Becoming an Ayatollah: The New Iraqi Politics of Moqtada al-Sadr

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 3

Moqtada al-Sadr

As a political and military force, Iraq’s Shiite Sadrist movement has undergone a number of radical transformations since 2003, when its leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, surprisingly emerged as a leading political figure. Al-Sadr’s recent decision to continue with his seminary studies and graduate as an ayatollah at the conservative seminary school of Najaf underpins a major change in the movement’s structure that could have serious repercussions for the future of Iraq. Against the backdrop of changing political alliances between Kurds and Sunnis, al-Sadr is transforming his movement into a new political phenomenon with implications for the country’s political structure and security dynamics. The consequences are also immense for Shiite Iraq, posing serious challenges to the conservative clerical establishment in Najaf.

Al-Sadr’s attempt to become an ayatollah follows his earlier call to suspend operations by his militia, the Jaish al-Mahdi (The Mahdi Army, or JaM) in the summer of 2007. Together with his decision to study in Najaf, this has marked a decisive new beginning in the organizational structure and leadership dynamics of the Mahdi militia. The decision to suspend JaM was made largely because of the outbreak of violence between Mahdi forces and the rival Badr Organization in Karbala in August 2007 (Aftab-e Yazd [Iran], August 30, 2007). The incident was a major embarrassment for al-Sadr, who had been seeking the support of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Shiite Iraq’s grand cleric, and the conservative establishment in Tehran against the rebellious splinter groups within his own militia since 2005. The suspension, which came in August 2007, was a way to ensure his Shiite partners that he was willing to restructure his forces for the sake of Shiite unity at a time when US—or Israeli—forces seemed to be on the brink of starting a major military conflict with Iran.

The call was welcomed by al-Sistani, who had been encouraging al-Sadr to arrive at such a decision since January 2007 (author’s interview with a representative of Ayatollah al-Sistani, Qom, August 29, 2007). The two met in June to discuss the problem of JaM splinter groups (Aftab-e Yazd, June 14, 2007).

Najaf and Tehran both share an interest in containing al-Sadr and his militia, as well as bringing his paramilitary organization—and other shadowy anti-Najaf movements—under the control of the Shiite clerical establishment. For Najaf and Tehran, the best way to tame al-Sadr is to chip away at his popular base through the electoral process and intra-Shiite negotiations, such as the October 2007 cooperation pact with rival Shiite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim (Fars News Agency, October 6, 2007). This would, accordingly, diminish his status as a charismatic militant leader defiant of existing institutions.

Al-Sadr’s decision to become an ayatollah, along with his suspension of JaM, is an indicator of more complex transformations occurring within the Sadrist movement. Al-Sadr is not merely trying to gain religious legitimacy by becoming an ayatollah, but also access to a major source of religious and financial capital that is primarily under the control of high-ranking Shiite clerics in Najaf. Since his family legacy alone would not entitle him to what his father had acquired as a senior jurist (marja taqlid, or “source of imitation”) in the 1990s, becoming an ayatollah would guarantee al-Sadr access to religious capital that has been solely in the domain of high-ranking clerics for centuries. The attainment of religious credentials through the traditional seminary complex can provide al-Sadr with enhanced authority over spiritual matters, such as the ability to issue a fatwa (religious verdict) and control religious taxes, powers he now lacks as a junior cleric. If successful, al-Sadr could extricate himself from the authority of Najaf with its strict hierarchical set of power relations and close familial ties to Iran and beyond. It could also help him get rid of the influence of Iranian-born clerics by refusing al-Sistani’s mentorship, instead studying under an Afghan-born senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah, Shaykh Ishaq Fayyaz (Shahrvand-e Emrooz [Tehran], December 30, 2007).

