Whatever else the US intended when it invaded Iraq in 2003 it was not to hand power to an Islamic militant in a black turban with dark staring eyes who denounces Washington and Israel in the same breath. The claim by two American officials yesterday that Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia nationalist cleric, has left for Iran is a measure of how far the US would like to see him out of the Iraqi political scene.
Allegations by US officials in Baghdad have little credibility after almost four years in which they have been repeatedly exposed as untrue. Supporters of Muqtada immediately denied that he was in Iran and either refused to say where he was or asserted that he was in the Shia holy city of Najaf. He has every reason to keep his location a secret, since in the past the US military has said it will either kill or capture him if it can. Two of his most important aides have been killed in mysterious circumstances in the past week.
We may be close to a final confrontation between the US and Muqtada, perhaps the most important political figure in Iraq. The US and Iraqi governments are starting their much-heralded campaign to regain control of Baghdad from the Sunni insurgents and Shia militias, of which the most important is Muqtada's 70,000-strong Mehdi Army. Iraq's borders with Iran have been closed for 72 hours.
Muqtada himself has no doubt that he is under threat. In an interview in January he said: "I have moved my family to a safe place. I have even made a will and I continually move around so they have trouble knowing exactly where I am." He has been trying to avoid becoming a US target. He plays down his own strength. Asked about claims that the army and police are infiltrated by his men, Muqtada said the reverse was true and "it is our militias [that] are swarming with spies. It doesn't take much to infiltrate the army of the people." He denies that the death squads killing Sunni are really members of the Mehdi Army.
Probably, Muqtada and the men around him believe that if he can avoid a direct clash with the US army then he will win in the end. His popularity among the Shia is great. In the past few weeks his men have stopped carrying their weapons so openly in the streets and have closed a number of their offices in Baghdad. But the militiamen are seldom far away. In Sadr City they have only retreated deeper into the vast shanty town of two million people that is the greatest bastion of Sadrist support.
The rise of Muqtada has been one of the surprises of the four years since the US invaded. Saddam Hussein must have been astonished as he went to his execution to hear the name: "Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqatada!" shouted by jeering onlookers. Had Saddam realised the potential of this strange, enigmatic young man before the invasion then he would doubtless have killed him, as he did Muqtada's father and two of his brothers eight years ago.
It is difficult to avoid Muqtada's presence in Baghdad. Dressed in his dark clerical robes, he peers menacingly from posters on thousands of walls. His Mehdi Army militiamen control not only Sadr City but much of the capital and southern Iraq. He is an essential prop to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in which six ministers belong to his movement.
Yet the source of his power has remained a mystery to the US and many Iraqi politicians. Few men have been so consistently underestimated. He is not a great orator, nor does he have huge charisma. His movement has limited resources. Until recently, his militiamen were unpaid and provided their own weapons. He does not have a powerful foreign backer. In spite of US efforts to link him to Iran and claim that he has fled there, he and his movement have traditionally been suspicious of the Iranians, and they of him.
The real source of his vast influence among the Shia of Iraq - the Sunni see him as orchestrating the death squads that have killed so many of them - is that he promulgates a blend of religion and nationalism that they find deeply attractive. He comes from the deeply revered Sadr clerical family that provided so many martyrs under Saddam Hussein. Some American commanders may wonder if it is wise for the US to pick a fight with a religious leader regarded with cult-like devotion by millions of Shias. They may also reflect that he is not just popular with the poor masses of Shia Iraq - his picture also hangs on the wall in many Iraqi police stations and army barracks. Some of these will be the very people on whom US and Iraqi commanders will rely in order to regain control of Baghdad.
It is impossible to explain Iraq today without understanding the reasons behind the astonishing rise of Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement in less than four years. Muqtada appears to have come from nowhere. In reality, he is heir to a social and political movement with a history that stretches back almost half a century. In addition, he could not have become so powerful so fast had he not come from a family that provided some of the most revered leaders of the Shiah clergy in their long and bitter struggle with Saddam Hussein.
The most common poster of the Sadrist movement shows three men in black clerical garb with an Iraqi flag behind them. The first figure is Muqtada himself. The second is of his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, assassinated along with two of his sons on the orders of Saddam outside Najaf in January 1999. The third is of Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a distant cousin and father-in-law of Muqtada, a revolutionary Shia who was executed together with his sister in 1980. The poster perfectly illustrates the blend of religion and nationalism that has made Sadrism so potent.
The Sadrist movement, of which Muqtada is the current leader, was founded by Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr. It was he who sought to interpret Shia Islam and organise its adherents in the 1950s and 1960s in order to oppose the powerful Iraqi Communist Party and the nationalist Baath Party. He helped to establish the Shia religious party al-Dawa to counter secularism.
