Al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army: Iraq’s most abused and desperate stand up to empire

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“I left my kids [in Baghdad] and went to fight in Najaf. We are going to fight them until we throw them out of Iraq. Our country is our country.” The speaker is Itihad Jamil, a 47-year-old Iraqi woman quoted in the Christian Science Monitor.

Her words succinctly capture the situation in Iraq as seen by Iraqis themselves. The U.S. strategy of wholesale destruction in Najaf, Falluja and around the country is working no better than it did in Vietnam, or than Israel’s tactics are in Palestine. The more brutally the occupying forces attack resisters, the more the opposition builds. The Brookings Institute of Washington, D.C. estimated in mid-June that the resistance had grown from about 5,000 to 20,000 people in the last several months. Field commanders have been quoted as believing the numbers are closer to 120,000.

A poll taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority in June found that 92 percent of Iraqis considered the U.S. an occupier and only 2 percent a liberator. Eighty percent had a better opinion of Mahdi Army leader Moktada al-Sadr after the Mahdi uprising in April.

With 21,000 to 55,000 Iraqis dead since the invasion, and given the Abu Ghraib prison abuse revelations, what else could be expected?

Birth of a militia. The Mahdi Army, like other militias in Iraq, originated in the early days of the occupation, when the U.S. created chaos by disbanding the Iraqi military and civil authorities. Its leader Moktada al-Sadr is a 30-year-old mid-level Shiite cleric whose father was an influential grand ayatollah and founder of the Active Religious Seminary, a political/religious movement that has provided social services to poor Shiite areas since the 1990s.

When his father and two brothers were killed by agents of Saddam Hussein, the family responsibility to head the movement fell to al-Sadr. When he formed the Mahdi Army in June 2003, about 500-1,000 seminary students became its core.

Opposed to the occupation from the start, the militia only turned to military action this April, after the shutdown of al-Sadr’s newspaper, al-Hawza, and the arrest of one of his senior aides. The uprising spread to 11 cities and fought until a June truce. This was broken at the end of July, not by al-Sadr, as reported in the Western corporate media, but by the U.S., with the arrest of another al-Sadr associate in Karbala and an apparent attempt to detain al-Sadr himself a few days later.

This treachery sparked the August insurgency in Najaf that again spread across the country, ending just barely in time for the Republican convention in the U.S. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who accommodates to the U.S., rushed back from medical treatments in London to call for a mass march on Najaf “to save the city from destruction.” The truce allowed the Madhi Army to freely leave the holy Imam Ali Shrine of Najaf and join demonstrators.

The attack on Najaf drew wide condemnation. The Najaf deputy governor and 15 members of the regional council, as well as hundreds of participants in a national conference to appoint an interim National Assembly, all quit in protest.

Vietnam all over again. More than anything, the confrontation exposed the puppet nature of the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. His negotiator at one point agreed to a ceasefire, with amnesty for Mahdi fighters. But the government backed away, no doubt when the U.S. refused to go along.

The U.S. claimed that Iraqi security forces would take the Najaf shrine, but Middle East expert Sam Hamod flatly stated that such a force would in fact be U.S. “soldiers and mercenaries dressed as Iraqis,” as Muslims would refuse. Iraqi security personnel have shown a great unwillingness to fight their own people; many have deserted, some to join the resistance.

After the ceasefire mediated by al-Sistani finally took effect, the government’s powerlessness was spotlighted by its inability to hold the U.S. to the stipulation to withdraw from Najaf and Kufa. It had already demonstrated its total lack of popular support by reinstituting the death penalty, threatening martial law, arresting independent journalists and threatening them with death, and shutting down media like the well-known al-Jazeera satellite TV station.

A resistance in need of support. The nature of the resistance is harder to define. Al-Sadr advocates an “Islamic democracy” dedicated to social justice, but has not offered specifics except to point out that democracy is impossible until occupation forces leave.

Because al-Sadr is a political and religious figure first, rather than a military leader, he has influence but not full control over the militia. He was raised to prominence by a nationwide grassroots upsurge. And observers, including U.S. Army analysts, agree that the motivation for most rebels is getting the U.S. out of Iraq, not setting up an Islamic state.

Al-Sadr’s main base is among poor and unemployed urban Shiite youth. But Mahdi squad leaders are college-educated, according to independent journalist Philip Robertson, showing that al-Sadr also has broader support.

He will stay in leadership only as long as he represents the desperate masses, who lack jobs, electricity, safe water, enough food, medical facilities, and other basic services, even when they are not under fire.

That common plight of the common people is why the fighting during August crossed traditional divisions and spread to Sunni Muslim areas, with Sunni insurgents in Falluja even sending food and supplies to Najaf.

Nor is all the resistance military. With joblessness at 70 percent, independent unions and the unemployed have organized against the planned privatization of public enterprises and for pay raises, healthcare, and employment or a guaranteed monthly income. There is also a women’s movement, which held an International Women’s Day march this year protesting both the occupation and Islamic fundamentalism.

The most crying need of the resistance is a strong mass movement of support in the U.S. The antiwar movement, for most of this year largely submerged in presidential electioneering, needs to step up to active solidarity with the resistance — now and regardless of who wins the White House.

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