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US House Armed Services Committee

TESTIMONY OF
DR. AMATZIA BARAM
UNITED STATES INSTITUTE OF PEACE

BEFORE THE
HOUSE
ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE
UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

REGARDING THE IRAQI SHI'I COMMUNITY BETWEEN SISTANI, MUQTADA, THE IGC AND THE CPA

 APRIL 21, 2004


The Iraqi Shi'i Community Between Sistani, Muqtada, the IGC and the CPA

 a.  Growing Religiosity in Post-Saddam Iraq

At least when it came to the three large towns of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, Iraq was traditionally a fairly secular society.  Reports from the 1930s comparing Baghdad to Cairo conclude that Baghdad was, by then, far less religious than the Egyptian capital. Indeed, not only that the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks were allowed and regulated by law, even brothels were tolerated and supervised, even though there was no legal framework under which they operated. Three out of the four holy Shi'i cities in Iraq, Najaf, Karbala, and Kazimayn (a suburb of Baghdad) were very religious.  Fairly strict rules regarding the prohibition of alcoholic drinks, women's dress codes, etc. were observed there, but those places were the only exceptions to the rule. Even so, traditionally again, the Shi'i south was generally speaking more orthodox than the Sunni-Arab center and center north and the Kurdish north. This state of affairs existed until the 1970s, when a profound change started to gradually take hold. In 1968 the secular Ba'th regime came to power in Baghdad.  Because it felt that it had to fully control all of the religious, social and educational institutions of the Shi'i community they soon afterwards adopted policies that were unprecedented in many ways in terms of mosque-state relations. These policies were especially coercive when it came to the Shi'i community.   The regime made every effort to eliminate all vestiges of religious Shi'i autonomy that the community had managed to preserve for centuries. This brought about repeated confrontations between the regime and the more traditional Shi'is. In their own turn, these confrontations strengthened the Shi'i identity even of fairly secular Shi'is. As the result of the fact that all other cells of civil society were destroyed at the hands of the regime, the mosque became the only place where Shi'is could express their communal identity. Even though all mosque sermons were controlled by the government, there were many informal ways by which people could communicate their rejection of the regime when assembled in the mosques.

In 1993, for its own reasons, the regime embarked on a Faith Campaign (al-Hamlah al-Imaniyyah), that sought to demonstrate that the Ba'th were no longer secular and that they were in fact "born again" Muslims. Part of that Campaign involved allowing both Sunni and Shi'i mosques somewhat more freedom in practicing their religious ceremonies and rites. In the Sunni areas this reduced substantially the opposition to the regime amongst Sunni Islamists. In the Shi'i areas there was no such decrease in anti-regime sentiments. If anything, animosity to the regime was on the rise:  just two years earlier, in 1991, the regime had crushed a Shi'i revolt with great ferocity. Instead there was an increase in mosque attendance and in adherence to those Shi'i rites still allowed as an expression of Shi'i identity. Often Friday prayers, even though carefully monitored by regime agents, were used to preach against the regime through indirect inferences. It was very easy for an aggressive preacher to find Qur'anic verses or quotations from Medieval Shi'i sources that, when read out loud with great emphasis and anger, were universally understood by the participants as highly inflammatory anti-regime incitement.   Indeed, this is precisely what the young and inexperienced Muqtada Sadr did in a few of his Friday sermons in the mosque of Kufah after his father's assassination. It is not clear why the Ba'th regime decided to refrain from action against him.

During the last ten years of the Ba'th regime, the mosque became the only large meeting place where Shi'ites could assemble without too much harassment and express their rejection of the regime in a way that was not life threatening.  Following the demise of the Ba'th regime, in early April 2003,  the Shi'i masses expressed their joy, relief and elation through mass demonstrations marking the Fortieth Day to the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.  This purely religious ceremony  turned into a powerful demonstration of Shi'i identity when tens of thousands of young men roared in one voice religious Shi'i slogans, beating their chests as one man (al-latm) and many injuring themselves with short swords, so as to identify with the suffering of the martyred Imam.  The processions alarmed the Sunnis, but also shocked the American soldiers.  They exposed the explosive potential of Shi'i Islam even though only in a few cases did demonstrators betray an anti-American sentiment.