Al-Sadr’s New Political Strategy

How could these developments impact Iraq’s security politics? First off, with an inflated religious authority, al-Sadr could wield greater power in regions where he lacks influence. In Basra especially, al-Sadr prepares to tackle his most powerful rival, the Badr Organization, by propagating his new image in tribal and urban regions of the province (author’s interview with a seminary student of Ayatollah al-Sistani, Qom, August 28, 2007). In a significant sense, al-Sadr wants legitimacy in places where he is mostly viewed as a young cleric of low-ranking scholarly status. By flexing his muscle as a high-ranking spiritual leader, Basra may witness a new series of conflicts between rival Shiite groups with equal claim to religious legitimacy in the traditional Shiite sense.

But al-Sadr also aims to consolidate his power by bringing together his followers and identifying himself as their sole spiritual leader. This would ultimately undermine al-Sistani’s influence among his younger followers who may revere al-Sadr but obey al-Sistani on matters of religious and potentially political importance. By further consolidating power in terms of attaining religious authority, al-Sadr is preparing to revitalize his organization as a new religious-political movement with a highly centralized military branch. Under this new leadership, the political branch of the Sadrist movement will most likely be strengthened and the unruly JaM subordinated to the civilian—i.e. clerical—leaders of the movement.

Second, al-Sadr’s rise to the rank of ayatollah will reinforce his Iraqi identity. The move towards nationalism should be seen as a way to challenge the transnationalism of Najaf by creating a new form of Shiite politics free from non-Iraqi influence. Aside from their plans to centralize control over oil reserves, one of the reasons al-Sadr and his parliamentarian representatives have sided with the secular National List of former Prime Minister Ilyad Allawi and Sunni leader Salah al-Mutlak’s National Dialogue Front is to create a new parliamentary bloc to challenge Najaf and its influence over the four-party alliance of Nuri-Maliki by carving out a new political front of nationalist parties (al-Jazeera, January 14). Al-Sadr is playing a delicate game of balancing his position between nationalism and sectarianism, though his appeal to Shiite factionalism is mainly aimed at bolstering his base where he is now seeking a new constituency and a more centralized political movement.

The focus on a nationalistic leadership strategy can also be attributed to the ongoing political transformation of Sunni politics on the parliamentary level. The new agreement signed between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP)—which led to the formation of a new Kurdish-Sunni alliance (see Terrorism Monitor, January 11)—can further push al-Sadr to the nationalist camp. With the possibility of Ninawa province and the city of Mosul coming largely under the administrative control of Iraqi Kurdistan—as one of the key points of agreement between IIP leader Tariq al-Hashimi and the Kurdish parties and the ascendancy of Kurdish nationalism marked by symbolic events like the display of a Kurdish flag by the regional parliament of Kurdistan (al-Sabaah, January 16)—al-Sadr and his followers are bound to move to the nationalist and anti-federalist camp of the Iraqi parliament.

In this altered political setting, the new JaM could emerge as a powerful militia, a fully organized, disciplined paramilitary force, vying not only for domination over other Shiite militias in the southern regions, but possibly challenging the Kurdish militias in Baghdad and northern Iraq. Due to the shadowy network apparatus of the militia, the military might of the new JaM should not be underestimated. It may help to better understand how the new JaM may emerge as a new military force by briefly reviewing its formation since 2003.

The Transformation of a Militia

When dozens of young Shiite volunteers responded in June 2003 to a fiery call by the maverick cleric to join JaM, the U.S. administration and the Coalition authorities dismissed the new paramilitary force as nothing more than a nuisance. The militia, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) argued, would disappear—along with the insurgency—once the Coalition troops completed the process of de-Baathification and the institutionalization of democracy in the country. But this was a major understatement. In reality, al-Sadr’s armed forces were not just a “gang,” but a newly formed unit of militants drawn largely from former Shiite infantry from Saddam’s army and downtrodden unemployed young people based in the slums of Sadr City.

Surprisingly, the militia grew into a sizable force of more than 6,000 nearly a year after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Its expanding network of operatives grew in parts of the country where Coalition and Iraqi security forces failed to protect civilians against insurgent attacks and criminal activities. To many military analysts who truly realized the growing importance of the up-and-coming militia, JaM represented a complex set of social and religious currents in Shiite Iraqi society that were largely forced underground during the Baathist era. Its appearance after the fall of Saddam’s regime underlined the formation of a momentous social movement with real and legitimate grievances that merited serious attention at a time when Iraqi politics was undergoing major transformations under the occupation.