At first, Baqir seemed to be leading a doomed attempt to revive Shia Islam to struggle with the problems of the modern age. He moved away from the traditional political quietism of the Hawza, the Shia religious hierarchy in Iraq, towards finding answers to the central questions of political and economic life. Like so many other Shia religious leaders, he did not lack courage. Even when the Baathists were at the height of their power and notorious for their cruelty, Baqir refused to bow to them. In a famous saying he vowed that: "If my little finger were Baathist I would cut it off." Saddam Hussein, particularly frightened of insurgent Islam after the triumph of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, struck back. In 1980 he killed Baqir, his sister and hundreds of his followers.
But the Sadrist movement did not die. Iraq's Shia community, 60 per cent of Iraq's population, became increasingly conscious of their identity as Saddam Hussein blundered into the war with Iran and then invaded Kuwait. In 1991 he crushed the great Shia uprising and began to look for a Shia religious leader whom he could co-opt. In a move he would come to regret, he chose Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a pupil and cousin of Baqir and father of Muqtada, for this role.
Paradoxically, given the US allegations yesterday, Saddam's regime was attracted by Sadiq because he was anti-American and distant from Iran. But it swiftly became alarmed when he launched a mass movement aimed at addressing the immediate concerns of the impoverished Shia masses that criticised the old religious hierarchy as remote and cut off from day-to-day life.
A famous story is told of Sadiq illustrating his concern for ordinary Iraqis. A man looking for a religious leader to follow asked each of them the price of tomatoes. Some, more accustomed to being queried about esoteric religious matters, were offended by such a mundane question. The exception was Sadiq, who gave a full response, detailing the prices of different types of tomato. The man departed satisfied, saying he had at last found a religious leader who knew about life as it was really lived by Iraqis. He said: "I choose the one who knows my suffering, who is close to the poor and the disinherited." The latter class of Iraqis was more numerous in Iraq in the 1990s as the economy suffered under the weight of sanctions.
Secularism, discredited by Saddam's failures, was on the retreat and Islam was resurgent. Sadiq spoke for the newly impoverished Shia masses. But his discourse was also patriotic, opposed to foreign interference in Iraq, whether it came from the US or Iran. He called for Sunni and Shia unity. He would often begin his sermons with the refrain: "No, no to America; no, no, to Israel; no, no to the Devil."
His strength was - and this is also true of his son Muqtada - that he expressed the feelings of the Shia poor. A study of Muqtada by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says: "The relatively well-to-do, urbanised, educated or commercial classes eyed him wearily, viewing his plebeian, militant Shiism as a source of instability and a threat to their interests." Sadiq even called on Saddam himself to repent. He wore the shroud of those who expect to die, and with reason. It became clear to the Iraqi leader that he was a nurturing an increasingly dangerous enemy. He reacted violently, as he invariably did against opponents, and ordered his security men to ambush Sadiq and his sons in their car as they drove through the holy city of Najaf. As news of their death spread, it sparked the most serious riots seen in Iraq between the uprising of 1991 and the invasion of 2003.
Muqtada was not necessarily the natural political and religious heir to Sadiq. He was his father's fourth son, and 25 years old when Sadiq was killed (assuming that Muqtada's official birth date of 1974 is correct). He was under surveillance by Saddam's security men - perhaps the most suspicious men on earth - but they concluded he was harmless.
Muqtada had hidden strengths. Most importantly, there was a large constituency of Iraqis waiting to embrace him. In April 2003, as Baghdad fell, he instantly stepped forward to fill a vacuum. Nobody else was offering to lead the young, poorly educated, violent but devout Shia masses. Their ferocious looting of Baghdad was a sign of their rage towards the powers that be. They, like him, were suspicious of the conciliatory Shia religious hierarchy in Najaf and the Iraqi exiles returning from London and New York courtesy of the US army. Muqtada represented those who hated Saddam, and were grateful that he was deposed, but did not want to replace him with a foreign occupation.
Muqtada's influence quickly became apparent. On 11 April, in his first Friday prayer sermon, he called on the faithful to walk as pilgrims to Karbala to commemorate Arba'in, the ritual commemorating 40 days' mourning for the death of Imam Hussein. Absorbed by the fall of Saddam, few observers noted the significance of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis walking for days to Karbala waving their black and green flags.
Muqtada's followers had already demonstrated a more menacing side to their movement: a willingness to use violence against their enemies, real or imagined. Sayed Majid al-Khoei, a liberal-minded and very able Shia leader, the son of the Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei, had returned early to Najaf. He had offered forgiveness to those officials who had been compelled to cooperate with Saddam Hussein. On 10 April he took Haider al-Killidar, the administrator of the great golden domed shrine of Imam Ali, back to his offices. They were soon trapped by an angry crowd, many of whom were allegedly followers of Muqtada. Shots were fired. Sayed Majid was dragged from the shrine and knifed to death in the street.