b.     Anti-Western, Anti-Jewish Sentiments and the Political Culture of Rumors

Since the beginning of the British Mandate in Iraq (1920-1932), under the semi-independent monarchy (1932-1958), and during much of the period until the Ba'th took over in 1968, anti-British,  anti-Zionist and often anti-Jewish propaganda was conspicuous both in secular intellectual circles and, to a lesser extent, among Shi'i clergy.  Whether as part of secular pan-Arab worldview or an Islamist fundamentalist inclination, attacking the British, and later the US and the West, was seen as a sure ticket to popular support.  Attacking the Jews, too, was occasionally attractive to popular rabble-rousers, even after more than 90% of Iraq's Jews had left the country by 1951.    The exception was the period under the rule of General Abd al-Karim Qassem (1958-1963).  Hate mongering became particularly extensive under the Ba'th regime (1968-2003).  It is impossible to assess, with any degree of accuracy, the impact of 80 years of anti-Western, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish propaganda.  However, it may be assumed that after such a long time -- especially after 35 years of Ba'th rule - - certain segments of the population are permeated with some kind of xenophobia.  This conclusion has been derived from anti-Christian and anti-Jewish slogans raised by both Sunni and Shi'i fundamentalist extremists after the liberation. 

It seems that xenophobia became more pronounced under the Ba'th for two reasons: it was encouraged by the regime, and Iraq became more insulated than ever from the rest of the world.   To this one ought to add another dimension:  the susceptibility of many Iraqis to rumors of conspiracy.  In a society where people could hardly speak openly with one another without risking their lives, and in which the media was fully controlled by an unpopular regime, people were seeking information from every possible source.  The Ba'th regime itself often complained that people are spreading "harmful rumors."  Indeed, the regime even created a special intelligence branch to intercept rumors, to counter them, and to spread rumors of its own.  This characteristic of Iraqi political life has not disappeared.  People are listening to and sometimes believing the most bizarre rumors.  So far the CPA and the IGC haven't found a way to effectively counter these rumors.  Those who are benefiting from these rumors, and sometimes inventing them, are the most radical groups, be they ex-Saddam supporters or Sunni and Shi'i religious extremists.  The traditional and very healthy mistrust of the average Iraqi of official propaganda is providing these rumors with a sharp cutting edge even now, when Saddam and his regime are gone.  This is the case because even one year into the liberation of Iraq, many Iraqis, especially those with little education, do not trust the Coalition and doubt the idealistic motivation of the US.  This, too, is the legacy of 35 years of Ba'th rule: no regime and no foreign power can be trusted.  This combination of xenophobia, lack of trust of the powers that be and susceptibility to believe in unsubstantiated rumors, in addition to a growing messianic tendency in some social circles amongst the Shi'a is being taken full advantage of by the Shi'i young firebrand Muqtada Sadr.  One example of such a rumor is the claim that the US could easily have resuscitated the Iraqi infrastructure within a few weeks, and provided all Iraqis with lucrative jobs, but chose not to do this.  This because the US is bent on punishing the Iraqi people for supporting Saddam and because it wants people to be over their heads in day to day troubles and tribulations so that they will have no time to prepare a revolt.   Another, spread in mosques by radical Islamist preachers, is that the US initiated the most recent suicide bombings on Karbala and Baghdad.  Another rumor that is touching the core of Shi'i faith and eschatology and spread by Muqtada's preachers, is that the US knows something that most Shi'is don't: they know that very soon, practically any day now, the Shi'i Mahdi, the equivalent of the Jewish and Christian Messiah, is about to appear.  He is expected to appear in Iraq and the American Christians are bent on murdering him as soon as he appears.  This is why the US conquered Iraq precisely now.  The moderate Shi'ite religious leadership as well as the secular public are abhorred, but the way they chose to combat these rumors is by ignoring them.  It would seem that the CPA and the IGC adopted the same method.  It seems to this author that, once the present wave of armed violence is over, a new media policy should be adopted in Iraq, addressing all these conspiracy theories head-on and presenting them as absurd, offering the true explanation for various unfortunate developments.

c.  Between Khuruj and Qu'ud (Activism and Quietism)

