USIP’s Elie Abouaoun, based in the Institute’s Baghdad office, discusses the al-Sadr movement – and why it once again stands to be a destabilizing force in Iraq and region.

June 2, 2011

USIP’s Elie Abouaoun, based in the Institute’s Baghdad office, discusses the al-Sadr movement – and why it once again stands to be a destabilizing force in Iraq and region.

What is the ideology of the al-Sadr movement (SM) and how it does operate?

Al-Sadr movement is an Iraqi political party headed by Muqtada Al-Sadr, son of the slain widely influential Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr. Muqtada al-Sadr, has been claiming to represent his father’s political and religious legacy. He aggressively promoted an anti-Western agenda as well as an application of a strict Islamic regime in Iraq.

In 2003, al-Sadr established a militia called “al-Mahdi army” (Jaysh Al-Mahdi-JAM) to “liberate Iraq”. He started by calling for a political resistance against the “occupation” that quickly turned into intense military confrontations with the Multi National Forces and other rival Shia parties. In 2003, al-Sadr established religious courts throughout the country and attempted to assume the role of government. In the South and parts of Baghdad, an alarming raise has been registered in attacking/banning anything considered “anti-Islamic,” such as CD/DVD shops, Internet cafes, musical bands, “suspicious” restaurants and hotels, alcohol trades, unveiled women. The trend in radicalizing Iraq’s everyday’s life was not exclusive to the Southern governorates; however the SM was the spearhead in promoting this type of Islamic regime in its areas of control.

The Mahdi Army survived a first setback in the Najaf battle against U.S. forces in June 2004 leading to the creation of several spin-off movements such as the “League of the Righteous,” Al-Fadhila party (The Virtue Party) and other smaller groups that currently share the public base of the Sadrists (as it was shown by the successive elections held since 2005).

Between 2004 and 2008, the Mahdi Army attempted to reassert their control in the predominantly Shia areas, promoting the same political agenda and using a strong anti-Western discourse. This period ended in 2008 when the government managed to uproot the Mahdi Army from Baghdad and the South, as a result of a large military intervention. Al-Sadr movemement nevertheless continued to play an active role in Iraq’s tumultuous politics but without its powerful military wing.

This period is also characterized by the absence of Muqtada al-Sadr himself who decided to complete his religious studies in Iran seeking advanced religious credentials that would allow him to claim back the main religious institutions (Al-Hawza) previously controlled by his father.

Large amounts of money are spent through the movement’s religious and social structures in part to “educate” youngsters on the virtues of the “Islamic regime,”, the “vice” of the West, the conspiracy against Muslims.

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What is behind the recent surge in the activities of the Sadr movement and how will this impact the situation in Iraq?

Since his return to Iraq in January 2011, Muqtada Al-Sadr’s political discourse has been firm but less aggressive. He focused much more on domestic issues and the performance of the government, granting Prime Minister Maliki a six months grace period to improve the basic services.

The recent discussions about the possibility of Iraq requesting an extension for the U.S. forces, however, triggered a strong reaction from Muqtada al-Sadr – saying that any decision extending the U.S. military presence would be faced by a “political” resistance, against the “occupation” and the entities “associated to it,” such as civilian contractors, journalists, and staffers for international organizations.

Even though Muqtada Al-Sadr is now insisting on “political” resistance only, it is not excluded that the military wing of the movement will directly engage in non-political forms of resistance (as in 2003) mainly because he does not have a full control over all brigades of the Mahdi Army and because he is quite vulnerable to the pressure from Iran.

While the Central and North-Central governorates are witnessing the re-activation of some radical Sunni groups, the developments in the South indicate intense efforts to restructure the Mahdi Army, bring back its notorious military commanders from Iran, and actively disseminate anti-Western feelings at grassroots levels. While it will be more difficult for the movement to win back Karbala and Najaf due to the presence of rival and powerful clerics, the coming weeks will show how much it will be able to acquire a solid popular support in other areas of Southern Iraq.

Technically, all options in Iraq are open. One can envision a general state of destabilization as a worst case scenario or tit for tat operations in Iraq as part of the “exchange of messages” between Iran and the West or other regional powers.

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How does USIP’s work in Iraq help address the potential for conflict and violence?

USIP is currently focused on promoting reconciliation and moderation, strengthening government institutions and civil society, and helping Iraqi youth acquire a stake in peace and stability through empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in direct interventions in the field.

Many of USIP’s project help address situations of rising tensions such as the one we are now seeing in Iraq. USIP supports many networks working for conflict prevention, peacebuilding and the promotion of rule of law.

Through the Network of Iraqi Facilitators (NIF), USIP enhances inter-communal engagement and reconciliation in Iraq. USIP provides as well micro grants to NIF members to design and deliver community-level conflict projects. This allows a direct outreach to the areas where potential conflicts might arise.

USIP continues its work with the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities, an advocacy network of individuals and nongovernmental organizations formed from USIP-sponsored dialogues in 2010.

On another level, USIP is engaging both Muslim women and religious figures encouraging focus on the connection between religion and peace. Because media also retains the possibility of being used for incitement to hatred and violence, USIP is working with a group of Iraqi news directors, media regulators and civil society media monitors to improve the quality of news coverage. USIP is also developing working relationships among local, provincial and national leaders from Kirkuk and helping them to reach consensus on a priority set of issues important to the development of the province through a collaborative problem solving mechanism. USIP’s mission in Iraq is to strengthen local capacities to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts peacefully and promote the achievement of conditions which advance stabilization and peacebuilding efforts. The wide range of interventions described above allows USIP to contribute to conflict prevention and peacebuilding at both the national and local levels in Iraq.

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