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What's So Radical About Iraq's Rebel Cleric?

by Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi

As U.S. Targets Al-Sadr, Cleric Gains Followers

The standoff in Najaf has cast the spotlight on the rebel Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr. While the Western media cannot resist calling him "radical," it is in fact very difficult to find any basis for this description.

He has been consistent in his staunch opposition to the occupation of Iraq. "There can be no politics under occupation, no freedom under occupation, no democracy under occupation," he said this month. What is so radical about that? If his Mehdi Army were patrolling and bombing London or New York, I would be astonished to find media descriptions of U.S. and British resistance as "radical."

His opposition to foreign occupation cannot be explained away as support for Saddam Hussein, who persecuted the Shias so ruthlessly. Sadr and his family were vehemently opposed to the dictator and his regime, and for this they paid a heavy price -- Sadr's uncle was executed in 1980, and his father and two brothers were shot dead in February 1999.

Although Sadr's opposition to occupation has been consistent, he only turned to armed resistance more than a year after the invasion. His sermons previously called for non-violent resistance.

While death and insecurity reigned after Baghdad fell, Sadr supporters took control of many aspects of life in the Shia sectors, appointing clerics to mosques, guarding hospitals, collecting garbage, operating orphanages, and supplying food to Iraqis hit by the hardships of war. I cannot imagine anything less "radical" than collecting garbage especially since the occupation authorities failed in their responsibility under international law to provide such basic and vital services.

When Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, formed the Iraqi Governing Council, Sadr did not turn to violence, but instead announced the formation of an alternative administration to those he saw as handpicked by occupiers. When coalition forces closed his Al Hawza newspaper in March, Sadr's supporters staged peaceful protests. And peaceful protests followed the arrest in April of his senior aide Mustafa al-Yaqubi, and threats to arrest Sadr himself.

The response from the occupation forces was armed and fatal for numerous Iraqi civilians, after which the protests turned violent. Sadr proclaimed his peaceful means had become "a losing card" and "we should seek other ways... terrorize your enemy, as we cannot remain silent over its violations." Bremer, whose administration undertook an illegal war against Iraq, started calling him an "outlaw."

Even through armed resistance to occupation, Sadr has stuck to well-defined limits. He has denied involvement in car bombings and assassinations; he denounced the attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad. Until their current involvement in U.S. onslaughts followers were urged not to attack Iraqi security forces; he is opposed to the taking of journalists as hostages, and last month he condemned the beheading of foreign workers: "There is no religion or religious law that punishes by beheading. True, they are your enemies and occupiers, but this does not justify cutting off their heads."

Sadr's eventual use of armed resistance has certainly not been viewed as "radical" by his compatriots. In a poll conducted by the CPA in June, 81 percent of Iraqis said their opinion of the cleric was "much better" or "better" after his first uprising than before.

Sadr's condemnation of the interim Prime Minster Iyad Allawi and his dismissal of the June "handover of power" as a farce is justified. Nor has Allawi's heavy-handed, compliant rule gone down well with most of the Iraqi population -- a recent poll showed his approval rating at just 2 percent, tied with Saddam Hussein.

Nor can he be accused of being a tool for outside forces. Frequent accusations of ties with the regime in Iran have fallen flat, with both the U.S. administration and the Iraqi interim government admitting there is no evidence of such a link.

But the adjective "radical" still sticks, defying the widespread popularity he has gained nationally and regionally. With the allegiance of the followers of his late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, he can mobilize the Shia masses. But his armed resistance has drawn support from Sunnis and Shias throughout Iraq and the Middle East. Yet he has still sought diplomacy. He agreed to a truce in June and during the current fighting he has invited mediation from the Vatican. Contrast this with Allawi's uncompromising stance that there can be "no negotiation" with militias.

Sadr is also prepared to disband his army and form a political party to contest next January's elections. The fact that some Iraqi leaders are ignoring a decree passed by Allawi's government and have invited Sadr into the political process reflects the recognition that, like him or not, he is too powerful and popular a figure to marginalize.

Calling Sadr "radical" is not only a misrepresentation of his policies, it is an insult to all those who oppose foreign occupation and domination, religious in-fighting and regional instability. One does not have to be Shia, Iraqi, Arab or "radical" to see that.

This commentary first appeared in the Independent / UK
Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi is chairman of Arab Media Watch
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Albion Monitor August 24, 2004 (

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