From late 2003 to spring 2004, JaM quickly grew in size and strength. From 2005 to 2006, JaM’s rapid expansion in size and influence astonished even those observers who correctly predicted the rise of the Sadrists as a major military force in the post-Baathist era. By December 2006, JaM had an estimated membership of 60,000 armed men, constituting a major military force competing for power in the streets of Iraq.

The two main reasons for JaM’s initial success can be identified as follows. First and foremost, the Sadrist armed forces were effective in providing security for the local population in exchange for loyalty and allegiance to the movement. In the neighborhoods of Sadr City, where the militia’s headquarters is based, JaM is revered as a vigilant public institution that operates to safeguard the economic, legal and political interests of the Shiite community. In light of the bombing of the Sammara shrine in 2006, which unleashed a new wave of sectarian violence in the country, JaM gained even more prestige among the Shiite inhabitants of the slums for their ability to protect the community against Wahabi militants. The Sadrist militias were also able to provide security for the Shiite population in diverse places around the country, especially during religious festivals in shrine cities like Karbala and Najaf when members of the Badr Organization were primarily busy protecting officials of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC).

Second, under the leadership of its politically shrewd leader, JaM was successful in combining its populist ideology with social programs aimed at supporting the lower-income strata of the Shiite population. The Sadrists are avid advocates of social justice and try to represent the more economically disenfranchised Shiite Iraqis, who make up a considerable portion of the southern urban regions and parts of the capital city. The Sadrist militants are inspired by the apocalyptic teachings of Moqtada al-Sadr’s father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, whose execution by Saddam in 1999 elevated his prestige to a cultic figure of immortal status. The core of these teachings is a belief in the millenarian notion of the return of a messianic figure, in this case the twelfth Imam and Mahdi, Muhammad ibn Hassan (born in 868 C.E.), whose reappearance—as he is already on earth but concealed from view—will establish justice in a world infected by sin and oppression. The spiritual mission of the militia is to hasten the Imam’s return through various heroic enactments of self-sacrifice, though at times these acts may merely mean offering selfless service to the Shiite public. In this ideological spirit, JaM is known to operate both as a military unit and a charity group.

The New JaM(s)?

Although it remains to be seen whether JaM will re-emerge as a more disciplined militia under the full control of al-Sadr, February 2008 will most likely witness the rise of a new JaM with a better trained military corps, a centralized command apparatus and tightly watched areas of operation. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—or perhaps Lebanese Hezbollah—may play a more direct role in the organizational restructuring process, though much of this may depend on the future of U.S.-Iranian relations. With Hezbollah of Lebanon serving as a model for the new JaM, the result could be an impressive, newly equipped and armed military force, unlike its origin as a populist militia with limited abilities (Shahrvand-e Emrooz, December 30, 2007).

But this new development contains the danger of upsetting many Sadrists who may feel left out from the reorganized militia, inflating the number of existing splinter groups. Those members of al-Sadr’s militia who are desperately seeking new leadership from a charismatic leader who can bravely uphold the movement’s nationalist and anti-establishment ideology have the greatest risk of splitting from the existing militia. The new JaM unveiled this month may give way to an upsurge of new Sadrist movements, all claiming to represent the authentic ideals of al-Sadr’s father, though all differing in the ways in which they operate in the militia-ridden landscape of Shiite Iraq.

All in all, al-Sadr’s choice of strategy is significant. It signals a new era of Iraqi politics that will likely revolve around control over resources—i.e., oil—and territorial domination—i.e., militia power—rather than identity politics of the ethnic and sectarian sort witnessed in the earlier years of the post-war period. Although the decline of sectarianism is certainly good for Iraq, the rise of a new factional struggle for control over resources may only breed new forms of militia politics. The appearance of the new JaM may serve as a sign of an ominous future.