In Shi'i tradition there are two ways to become a respectable, even admired leader.  One way is through the usual and well-traveled route of religious scholarly achievements. This is how most ayat allahs have reached prominence.  Having published important religious tracts dealing with various aspects of jurisprudence, and sometimes also having published in addition some political writings, one attracts growing numbers of followers who are obliged not only to follow the cleric's advice but also to contribute one-fifth of their income to his treasury.  In turn, the cleric is using the funds to expand his socio-economic support system and educational institutions and in this way is returning the money to the community.  In the process such an ayat allah is becoming not only powerful but also a subject of admiration and emulation.  An integral part of the myth surrounding grand ayat allahs is the belief that they are living a very modest, even ascetic life.  In most part this myth is also very close to the truth.

Another way of becoming a popular leader is through politics, but always confrontational and risk taking.  To this very day the Shi'i community remembers with awe desperate Shi'i revolts against Sunni rulers, most of them ending with disaster.  The fate of the third Shi'i Imam, Al Husayn Ibn Ali, who died in a hopeless battle in 680 AD on the plains of Karbala is the best example of this grandstanding.  Imam Hussein fought with only 72 supporters against an Umayyad [Sunni] army of 10,000.  To this day he is the most beloved and most highly admired of all Imams.  Another Shi'i revolutionary, al-Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, started a better-prepared revolt against the Umayyad dynasty later, but he, too, was roundly defeated. Still, he is highly admired and much loved by the Shi'a.   Two contemporary examples that illustrate that the admiration for lost causes has not evaporated throughout the ages are those of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Muqtada's great uncle, and Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada's father.  In 1979 Muhammad Baqir, in a message that he sent to his followers while under house arrest in Najaf, cursed Saddam Husayn and the Ba'th in the most extreme language.  In April 1980, after he turned down Saddam's demand that he denounce Khomeini, Saddam ordered his execution.  In 1998-99 Muhammad Sadiq, for his part, started to attack the Ba'th regime in his Friday mosque sermons.  In February 1999 he was assassinated by Saddam's henchmen.  Both ayat allahs became great scholars before they adopted a confrontational political line, but public admiration for them became overwhelming only when they decided to become martyrs, and openly attacked the regime.  This confrontational posture, often desperate and without real hope of success, is called in Shi'I terminology "activism," or "coming out," if not with a sword, then at least with the tongue (al-khuruj).  The difference, however, between Muqtada and his father is that "coming out" against Saddam guaranteed one's death, while "coming out" against the Coalition guaranteed wide public admiration at least in certain socio-economic circles, but involving very little risk if any.

A very different tradition, often opposed to the khuruj is the qu'ud ("quietism," "passivity," or "sitting," or "staying put," or "inaction").  Throughout Sh'i history most Shi'i clerics chose the latter.  The reason was simple: "coming out" against the Sunni regimes was always extremely dangerous, and could jeopardize not only the lives of the clergy, but, more importantly, the whole Shi'i community.  In Shi'i theology such "inaction" is not only allowed but sometimes is even regarded as a duty in order to secure the very existence of the community.  It is allowed under the theological term of taqiyyah (precautionary dissimulation).  The believers are allowed to hide their political or religious views and sometimes even to hide their Shi'i identity, if this is unavoidable, in order to survive.   While the Sadr cousins chose khuruj and death, most other clerics opted for qu'ud.   Among them was the man who is regarded as the most influential marja'  (Source of Emulation), Grand Ayat Allah Sistani.

d.  Sistani, His Style and Influence

Under Saddam some Shi'a clergy actually served the regime in return for financial and other rewards.  The two Sadrs confronted the regime head-on and were martyred.  However, most clerics distanced themselves from politics as much as they could and made every possible effort not to confront the regime so as not to risk their and their community's lives.  The latter belonged to what is usually termed as "the quietists" school.  Grand Ayat Allah Sistani, the three other grand ayat allahs of Iraq, and a few less senior ayat allahs, all of whom are regarded today as the leadership of the Hawzah (the Shi'i University) of Najaf, adopted a "quietist" approach throughout Ba'th rule.  But, "quietism" does not mean detachment from politics under all circumstances.  When there is no danger, and when they know that their community expects them to provide political leadership, even quietist clergy are springing into action.  The differences between them and the activist political clergy are essentially two: in the first place, usually a quietist clergy is also more moderate than an activist one.  A moderate clergy will present more moderate demands in terms of the role of Islam in the state, though he, too, would certainly expect Islam to be a central component in political life.  Secondly, a quietist usually tends to speak in vague terms in order to leave room for retreat or for creative compromises.  Psychologically speaking, quietists are less inclined toward head on confrontations with the power that be or with their rival clergy, or with their own constituency - even when such a confrontation does not involve real danger.  In other words: they are not looking for confrontations, if they can avoid them.  However, when the issue is of great importance and/or when the community is demanding it, they will make their position sufficiently clear.   This is precisely the way Grand Ayat Allah Sistani has been behaving towards the CPA since the demise of the Ba'th regime. 