The policy of the Shia hierarchy, notably Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and of the previously exiled religious parties, al-Dawa and SCIRI, was not to oppose the US occupation but to use it to enable the Shia to take power. They pressed the US envoy Paul Bremer to hold elections that the Shia were bound to win.
Muqtada's line was different. He opposed the occupation from the beginning. His father, Sadiq, had blamed the US for sanctions that had brought the Iraqi poor to the edge of starvation. His son was no less hostile. He denounced the members of the Iraqi Governing Council, which the Shia religious parties joined, as pawns of America.
Not all was plain sailing. The Mehdi Army, his militia, was only a shadowy force. The first Sadrist demonstration I attended in October 2003 in the heart of Sadr City was well organised, but only 3,000 people took part. It was easy to underestimate the potential of his movement, which Paul Bremer, the head of the ruling Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), blindly proceeded to do. He toyed with the idea of arresting Muqtada. Meanwhile, the occupation was becoming ever more unpopular. It failed to provide security, economic reconstruction or democratic elections. The 70 per cent of Iraqis who were unemployed before the invasion still had no jobs.
The confrontation with the CPA happened almost by accident. Muqtada delivered a sermon describing the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York as "a miracle and a blessing from God". This was reprinted in the Sadrist newspaper al Hawza. Bremer told one of his staff: "Close down the rag." Within days, Sadr City and the whole of southern Iraq was in flames as the Mehdi Army - armed, enthusiastic but untrained young men - took over the streets.
One of the cities seized by the militiamen was Kufa, on the Euphrates and a short distance from Najaf. Soon Muqtada and his militiamen were being besieged by 2,500 US soldiers. Here I had a nasty brush with the Mehdi Army. The incident helped explain why so many Iraqis are terrified by these black-clad militiamen.
I was sitting in the back of a car wearing a red and white headress, or keffiyeh, primarily so that I wouldn't be recognised as a foreigner in the tough Sunni insurgent towns on the road to Najaf. We stopped at checkpoint manned by the Mehdi Army. The Keffiyeh turned out to be a bad idea. The militiamen recognised me as an obvious Westerner. They started shouting that I was an American. They were clutching their Kalashnikovs and I did not think it would take much for them to kill us all.
Finally they jumped into our car, clutching their weapons, and told us to follow another car full of militiamen to their headquarters in the main mosque in Kufa. Once there they became less aggressive. They offered me a cigarette, and, although I had given up smoking some years before, it seemed unwise to refuse. They leafed through a copy of The New Yorker and muttered "haram (forbidden)" when they saw a cartoon of a woman in a low-cut blouse. All the militiamen came from Sadr City and said that they were quite willing to die for Muqtada.
In a military sense, Muqtada and his militiamen lost their confrontations with the US army in April and again in August 2004. Many Iraqis blamed them for the destruction in Najaf. But at the same time the Sadrists had survived and shown their strength. Muqtada demonstrated he was one of the central figures in Iraqi politics and he had also learned to avoid, if at all possible, direct military conflict with the US.
The following year Muqtada showed his political muscle. While still denouncing the occupation, he took part in the political process. He joined the Shia political front, the United Iraqi Alliance, which triumphed in the general elections in January and December 2005. In the second election he won 32 out of 275 seats in parliament, thus giving him veto power over the choice of prime minister. There are six Sadrist ministers running departments including health and transport. All were soon stocked with supporters of Muqtada.
In 2006, the Mehdi Army extended its grip into most Shia areas in Baghdad. After the attack on the Shia al-Askari shrine on 22 February there were nationwide pogroms of the Sunni. Mixed neighbourhoods began to disappear. Shia who did not like the Mehdi Army welcomed them because they were desperate for armed men from their own community to protect them from death squads and suicide bombers. They were also central to the operation of the death squads killing Sunni where ever they found them.
By now, all Shia gunmen were being called Mehdi Army by the Sunni. Muqtada said, defensively, that many of them were not under his control. This was probably correct but he did not try to rein them in. It was also true, though, that by early 2007 all the Shia militias, whatever they said in public, were intent on taking over Baghdad and driving the Sunni into the south-west quadrant of the city.
Probably it would be wiser for the US to include Muqtada in the political process. He has far more legitimacy among the Shia masses than many of the former exiles whom the US would like to see in power. Accomodating and controlling Muqtada and the great numbers of Iraqis he represents is essential to stabilising Iraq, but instead the US seems intent on trying to marginalise or eliminate him.
Even if they succeed it will do them little good. The Sadrist movement has surived many years of adversity before under Saddam. The Shia masses are not going to allow themselves to be robbed of power which they believe rightly belongs to them. By driving Muqtada into a corner, the US is forcing him to rely more and more on Iran, though it is unlikely that he has fled there.
President Bush shows no sign of learning from his failures in Iraq since 2003. For almost four years he has been fighting the Sunni community. Now, by confronting Muqtada, he is moving towards armed conflict with the Shia as well.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq published by Verso at £15.99Reuse content