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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Vile Enemy of the Week: Moqtada al-Sadr

Yeah, I know you haven’t heard the name in a while. Back in April, Moqtada al-Sadr was on the news so much that millions of westerners were forced to learn how to pronounce a word with a “Q” in the middle of it for the very first time. Then he launched his uprising, got hundreds of his militiamen killed, and eventually annoyed the other Iraqi Shiites so much that even they demanded he send his fighters away.

Moqtada al-Sadr Posted by Hello

But just who is Moqtada al-Sadr, and why is he so hostile to US troops?

First and Foremost, al-Sadr is a youthful Shiite cleric from a prominent family of Shiite clerics. His father was murdered by Saddam – who feared the powerful Shiites that might one day rise up against his Sunni minority – and his uncle and brothers were killed in a drive-by shooting just before the Coalition invaded Iraq in 2003. Extensive background information can be found here and here; the CFR profile has more depth to it but the BBC article is more recent.

Al-Sadr has been aggressively anti-coalition since the end of major combat operations last spring. The coalition removed the man who murdered his father (and probably his other relatives as well) and who had been oppressing the Shiite people for three decades. With Saddam gone Iraq erupted with newfound freedoms, including the practice of Shiite religious rituals that had been banned for almost thirty years. Lots of newspapers sprung up too, and one of those belonged to al-Sadr. So here you have a guy who owes the coalition for avenging his dead relatives, freeing his people, reinstating their long-banned traditions, and giving him a voice in the press.

And what does al-Sadr do with that voice? He loudly condemns the very people without whom he’d be nothing but another name on Saddam’s “People to Kill” list. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m an American and I know as well as the rest of you that to expect appreciation from Islamist zealots is a fool’s game – but why such rabid anti-coalition sentiment? His newspaper printed blatant, inflammatory lies about the coalition: That they were there to steal oil, rape women, and grind all Arabs beneath the boot of “western oppression”. Was it because we support Israel? Because we’re not Muslim? Because he’s a little crazy and actually believes we’re there to do all of the horrible stuff he printed in his newspaper?

In my opinion, yes and no.

I think that al-Sadr, like all Islamists, is angered by the success of western secular cultures and the stark contrast into which it throws the failure of Arab traditionalism and Islamic theocracy. He’s angry at Israel for much the same reason, and again at us for protecting her. And yes, he’s genuinely suspicious of westerners because of our light skin, odd traditions, and secular, pluralistic ways. But more than anything else, I think al-Sadr simply needs someone to rail against. He is, after all, a firebrand, and what is a firebrand to do without someone to burn? If al-Sadr doesn’t have an enemy to seethe against at Friday prayers he’s just another young cleric who has to wait 40 more years for any real respect or power to come his way. But with a conveniently placed and worrisomely foreign army nearby he doesn’t have to languish in obscurity; he can become the heroic young Imam – virtuous, brave, and wise beyond his years. Any enemy would have done for al-Sadr in a pinch – Islamists are only slightly less willing to murder fellow Muslims than us Kaffir – but the combination of envy and suspicion evoked by western soldiers coupled with their position so close at hand made US troops the perfect target.

So, in what was primarily a conscious effort to increase his own personal power and influence, al-Sadr filled his newspaper with lies to incite fear of and hatred towards the coalition. The coalition, upon reading his fabricated stories of rape, theft, and murder, shut down his little rag and realized that he might be the guy responsible for killing a rival cleric just after Saddam was deposed (I know little of those charges so will stay away from speculating about them for the time being). An Iraqi judge – not the US military, mind you, but an Iraqi judge – issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr in connection with that murder and the coalition moved to arrest him. In response, al-Sadr whipped his followers into a blood frenzy and they took over a bunch of police stations; by the next day we had a genuine uprising in Najaf and several surrounding cities, sparking the biggest upsurge in violence since the war’s end. All because a young hothead was angry, suspicious, and – most of all – hungry for power.

In the end it cost the lives of a couple dozen American soldiers, hundreds of al-Sadr militiamen, and scores of innocent Iraqi civilians. Properly admonished by his fellow clerics and largely abandoned by the Shiite majority, al-Sadr has now faded into the background and is just one more blustering Imam with the blood of Iraqis and Americans on his worthless hands. Like Mullahs across the Muslim world, al-Sadr did not ride out to fight “the enemy” himself. There was no grand gesture of sacrifice and courage, no final act of defiance in defense of his people. Only orders given for others to die, and then a retreat into obscurity as defeat was handed to the Islamists once again.

For his seething envy and hatred of the west, his selfish ambition disguised as piety, and his willingness to see others die in service to such ambition, Moqtada al-Sadr is The Zoo’s vile enemy of the week. May a bullet – or at least a jail cell – find its way to him soon.