When the American forces entered Najaf he instructed his community not to oppose the coalition forces.  Having been criticized for it by Iran and by some Iraqi extremists, he issued a denial.  Still, almost everyone understood his position to be that of implied support for the invading forces.  His next political announcement rejected any draft for permanent constitution unless it was composed by a constituent assembly elected through general elections.  When in November 2003 the CPA and the IGC agreed on a caucus system to push forward the political process he again objected very clearly and demanded general elections again.  His main objection to the caucus system seems to have resulted from the fact that he believed that it reserved too much control for the CPA and the IGC.   When the IGC came up with an agreed text of a provisional constitution, following discussions with Shi'i members of the IGC, he allowed them to sign the text, but still voiced his objection.  This is the moment when a deep crisis set in, a little later to become also a military standoff between Sistani's arch rival, the young Muqtada Sadr, and the Coalition forces.

e.  Sistani's Reach and Actual Influence

Without a doubt, Sistani is the most revered Shi'i cleric in Iraq. Even though he was born in Mashhad, Iran (1930) and does not have Iraqi citizenship, he is nevertheless admired and followed by millions of Shi'ites also in Iran and other places.  In every small village on the lower Tigris and lower Euphrates and in every farming town, let alone in large cities like Basra, Najaf and Karbala, almost every person knows of Sistani, and if that person is traditional, let alone very religious, accepts his authority.  But this is not the full picture.  Many people in the villages and Shi'i towns also support various political Shi'i religious factions.  It is quite common to come across a member of the Iraqi Hizballah in Amara, whose leader is an IGC member (now suspended), Abd al-Karim Mahud Muhammadawi, who will follow his Chief's commands through thick and thin, but who also will readily define himself as a follower of Sistani. This, despite the fact that the chief, Muahammadawi, defines himself as a "follower" (Muqallid) of a rival Grand Ayat Allah, the Qomm based Kazim Ha'iri.  In Basra or in Nasiriyya it is very common to come across militia men who belong to the Da'wa party, or to the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) or even to the Mahdi Army under Muqtada Sadr, Sistani's arch-enemy, but who would also say that he is a follower of Sistani's.  In many small places, where there are no organized religious militias or parties people would just say that they are Sistani's followers.  Which means that more than a political leader, Sistani is a spiritual guide. 

As long as there is a clear contradiction between Sistani's instructions and those of the leader of a  militia, the leader and his militia will be fairly isolated, and the members will have a certain difficulty in reconciling their general support for Sistani with their actual support for their leader.  This was the case with the Mahdi Army under Muqtada until Sistani expressed his determined rejection of the draft provisional constitution.  This is also the explanation for the relative isolation of Muqtada himself and his close supporters.  Other militias and religious parties toed Sistani's line and tacitly or explicitly endorsed cooperation with the Coalition and the IGC. Indeed, some leaders who had their own militias, like SCIRI's Abd al-Aziz Hakim, who commanded the Badr Brigade, Dr. Ibrahim Ja'fari, a leader of the Da'wa, and Muhammadawi, Commander of the Iraqi Hizballah, even joined the IGC.  Furthermore,many Shi'I men felt uneasy when they were criticized by the Sunni-Arab media for their passivity and collaboration with the US.  Sistani served as their alibi.  They used to declare that the minute he orders them to battle they would immediately start killing Americans.  But not until then.

