In Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr, a self-styled Shiite Muslim religious leader, has usurped authority in the holy city of Najaf. His followers have occupied police stations and government buildings. They falsely claim to be leading a Shiite Muslim uprising against the U.S.-led coalition. In fact, they are engaged in a naked power grab at the expense of the Iraqi people. Among the many Iraqis calling for an end to the violence is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric.
Moqtada al-Sadr comes from an illustrious Shiite family. In 1999, his father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, was assassinated, along with two other sons, apparently by Saddam Hussein’s security forces. Moqtada has tried to claim his father’s following. In fact, he has relatively few followers.
But Moqtada al-Sadr does have connections outside Iraq, says Uraib el-Rantawi, head of the al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Jordan:
“He has a very good connection with the Iranian clerics, especially Ayatollah [Kazem al-] Haeri. . . . And he is trying to take the example from what happened in Lebanon with the leadership of Hezbollah and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin of Hamas.”
In other words, Moqtada al-Sadr is linked both to terrorist groups and to one of the leading state sponsors of terrorism, Iran. But Sadr’s relations with leading Iraqi clerics have not been good. Indeed, he has been charged with complicity in the brutal murder in April 2003 of the esteemed Shiite cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair says that Sadr is one of the minority who “do not want democracy in Iraq”:
“And then you have got this particular cleric who is an extremist and a fanatic who does not want what the majority of Shias, never mind the majority of Iraqis, want, which is a democratic Iraq.”
President George W. Bush says that people like Moqtada al-Sadr will not prevent the U.S.-led coalition from fulfilling its commitments to the Iraqi people: “We are not going to be intimidated by thugs and assassins. We are not going to cut and run from the people who long for freedom because, you know what? We understand that a free Iraq is an historic opportunity to help change the world to be more peaceful.”
It may take a while for Iraqis “to understand what freedom is all about,” says President Bush. But the U.S. “will stay the course in Iraq.”