Muqtada al-Sadr's populist Shia rebels, who last year battled with US forces in Najaf, are now deeply involved in politics. They provide a case study of a rebel movement tentatively embracing democracyby Bartle Bull / June 19, 2005 / Leave a comment
A momentous but little noticed aspect of the formation of Iraq’s new government in early May was the inclusion of members of the Shia populist movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr. The Sadris, as they are called, now hold two of the most important ministries in Iraq—health and transport, as well as the ministry of state for civil society. As al-Sadr’s Mahdi army was the only Shia tendency to rise up against the US-led occupation in Iraq, and has so far been the only Iraqi insurgent movement of any kind to command large and vocal levels of popular support, the fact that they are now so fully included in formal politics represents a major achievement for Iraq’s political process.
Shias outnumber Sunnis in Iraq by four to one, and al-Sadr’s supporters—3-4m of the poorest and most aggrieved members of the dominant sect—are probably the only faction in Iraq who have the ability to derail the US-led project. Partly because of the opacity of the Sadrist organisation, the question of whether Iraq’s biggest and most violent populist movement would participate in the political process was barely discussed in the western media during the January election.
Bartle Bull spent five weeks embedded with the Mahdi army in Sadr City before and after the election, observing what happens when a rebel movement decides to negotiate its way into formal democratic politics.
Outside Sadr City’s Mohsin mosque on a morning in January, with Friday prayers yet to begin, the rows of mats ran hundreds deep. There were about 25,000 men there in all, wearing robes, suits, tracksuits or dark leather jackets; on their heads they wore red and white kaffiyehs and black scarves tied at the back in the style preferred by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army. Sandals and shoes lay in piles between the prostrate men, and in front of every mat rested a prayer tablet made of Karbala clay, infused with the blood of the Imam Hussein, martyred there in 680. With Iraq’s election only nine days away, the inhabitants of Baghdad’s giant slum, Sadr City, had come for guidance: they would go to the polls only if the command came from Muqtada.
I was moving along the outer edge of the crowd when the pre-recorded high-pitched chants came to an end and the deeper bass of the live preacher began. The supplicants let out a collective wail, waving posters and…