Magazine article The Middle East

Young Radicals on the Rise: Within the Shi'a Community, Clerics Are Filling the Power Vacuum Created in the Wake of Saddam Hussein's Downfall. the Moderates Are Increasingly Finding Their Voices Drowned out by Firebrand Speeches from a Younger, More Radical Generation of Clerics

Magazine article The Middle East

Young Radicals on the Rise: Within the Shi'a Community, Clerics Are Filling the Power Vacuum Created in the Wake of Saddam Hussein's Downfall. the Moderates Are Increasingly Finding Their Voices Drowned out by Firebrand Speeches from a Younger, More Radical Generation of Clerics

Article excerpt

In Iraq's largest and oldest Shi a Muslim mosque in Kufa, 90 miles south of Baghdad and close to the sacred Shi'a city of Najaf, Moqtadr Al Sadr delivers a firebrand Friday sermon to a packed house.

Wearing a funeral shroud as if to invite martyrdom, Al Sadr castigates the US occupation of Iraq and denounces those Iraqis cooperating with the Americans. His sermon is peppered with veiled criticism of the more traditional ayatollahs in the Shi'a community who eschew politics for a life of quiet seclusion. He summons his followers to mobilise into an army and calls for an Islamic state--one in which, presumably, the Shi'a would play the major role.

Al Sadr has emerged as one of the new faces of Shi'a politics in today's post-Saddam era.

Thought to be no more than 30 years old, his vitriolic sermons highlight the new-found zeal with which some young and dynamic clerics are seizing the opportunity to assert Shi'a demands and, in the process, win them popular backing.

Such outspoken politics would not have been possible under Saddam's secular Baathist dictatorship. Al Sadr's father learnt this the hard way. Mohamed Al Sadr was a senior ayatollah who won widespread respect for speaking out against the Baathists. His open rebuke of Saddam's regime led to his assassination, along with two of his sons, in 1999.

Moqtadr, a surviving son, may lack the academic credentials of an ayatollah, but he is capitalising on the respect accorded his father.

In a sparse room in a house in Najaf, he sat cross-legged on a carpet beside a large portrait of his father propped against the wall. Life in the shadow of a martyred ayatollah for a father may help explain the young Al Sadr's brooding and bad-tempered character.

In his customary black robe and black turban, Al Sadr's answers were curt and oblique. He credited the downfall of Saddam to divine intervention rather than foreign invasion. Asked about his ambitions, Al Sadr told The Middle East. "Personally I'm not looking to claim any power or to be a member of any government, neither now nor in the future. I'm just striving to apply the Shari'a law. Beyond that I have no ambitious."

Such a disavowal of any personal appetite for power seems to contradict his style of megaphone politics and his call for the formation of an unarmed militia of volunteers.

Known as the Mahdi army, thousands of men from the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City have mobilised in response to Al Sadr's call. Support for him in the sprawling suburb of Baghdad--home to an estimated 3m Shi'a--appears to be strong. Outside an office for the Al Sadr movement, one supporter asserted that all the volunteers for the Mahdi army were potential 'martyrs', willing to undertake a suicide bombing mission if called upon to do so.

Such a call has not been made. No Shi'a cleric has issued a fatwa calling for attacks on American troops or their coalition allies. Al Sadr appears to be playing a game of brinkmanship, seeing how far he can go in challenging the Americans. He claims his army is unarmed and will be used to guard the Shi'a mosques and seminaries. The mobilisation appears to have fallen just short of a call to arms, something to which the Americans would be forced to respond. Yet the supporters could one day bear arms, bringing muscle to Al Sadr and increasing the risk of clashes with the coalition forces

The Mahdi army is a clever fusion of potent religious legend and contemporary politics in Iraq in which the perceived new oppressor is the US-led coalition force. The title has a messianic ring to it, recalling to mind the legend of the 'hidden' 12th imam of Shi'a Islam, who mysteriously disappeared centuries ago and who, according to Shi'a believers, will reappear to save the world from oppression and injustice.

The establishment of the Mahdi army indicates Al Sadr's determination to mobilise a popular force to bolster Shi'a political participation in the new Iraq. …

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