Sadr the agitator: like father, like son
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Though it may appear as if Sadr came out of nowhere, he's employed a philosophy of total opposition, and the means to carry out, inherited from his father.Skip to next paragraph
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While the family fought Hussein, and now stands against the US, their oppositionist position has always had one objective: To bring the rule of wilayat al faqih, or the rule of the jurisprudent, to Iraq, patterned after Iran's theocracy. "In difficult situations like the ones we faced under the regime of Saddam Hussein, people will always look for leaders who stand up for their rights,'' says Imam Hazim al-Araji, a cleric close to Moqtada. "The Sadr line showed themselves to be the ones willing to stand up to [the] regime, and suffered for it. The people really respect this."
With a ruthless campaign of assassinations, Hussein had cowed most of the Shiite clergy in the 1990s, with major regime opponents in exile. The hawza, the senior Shiite leadership and seminary teachers in Najaf, were silenced.
Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr's rise to prominence was an unconventional one. Close aides to Moqtada say the regime approached the father in the early 1990s and even steered funding towards him in the hope that he'd help co-opt Shiite sentiment that had flared in the 1991 uprisings after the Gulf War. Though the Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, they have never held power.
Under the cloak of Hussein's "Faith Campaign" in the early years of the decade, which was designed to recast the secular Iraqi dictator as a defender of Islam, Sadek al-Sadr sent emissaries throughout the center and south of the country, building up a network of clerics with similar ideas. But he didn't stay loyal to the Hussein government. By about 1995, he began calling for the resumption of Friday prayers, which had been mostly banned by the Hussein regime except in mosques controlled by clerics loyal to the government.
"The regime was afraid of internal opposition so they were looking for a cleric they could control,'' says Jawad al-Khalasi, a cleric with extensive contact with Moqtada's network. "They thought Sadek al-Sadr was perfect, that he was weak and easily controlled. But he tricked them."
By 1998 his sermons had begun to take on a militant tone. He began to define the domestic Shiite clergy as split into two camps - the "speaking hawza" represented by him and clerics close to him and the "silent hawza" led by Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and others, who spent the last decade of Hussein's regime under house arrest and who eschewed overtly political statements.
Sadek al-Sadr, who studied Islamic law with Iran's future leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini while the latter was exiled to Najaf, indirectly attacked clerics like Sistani in his sermons, saying their silence on political issues lent indirect support to the regime.
Sistani belongs to a Shiite camp that worries that involvement in politics can contaminate religious purity. This view is sharply at odds with men like Ayatollah Khomeini, who believe that only senior clerics are fit to rule. Both the elder and the younger Sadr have also attacked Ayatollah Sistani for being an Iranian by birth, and thus lacking their commitment to Iraqi national issues, though their criticisms ignore their ties to other Iranian clerics.
Al-Sadr also set himself apart by reaching out to tribal networks and the urban poor - and these efforts looked to Hussein as if Sadr was seeking to build his own power base.
By 1999, Sadek al-Sadr was openly attacking Hussein's rule. He called for Shiites to stop making direct donations to the Shiite clergy, since he said some of the money was being diverted to the regime for use on "women and liquor."