by Gerry Foley / September issue of Socialist Action Newspaper
The major political development in Iraq in recent weeks has been the developing confrontation between the movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr and the forces of the United States and its virtual auxiliary, the so-called Iraqi army.
These tensions reached a peak in a two-day fire-fight between al-Sadr’s militia (the Mahdi Army) and the Iraqi army in the city of Diwaniyah, about 80 miles south of Baghdad, on Aug. 28-29. About 80 people were reported killed in the clashes, and from the figures given by local doctors, it seems that the Iraqi army got the worst of the shootout.
It was also reported that the Mahdi Army had executed some soldiers when their ammunition ran out. The fighting was sparked by the arrest of a Sadrite leader by the Iraqi army. The Christian Science Monitor reported Aug. 31: “The battle in Diwaniyah … ended Tuesday when the US Air Force dropped a 500-lb. bomb on what it called a militia position…”
Islamweb, an Islamic website, reported Aug. 30 that the conflict had been ended by an agreement between the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi army that involved a retreat by both forces. The Iraqi army was to withdraw from the city and the Mahdi Army from a district that it occupied.
Islamweb also noted that the Sadrite national leadership denied that it had ordered its forces to fight and that it blamed the clash on “infiltrators.”
Most major media reporters agree that the Sadr movement has immense popular support among poor Shiites and that it is growing. Some also note that it is not based simply on a clericalist or even an anti-imperialist political base but primarily on economic issues, the resentment of the poor Shiites, historically the bottom of Iraqi society.
The Christian Science Monitor article quoted Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, as saying: “It’s essentially a class war. The Sadr guys are pressing … for a kind of Shiite Maoism.” No doubt the professor knows more about the social situation in Iraq than he knows about Maoism, but the point of his statement is clear.
Robert H. Reid, an AP writer, wrote in the Aug. 30 Los Angeles Times: “This week’s intense clashes between the Iraqi army and a Shiite militia are part of a strategy to whittle away the power of a radical cleric. But the high-risk gambit could trigger more fighting across the Shiite south—at a time when the cleric’s stronghold in the capital is virtually off-limits.…
“With Sadr City thus out of play for the time being, the U.S. military and its partners have been going after al-Sadr’s forces outside the capital, arresting a Mahdi commander in Basra and raiding militia offices in other cities to cut into the cleric’s power base.”
In its August 14 issue, the Beirut French-language daily L’Orient Le Jour reported that the Iraqi army and U.S. operatives (the Iraqi army and the U.S. military in reality are intertwined) the previous day raided the Ministry of Health, which is headed by a supporter of al-Sadr. They claimed that they were investigating kidnappings of Sunnis by Shiite militias said to have infiltrated the government repressive forces.
The Sadr movement has 30 members of parliament and influence in the government, and so the premier, Nuri al Maliki, was forced to make formal protests about the raid.
In fact, al-Sadr’s movement is probably the biggest obstacle now to the U.S. objective of achieving a stable client government in Iraq. Al-Sadr is a fervent Islamist anti-imperialist who identifies with Hamas in Palestine, Hezbullah in Lebanon, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. He appeals for Iraqi national unity and denounces vengeance attacks on Sunnis.
Al-Sadr attracts around his movement the seething discontent at the economic disaster created by the U.S. invasion and occupation. He threatens to tip a majority among the Shiites against the U.S. occupation and its clients. And if that happens, the occupation will find itself completely isolated politically.
The U.S. rulers and their clients have followed a two-faced strategy toward al-Sadr, trying to draw him into the parliamentary political game at the same time that they chip away at his organization. So, it is not surprising that the Christian Science Monitor article took the line that the problem was not al-Sadr himself but “divisions” in his movement: “The most disturbing recent development for the central government may well be the increasing radicalization and splintering among followers of what many Iraqis refer to as the ‘Sadr stream.’…
“While Mr. Sadr is generally acknowledged as the head of this movement and its Mahdi Army, it looks increasingly as if centralized command and control within the organization is breaking down. That appears to be causing a great deal of confusion and alarm within the Iraqi government.”
The problem for the resistance is that there is obviously a basis for this tack. It seems clear that al-Sadr does not effectively control his organization and that many Mahdi Army fighters have engaged in politically counter-productive actions, such as killings of Sunnis suspected of crimes against Shiites and strong-arm enforcement of Islamic moral principles.
Al Sadr himself has complained of “infiltrators” and “provocateurs” posing as Mahdi Army fighters. The basic difficulty of the movement seems to be that a clerical program and clerical leadership cannot unite it. For that a political program and democratic organization are necessary.
However, the reports of “splintering” in al-Sadr’s movement also indicate that a political process is going on within it—and hopefully a political and strategic debate. Something better might come out of that. If it does not, the Mahdi Army and the resistance in general are likely to suffer increasing losses.
But regardless of what happens on this front, the growth of the al-Sadr movement already indicates what the poor masses of Shiites want, and undoubtedly what the poor masses of Iraq in general desire.