Moqtada's Here to Stay

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The return of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani sets the stage for ending the siege of Najaf. And the fact that the three-week battle looks set to end with a mass march by Iraqi Shiites to "save the (Imam Ali) Mosque" is a telling indicator of how the siege changed Iraq's power equation. Sistani has demanded that the U.S. and Iraqi forces withdraw from around the mosque and that Sadr's gunmen leave before he'll enter. The U.S. and the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi may have no option but to comply, because alienating Sistani, the most influential cleric in Iraq, would be political suicide. Getting Sadr's fighters out of the mosque would, of course, accomplish one of the government's primary objectives. Doing so along the lines suggested by Sistani, however, also helps Sadr.

More importantly, Sadr has called on his own supporters — most of whom hail not from Najaf, but from the urban Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, Basra and the cities in between — to answer Sistani's call and make for Najaf. Ever alert to the political opportunity, Moqtada Sadr appears intent on making sure he emerges from the siege looking not only victorious, but also in lockstep with Sistani and the Shiite clerical mainstream.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Not that he wasn't defeated militarily. Reports from the frontline leave no doubt that U.S. and Iraqi forces were closing in on the shrine, while many Sadrist fighters had already fled. But their "defense" of the most revered of Shiite shrines under fire from a widely loathed "infidel" army has further enhanced Moqtada Sadr's already considerable political standing among Iraqi Shiites — a fact that has led the interim government to stress that even after three weeks of violent defiance, it wants to draw Sadr into the political process, for the simple reason that he's too dangerous to them outside. Indeed, the government will quietly breathe a sigh of relief if Sadr emerges from the standoff unscathed, because if he'd been killed during the battle his followers would likely have waged a low-intensity guerrilla war against the U.S. and its Iraqi allies for the foreseeable future.

The political victory of Sadr's Mehdi army may only be coming into view with the resolution as orchestrated by Sistani. Najaf is in ruins, and while many of the city's residents will blame Sadr for choosing to fight there, there's little doubt that throughout Iraq and the wider Arab world the inclination will be to hold the U.S. responsible. Sadr's message of uncompromising opposition to the American presence in Iraq may resonate even more strongly.

Media accounts usually contrast Sadr's radicalism with Sistani's moderation, and draw attention to the fact that the latter is a far more influential figure among Iraqi Shiites. But the fact that Sistani appears to have been compelled to rush back from Britain — where he was undergoing treatment for a heart condition — in order to lead a mass march on Najaf is an indicator that things are not quite that simple. The Grand Ayatollah is a strictly religious figure, whose authority is recognized and venerated — even as it is, effect, challenged to move in a more radical direction — by Sadr's movement. Sistani is a "Marjah," an object of emulation in the Shiite tradition, whose position is attained through decades of patient learning and Islamic jurisprudence. Sadr is a junior cleric, although his supporters have taken to referring to him as a Hujjat al-Islam, or jurisprudent, the next step up the ladder, although most observers doubt he has completed the requisite studies.

But Sadr's challenge occurs less in the realm of religion than in the realm of politics, where he's riding a wave of anger among the young Shiite urban poor frustrated by their lack of progress, enraged by the occupation, skeptical of the interim government and increasingly disappointed in the efforts of the traditional clergy, led by Sistani, to transform their circumstances. He's built his movement on the basis of a widening generational and social class rift among Iraqi Shiites. Sadr's challenge to both the clerical establishment and the traditional Shiite political parties is giving voice to the frustrations of the marginalized majority, and his challenge is likely to continue, and even escalate long after the last shots are fired in Najaf. As Juan Cole, the University of Michigan Middle East historian whose blog is required reading for anyone seeking informed perspective on Iraq notes, Sadr's movement is primarily nationalist, rather than strictly religious, in character. Some of the early photographs of his supporters marching around Baghdad showed them as likely to be sporting the jersey of some top European soccer club as to be wearing clerical robes.

Sadr has championed the poor, who have been disillusioned by the traditional clergy and the Shiite establishment. And they see little to love in the deal taking shape under Allawi and the Americans. Which means that this rebellion is likely to continue long after the Mosque is cleared. And the fact that Sistani sees fit to go to Najaf not in a U.S. helicopter or government motorcade, but at the head of a procession of Iraqi Shiites willing to march into a war zone, suggests that he's recognized the need to align himself with the wave of outrage that has swept Iraq during the three weeks of the siege.

The fact that Sistani has scrupulously avoided publicly condemning Moqtada or endorsing government action against him is telling. It's well known that Sistani neither likes nor respects Moqtada, but he also recognizes that Moqtada has a considerable following among his own flock. And it will be plain for Sistani to see that his own position has weakened in the course of the siege, a widespread perception that he absented himself at Najaf's time of need. Sadr's rise has challenged the prevailing Shiite clerical order in Iraq in the way that Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran 25 years ago, by creating an alternative center of clerical power outside of the seminary, in the kingdom of politics. One crucial difference, of course, is that Khomeini's revolution had the support of the merchant middle class, whereas in Iraq they're in opposition to the rabblerouser Moqtada. But the emotional tide generated by the Najaf standoff threatens a sea-change, which may be why Sistani is attempting to channel it behind his own leadership by calling a march on the shrine city.

Sadr will likely emerge from the Najaf siege intact, and his supporters will be looking for guidance on their next step. Although they were forced to surrender the Imam Ali Mosque — to Sistani, not to the Iraqi government — they also showed considerable ability to cause problems through guerrilla warfare from Baghdad to Basra, the latter city being where they took Iraq's oil exports offline for days at a time. The Iraqi government will persist with efforts to bring him on board, but he's reluctant to accord them legitimacy, and he may be assuming that the siege has actually further weakened Allawi politically by demonstrating how much of the strategic decision making over Iraqi security remains in U.S. hands. (Accounts differ over who exactly decided to escalate the standoff in Najaf into a fullblown battle, but educated opinion appears to confine the range of possible answers to either the Marine commanders on the ground at Najaf, or U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte.

The reality that will emerge as the dust settles at Najaf will strengthen the likelihood that — as Anthony Cordesman argues in a PDF download from the Center for Strategic and International Studies — in order to achieve at least a modicum of stability in Iraq, the U.S. and its local allies will be forced to accept a substantial political role for elements they'd once hoped to eliminate.