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Thursday, August 19, 2004

Juan Cole's Informed Comment website

What does Muqtada al-Sadr Want?

Tom Engelhardt asks hard questions at the indispensable about journalistic language concerning the Iraq crisis. How do we characterize Muqtada al-Sadr? Our military operations in the country? What words to journalists use and how does that affect perceptions?

Meanwhile, the Associated Press expresses confusion, both its own, and that of US government officials, about what Muqtada al-Sadr's goals are.

I don't understand this confusion. Muqtada has given many sermons and interviews in the past 16 months outlining his goals exactly.

1) He wants the US troops out of the country immediately, which is to say, an end to Occuption. If there have to be foreign troops in Iraq, he wants them under a United Nations command.

2) He refuses to cooperate (he would say "collaborate") with the caretaker government of Iyad Allawi, which he sees as a puppet regime installed by the United States. He insists that no legitimate Iraqi governmental process can begin until the US is out.

3) He wants the reestablishment of a strong central Iraqi government with a strong military, but which has cut all ties with the Baathist past.

4) He wants Iraq to stay together rather than being partitioned, and has denounced Kurdish demands for loose federalism.

5) He wants Iraqi Shiism to emerge from Iran's shadow and to establish its independence from Iran. His movement is rooted in the Shiite ghettos of Iraq and is very indigenous. He is not Iran's catspaw in Iraq, quite the opposite. He is strong Iraqi nationalist.

6) He sometimes talks about "democracy" in post-American Iraq, but probably just means populism. Like Peron and Franco, his populism implies his ability to maintain and direct his own militia, who provide "order" (read puritanical morality imposed by force) to Shiite neighborhoods.

7) In the long term, he would like to see a system in Iraq similar to the regime in Iran. He wants Islamic law to be the law of the land, and he wants clerics to rule. His father studied with Ayatollah Khomeini and accepted the notion of clerical rule. So does Muqtada. That is, there may be a place for elections (as in Iran), but true power would rest in the hands of the clerics. He has admitted all this in Arabic press interviews.

So, I don't understand the widespread puzzlement reported by AP. It may not be a simple set of positions, but they aren't hidden from view or hard to understand.

There were several loud explosions Thursday morning near the Shrine of Ali where Muqtada is holed up with about 1000 men.

Although Muqtada agreed Wednesday to disarm his militia and leave the shrine if US troops would withdraw from the city first, few expect this siege to end well or easily. The wire services do not appear to have caught on that Muqtada is demanding the withdrawal of US troops as a necessary precondition, but that is what is being reported by al-Jazeerah.

Interim Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan threatened to teach Muqtada a lesson he would never forget, and promised decisive action against him, if he did not leave the shrine within hours. (-al-Zaman ). (Shaalan has adopted the body language and rhetoric of the old Baath regime, which makes the skin of a lot of Iraqis crawl. To be fair, Muqtada also acts in a thuggish way that alarms many Iraqis who have had enough of thugs.)