The situation changed dramatically the moment the breach between the CPA and the IGC on the one hand, and Sistani on the other, over the provisional constitution became unbridgeable.  All of a sudden, Muqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army were out of their isolation, while the other parties and militias came under siege.  Muqtada could, and did present himself from now on as the only one in Iraq who is fighting to implement Sistani's instructions. In his own words, he declared:  "I am al-Sistani's striking arm". (FBIS, April 6, 2004)  He attacked the IGC as base collaborators with the Christian infidels against the explicit instructions of the great Marja' (a "supreme source of emulation").  It is true that Sistani remained faithful to his tradition when he balanced  his rejection of the provisional constitution by simultaneously instructing people not to demonstrate against it and to allow changes to be introduced through negotiations.  However, Muqtada and his supporters ignored that part, and Sistani never criticized him explicitly for having done so.  Following the closure of Muqtada's magazine, al-Hawzah al-Natiqah (The Outspoken Hawzah), Muqtada called on his supporters to stage massive demonstrations in front of the Green Zone.  Very quickly what started as peaceful demonstrations turned to violence.  Violence further escalated when the authorities arrested Muqtada's aide Ya'qubi and announced their intention to arrest Muqtada himself, charging them with responsibility for the murder of Ayat Allah Abd al-Majid Kho'i.   Kho'i was a moderate clergy who supported the American liberation of Iraq and who came from London with the US forces.  He was murdered in April, a few days after Najaf was liberated. 

A large number of armed clashes occurred in various parts of the Shi'i south between the Coalition forces and the Mahdi Army.  In addition, the Marines were engaged in fierce battle in the Sunni-Arab town of Faluja west of Baghdad.  Sistani's reaction was again typical.  On the one hand he denounced the coalition forces explicitly.  In his Fatwa he announced: "We condemn the methods used by the occupation forces in dealing with the incidents that are taking place".  On the other hand he also denounced Muqtada and the Mahdi army, although he carefully refrained from mentioning them explicitly:  "We also condemn attacks on public and private property and anything that may lead to disturbing the system and preventing the Iraqi officials from carrying out their duties in the service of the people".  Furthermore, he criticized emphatically the armed struggle upon which Muqtada's Mahdi army embarked:  "We call for matters to be treated with wisdom and through peaceful means, and refrainment from any escalatory step that may cause further chaos and bloodshed".  But here, again, Sistani refrained from directing his call explicitly to Muqtada and his troops.  The Grand Ayat Allah even recommended that the moderate political parties and leaders would engage in attempts to put an end to the confrontation (Foreign Broadcasts Intelligence Survey  [FBIS], April 13, 2004), but his call was completely lost on the public. What the public understood was that Sistani rejected the provisional constitution and that he strongly protested the coalition's methods.   Now, again, Muqtada presented himself as carrying out Sistani's instructions, and no protest was heard from Sistani's side.  The last contribution Sistani made towards total confusion was when he warned the US against entering the holy city of Najaf.  He used his contacts with members of the IGC to warn the Americans that Najaf was "a red line".  (FBIS, April 15, 2004.)  This came at a time when the Coalition deployed more than 2,500 US and Spanish soldiers around Najaf.  By stubbornly refusing requests on the part of members of the IGC to demand that  Muqtada to leave town, or even to dismantle his Mahdi Army, and give himself up to the government authorities, Sistani created an impasse. Why? 

