Understanding the Roots of the Shi’a Insurgency in Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 13

By the end of March 2004 – and to everyone’s surprise – significant elements of the Shi’ite community rose in open rebellion against the coalition when the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr unleashed his so-called Mahdi’s Army against the coalition. Suddenly, the coalition was faced with the unsavory prospect of a two-front war. While the precipitating factors of the Shi’ite insurgency were the policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), as with all conflicts, there were underlying causes for the Shi’ite uprising. [1]

In analyzing the Sadr phenomenon as an insurgency, we cannot ignore these underlying causes or relegate them to the background. A proper analysis must recognize that the phenomenon was not primarily a religious movement; rather, it was a populist one. Attacking the non-existent religious credentials of this young firebrand, who had not yet reached a level of religious learning within the Shi’ite clerical, did little to dampen his appeal. To be sure he draws support from the fact that he is both a Seyyed – descendant of the Prophet Muhammad – and the son of one of the leading Ayatollahs of Iraq, Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr. However, his appeal has been mainly to the disenfranchised within the Shi’ite community.

Though Shi’ites did not welcome coalition forces with open arms (despite promises by the civilian architects of the war and their exiled Iraqi advisers), without a doubt, the coalition did have considerable goodwill within the community in the early days of the occupation. [2] This author’s analysis of the situation from the ground in Iraq and from statements of various Shi’ite clerics concludes that over the course of the past several months, Shi’ites were prepared to challenge the authority and legitimacy of the coalition only if the gap between its promises and its achievements were too great. As Hasan Zirkani, a pro-Sadr cleric in Madinat as-Sadr, bluntly put it in a November 2003 prayer meeting: “We had hoped that some of the problems might have vanished by now.” What were these problems? The lack of law and order, rampant unemployment, lack of basic services in Shi’ite urban areas – and coalition disregard for the cultural and societal norms of the population. The Shi’ite political leader best able to undertake that challenge was none other than Muqtada.

Saddam Hussein assassinated Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr in February 1999, after he had begun a strategy of politically mobilizing dispossessed Shi’ites, particularly in what used to be called Saddam City. [3] Not only was the Ayatollah a man of pronounced religious learning (a native Iraqi religious scholar), he was a man of political activism. His son, Muqtada, is a populist with xenophobic tendencies and a particular distain for Iranians. Indeed, among the reasons for Muqtada’s distaste for Ayatollah al-Sistani is the fact that the latter is Iranian by birth. [4] In this context, the Muqtada uprising must also be viewed as an internal struggle within the Shi’ite hierarchy for political and socioeconomic paramountcy over the Shi’ite population. Waged largely between “nativist” Iraqi Shi’ites such as Muqtada on the one hand and returning exiles on the other, this battle is, by extension, over the future of Iraq itself. [5]

Initially, Muqtada focused his energies on revitalizing his father’s extensive political network among the poor Shi’ites and the younger clerical establishment. He created a militia, a major step in itself, but cleverly argued that it would not be armed and would devote itself to social work in the neighborhoods. Members of the militia merely hid their arms, which they had acquired from looted Iraqi military stores, at their homes; the central offices of the Sadrist movement supplied ammunition. They were able to practice marksmanship in the numerous garbage-filled open fields that dot Madinat Sadr. Few of the “rank and file” within the lower levels of the militia – often young illiterate kids who had migrated from rural areas into urban centers – had any training in arms or small-unit tactics whatsoever.

Recruits to the Muqtada insurgency indicate the clear class and social basis of the movement. Muqtada catered to the most dispossessed elements within the long-suffering Shi’ite community. Disgruntled and unemployed young men, who would stand at street corners for hours on end every day, would eventually be enticed into attending Friday sermons, after which their entry into the movement began. His constituency was derived from towns such as Madinat al-Sadr – a large, sprawling, squalid and fetid suburb of Baghdad where the unemployment rate hovers around 70%; and Al-Kut, which faces a similar unemployment problem. [6] For months as Muqtada built up his organization, the Coalition and the CPA had debated what to do about the Sadrist movement, particularly after his sermons began to sound like they were preaching violence against the Americans. In March 2004, when the CPA decided to close down Muqtada’s paper and then proceeded to arrest one of his chief aides, Muqtada concluded that the U.S. was going to move against him. He decided to preempt the CPA by calling out his supporters, arming them, and throwing them into battle against the Coalition forces.

Thus the Muqtada uprising should not be viewed merely as a radical religious movement outside the context of contentious Iraqi politics. Rather, it is simply one of many different movements vying for control within the country. As each of these movements pursue their various agendas, the potential for conflict with the new Iraqi government and coalition forces persists – however, the potential for intra-Iraqi conflict also becomes greater, and can threaten to destabilize an already vulnerable central authority.

Is Civil War in Iraq’s Future?

