad, is named after Bāqir al-Ṣadr. Sadr City, Najaf in central Iraq and Basra in southern Iraq are Muqtada al-Sadr’s power bases.

Reputation Before the American Invasion:

Until the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Moqtada Sadr was unknown outside Iraq and little known inside it. “In the hierarchical Shiite establishment,” Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote in Imperial Life in the Emerald City (Knopf, 2007), “al-Sadr was just a portly, low-ranking cleric with angry eyes, rotting teeth, an unkempt beard, and a ten-gallon black turban.” Unlike his father, he has no scholarly credentials.

Sadr's Leadership Style:

Temperamentally unpredictable and chronically inconsistent, his leadership styles alternates between hot-headed defiance, conciliation, confusion and sheer absence from the Iraqi scene. He’s believed to shuttle frequently between Iraq and Iran, from whose theocratic leaders he seeks protection, weaponry and spiritual if not political guidance.

Sadr's Opposition to American Occupation:

Sadr blamed the United States for inciting Shiites to rebel after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but not supporting them once they did (Saddam Hussein crushed the rebellion). He was immediately opposed to American occupation in Iraq, thus winning him a wide following.

The Shiite insurgency he led began on April 10, 2003, the day after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad's Fidros Square. The pretext was the return to Iraq of Ayatollah Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, a Shiite cleric who'd been in exile in London. Sadr saw Khoei as a challenge to his rule and allegedly ordered him murdered. Sadr denies the charge.

Founding the Mahdi Army:

Sadr's ordered execution of Khoei had begun as an internal power struggle among Shiites. It grew into Sadr's unilateral attempt to control Iraq through a fast-growing, gang-like militia that bullied, murdered unchecked by coalition forces. In August 2003, after Sadr was denied a seat on Iraq's provisional Governing Council, he founded the Mahdi Army, which grew to number about 10,000 fighters. In October 2003, Sadr briefly declared himself Iraq's leader. His forces also organized social services in Sadr City that the government didn;t or wouldn't provide. Coalition forces were uncertain over how to check his power.

April 2004-August 2007: Open Rebellion:

On March 28, 2003, the Coalition provisional Authority ordered al-Sadr's newspaper, al-Hawza, shut down over allegations that the paper was inciting violence. The CPA acted without approval from American generals in Iraq, and severely miscalculated. Sadr mobilized his forces and by April were in open warfare against American and British troops in several Iraqi cities. The Shiite insurgency would prove more lethal than the Sunni insurgency until Sadr, in one of his characteristic reversals, declared a temporary cease-fire in August 2007. The cease-fire coincided with the American troop escalation.

Cooperation and Confusion:

Beginning in August 2007, Sadr took a more conciliatory tone toward American forces while expanding Sadrism's political reach. Two factors played into Sadr's new approach.

First, his Mahdi Army was splintering and his authority faltering as many Iraqis believed Sadrists were more thuggish than protective.

Second, Sadr's ambition to be a major player in Iraqi politics compels him to compromise and appear more statesman-like than he has. Whether he can be that statesman is uncertain, given his insurgent, firebrand image. Sadr's long absences from Iraq suggest even he may not know where and how to lead.

Cease-Fire in Doubt: The Civil War of March 2008:

In late March 2008, Iraqi prime minister Nour al-Maliki ordered the disarmament of Shiite militias in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. Fighting erupted between government forces and Shiite militias in Basra and across Iraq, including Baghdad. The Mahdi Army fought government forces to stalemate despite military interventions by British and American forces. By the end of March Sadr was sending conflicting messages, calling for a cease-fire while refusing to hand over weaponry. His aims were unclear. President Bush's claim that Iraqi forces could take control of Iraqi cities, however, was proven wrong.
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