Sistani knows only too well that Muqtada tried to murder him in April 2003.  Following the murder of Kho'i,  Muqtada's thugs moved to surround Sistani's home, threatening to kill him if he didn't leave Iraq.  Luckily, tribesmen loyal to Sistani were quickly summoned and chased them away. Sistani must also suspect that Muqtada was also involved in the murder of Kho'i as well as the assassination of Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, and that he could have been involved in a later attempt on Sistani's own life that nearly succeeded.  There may be no doubt at all that Sistani regards Muqtada as the most dangerous man in Iraq, but in addition to his aversion to confrontations Sistani is also under tremendous pressures from within and without Iraq to avoid a confrontation.  Muqtada's spiritual authority, Grand Ayat Allah Kazim Ha'iri in Qomm, and his close associate, the Iranian Supreme Leader (rahbar) Ayat Allah Ali Khamene'i, and many other ultra radicals at the top of the Iranian regime, are supportive of Muqtada.  They have many subtle ways of delivering the message to Sistani "you cannot confront Muqtada".  Sistani, for his part, is far from being a docile follower of the Iranian leadership.  In fact, he has opposed Khomeini's theory of the "rule of the jurist."  He does not want to see clerical rule (as different from general Islamic influence) in Iraq. He is a political rival of Khamene'I and his radical elite, and an ally of President Khataini and his moderate age supporters.   However, he is not immune to Iranian pressures.  In addition, more than a formulator of public opinion, Sistani is its expression.  Before he issues a political Fatwa he carefully gauges public opinion in Iraq so as always to remain more or less in the middle.  Sistani realizes now that public opinion among the Iraqi Shi'ah is shifting gradually towards Muqtada.  Coming head on against it is something he has never done before.  Will he do it now?  Most likely not, even if his own life is under an immediate threat, which is  probably the case now, in late April 2004.  Issuing a highly controversial Fatwa is as far from his track record as clashing head on with the power that be.   Sistani, however, may change his mind and issue such a daring and controversial Fatwa only if the City of Najaf and the very existence of the Shi'i community in Iraq will otherwise be under a credible threat.  If he knows that a battle between the coalition forces and Muqtada's Mahdi Army is about to destroy Najaf, annihilate many of its citizens and destroy the great shrine of Imam Ali, then he might change his mind and face the slings and arrows of an enraged mob.  But it is very doubtful that he will reach the conclusion that such destruction is forthcoming.

f.  Who is Muqtada Sadr?

According to his own official biography (usually such biographies appear only post-humously or when they relate to a Marja') Muqtada was born in 1974 in Najaf.  His detractors insist that he was born at least two, possibly five or six years later.  That he is a scion of an ancient Arab scholarly Najaf and Lebanon based family is well known and agreed by all.  According to his official biography his father married his first cousin, a widespread tradition in the Middle East.  Muqtada himself married a cousin in 1993.  He was the youngest of four brothers.  In 1988, when he was 14 years old, he started his religious studies in the Hawzah (Religious School and University) of Najaf.  His official biography claims that he was an outstanding student and that at  a very early age, when his father was still alive (apparently in the mid-1990s) he assumed highly prestigious and important positions upon his father's insistence.  For example, when he was still in his early twenties he became the Head of Madrasat al-Imam al-Mahdi and other sublime institutions.  After his father was assassinated in February 1999 Muqtada was bequeathed the responsibility for all of his father's institutions and he developed them much further  (http://muqtada.com/txt/muqtada/muqtada_life.htm, April 14, 2004).

Whatever the truth behind this biography, Muqtada has not published any meaningful study.  As a rule, when they turn 30 or even in  their late twenties, brilliant Hawzah students have already published at least one important dissertation.  Nor does Muqtada's spoken  language impress people: he speaks very simple colloquial Arabic, the street language of the low classes.  He can certainly read well, but when he is reciting the Qur'an or the Tradition, he does it in a way that is less than impressive, even though he rarely makes mistakes.   Still, the anger in his voice and his threatening fiery glances, may be regarded as charismatic.  His followers have recently elevated him to the very senior rank of hujjat al-Islam (a Sign of Islam, or a Proof of Islam, being the third rank from the top in the Shi'i clerical hierarchy).  This promotion is clearly political because he has no publication record to show for it. 

Muqtada's rhetoric is extreme.  He is using the same clichs against the West and the Jews that Saddam Husayn was using, and with the same sense of total conviction and of his own total innocence and dedication to Islam.  Much like Saddam, but more convincingly, he is also building for himself an image of a Muslim reformist, one who came to purify Islam. His followers are calling him "Son of the Mahdi."  It is not a coincidence that he chose for his militia's name the title, "The Mahdi Army."  The idea is to connect himself with messianic expectations running high now in Shi'i Iraq.  Like Saddam, he is a shrewd tactician.  Both men started their ascent to the top in their late twenties, by building a loyal militia and a state within a state.  Once Saddam reached power he destroyed all other social and political cells.  Muqtada may be expected to do the same.  Both men are ruthless, and power hungry in the extreme.  Both are using ideology through which they indoctrinate their faithful and fortify their loyalty.  In both cases the private militias were based on the lowest socio-economic stratum of society.  Saddam based his himayah on poor, uneducated village boys.  Muqtada is basing his Army on the poorest element in Saddam City (now Sadr City), the poverty-stricken Shi'i neighborhood in Northeast Baghdad.  In both cases these are young men in their late teens and in their twenties, craving to belong to something greater than themselves, and to some kind of a tightly-knit social group, a gang.  They are poor, with little education, and no hope for upward social mobility except through the gang.  Both Saddam and Muqtada promised them that they would inherit the earth. Saddam managed to keep his promise, Muqtada is trying now.  But Muqtada has one advantage over the young and secular Saddam:  to those of them who will die in the struggle he is promising heaven, and they seem to believe him. 