More ominous than a Shi’ite uprising, is a possible rise of violence by ethnic and sectarian-based sociopolitical movements against one another and against the coalition forces. Already, ethnically Turkic Turcomen minorities in the north have clashed with Kurds in the vicinity of the oil-rich town of Kirkuk over the “correct” division of resources and political power. While traditional conflicts between Iraq’s Arab majority and large Kurdish minority over the level of Kurdish political autonomy have not yet flared, localized violence between Arabs and Kurds over land and resources has occurred in the north. The prospects of a civil war between Arabs and Kurds are quite high should the latter decide that they would prefer to secede. Most troubling to observers, however, is the dire possibility of an inter-Arab civil conflict between Sunni and Shi’ites. Tension between the two sectarian communities can be found at three distinct levels.

First, each community maintains a traditional disdain for the other and their respective rituals. This has been compounded by Sunni Arab’s view of the Shi’ites as either actual or potential fifth columnists for their co-religionists in Iran. Such sentiments are nothing more than ingrained Sunni prejudice against the Shi’ites, which existed at the time of the Ottoman Empire (1300-1900), was magnified for much of the monarchical era (1921-1958) and reappeared in a thinly veiled manner under the republican and Ba’athist eras (1958-2003). Prejudices, however, can lead to vicious sectarian clashes and fulfill significant roles in (civil) wars. While mutual historical prejudices are not enough to begin a civil war, they add fuel to the fire when groups clash over concrete political and material and resource issues, and over the future direction of the state itself. All of these ingredients for civil war exist in present-day Iraq.

Second, tensions still exist over the role of the Sunni Arab community in the oppression and wholesale massacre of Shi’ites under the Saddam regime. Shi’ites have little reason to forget these recent events, and first-hand observations in Iraq over the course of November and December 2003 indicate that many Shi’ites are not too eager to forgive either. [7] Though the collapse of a regime which had brutalized them for over thirty years was a key victory and has opened the way for their rise to power, there may still be attempts by individual Shi’ites or parts of the community to seek vengeance against Ba’athists or former regime members.

Last, but not least, is the struggle over the political future of the country and its reconstituted identity. Sunnis believe that they are entitled to rule as the authentic voice of the country. They are the most skilled and most educated segment of the population, and see themselves as having the country’s best interests at heart. [8] For many Sunnis, the rise of Shi’ites means domination by Iran, a country which they have excoriated for decades under Saddam. For their part, Shi’ites fiercely resent any aspersions cast on their “Arabness,” their alleged subordination to Iranian interests and their supposed inability to rule Iraq. To many Shi’ites, these views smack of a colonial mentality on the part of their Arab brethren.

The Muqtada uprising is one element within the complicated and dangerous landscape of Iraqi politics. Simultaneously an intra-Shi’ite conflict and a struggle over the future identity of Iraq, it is representative of the multi-faceted nature of the various competing interests in the country. While tensions between these interests have yet to spill over into a civil war, that possibility exists, as Sunnis and Shi’ites, radicals and conservatives, rich and poor, Arabs and non-Arabs all fight for a place at the table in post-occupation Iraq.


1. For an extensive and authoritative analysis of CPA missteps – simply one of many made by that organization over the course of its existence – vis-à-vis Muqtada see Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Anthony Shadid, “U.S. Targeted Fiery Cleric In Risky Move,” Washington Post, April 11, 2004, p.1.

2. See, for example, Scott Calvert, “In Najaf, regime’s symbols tumble,” Baltimore Sun, April 04 2003 (accessed on-line).

3. Muqtada’s uncle Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr was one of Iraq’s leading Islamic thinkers. He was executed by Saddam in April 1980.

4. Muqtada alternates between statements that ostensibly show respect and disdain for the senior Iranian-born Ayatollah Sistani. On occasions Muqtada’s disdain shows through clearly though. When Sistani suggested that Muqtada take his fight against the U.S. outside of the holy city of Najaf; Muqtada retorted that “if there is one man who needs to leave, that is precisely al-Sistani. He is an Iranian. I am a child of this country. I was here when he was safe and sound in Tehran. I, my family, and my people have paid a very high price in blood under Saddam,” quoted in Renato Caprile, “The United States can kill me, but Iraq will turn into an inferno,” La Repubblica, April 26, 2004, p.5 cited in Foreign Broadcasting Information Service, EUP20040426000085, April 26, 2004 accessed at https://portal.rccb.osis.gov/

On the origins of the Muqtada phenomenon see, “Moqtada Al-Sadr, la voix radicale des chiites irakiens,” Le Monde, April 04, 2004 ; Patrice Claude, “Moqtada Al-Sadr, l’imam rebelled,” Le Monde, May 13, 2004.

5. For more detailed discussions of the dynamics of internal Shi’ite factionalism and strife in the post-Saddam era see Faleh Jabar, “The Worldly Roots of Religiosity in Post-Saddam Iraq,” Middle East Report, No.227, Summer 2003, pp.12-18.

6. I visited Al Kut in early March 2004 (it is located in one of the poorest of Iraq’s provinces) and had a long conversation with an Iraqi who revealed the extent of the unemployment problem and growing support among the young for the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr.

7. Interviews in Al-Hillah, November 29, 2003.

8. Interviews with Sunni Arabs, Baghdad, November 2003.