g.  Can Muqtada be Stopped?  Dammed if you do and dammed if you don't!

Militarily speaking, Muqtada can be stopped very easily, but with more and more Shi'is joining his militia and the majority sitting on the fence this is a risky decision.  This is doubly so because he is holed up in the holy city of Najaf, in his office, a hundred yards or so from Imam Ali's great shrine.  Devastating Najaf could turn the majority of the Shi'a in Iraq, who are so far not supportive of him, against the coalition. Furthermore, if such an attack comes before Faluja is pacified, Sunni-Shi'i cooperation against the Coalition is assured, at least in so far as the radicals on both sides are concerned.

On the other hand, leaving him in control of Najaf indefinitely, giving up the demand that he dismantle his militia or at least forbid them to carry arms in the street, and give himself up to be tried for the murder of Ayat Allah Kho'i, such an option, too, is extremely dangerous.  It will further strengthen him, more people will support him, Sistani and the Hawzah will be further cowed, and one can expect Iraq to enter a chaotic period.  Part of it will be higher coalition losses, because many more Shi'ites will resort to arms.  

What can be done then?  What seems to this author to be the best course to be navigated in this dangerously turbulent situation is to first make every effort to pacify Faluja.  If an arrangement can be achieved that all the heavy weapons would be delivered to Coalition hands, that the city elders will commit themselves to deliver those who murdered the four Americans and those who desecrated their bodies, and that coalition forces can go through town with impunity when necessary, the town can be pacified and the local police can take over.  Under such circumstances there will be no need for US Marine presence in the center of town.  Either through a compromise or through military action, the Faluja crisis must be resolved first.  When only Najaf is left to deal with the Coalition should empower the IGC to reach a settlement with Muqtada and to do their best to convince Sistani to get more involved.  In the IGC there are a few Shi'i politicians who are still quite popular: Dr. Ibrahim Ja'fari of the Da'wa, Ayat Allah Hakim of SCIRI and Muwaffaq Baqir al-Rubay'i, an independent with good contacts in the heart of the Shi'i south (Samawa, Shatra and environs).  All three are also on good terms with Sistani.   Psy-ops initiatives can help, and are highly recommended.  Almost any compromise that the GC can arrive at could be acceptable to the Coalition.  After all, the politicians of the GC will have to live in the Iraq that they are creating now.  If the compromise that they reach is too soft on Muqtada, they know as well as the Coalition does that this could be detrimental to their personal health. They know that Muqtada is ruthless and single minded enough to assassinate them all when in power, or even beforehand. Sistani knows that too.  A compromise over the arrest warrant connected to the murder of Ayat Allah Kho'i is possible.  The Kho'i family itself agreed to postpone the trial "until the situation in Iraq returns to normal and an Iraqi authority assumes power in the country."  (FBIS, April 12, 2004)  The CPA and IGC need not be more Catholic than the Pope.  If all fails, then a precision military operation that will avoid killing Muqtada may be the only way to resolve the standoff, but at least the GC will be the body that will request such an operation.  In all this, Sistani's support is so valuable that it may be useful to offer him concessions on other fronts.  After all, the United Nation's Lakhdar Brahimi is about to promote a solution to the whole question of the provisional government and the principles that will guide its activities.  In Iraq, almost everything is connected, and here, too, Sistani's support is crucial.  Until now the CPA hoped that Sistani would confront Muqtada, and Sistani was waiting for the CPA to do the same.  This seems to be the time when both will have to do it:  not together (Sistani cannot afford to be seen working with the US), but at the same time.


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