Middle EastWorld

‘We obey’: Iraq’s Moqtada Sadr loyalists express diehard support

NAJAF: In a sun-baked cemetery in the central Iraqi city of Najaf, fresh are the graves of loyalists to Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr who were killed in clashes in Baghdad last week. So too is seething anger following the face-off between the cleric’s supporters, rival Iran-backed factions and the army that left more than 30 Sadrists dead and 570 others wounded.

Standing between tombstones, Moussa Abbas said the fight was far from over. “Blood was spilt, but there is plenty more where that came from,” the 21-year-old Sadr loyalist told AFP. “For every martyr we lose, there are 10 that will come in his place. “The same way they sacrificed themselves for us, we will stand up for them.”

Nearly 24 hours of fighting erupted on August 29 when Sadr supporters stormed the government headquarters in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone after their leader said he would resign from politics. The ensuing battles-the deadliest in nearly three years-followed months of disagreements between Sadr and rival Shiite factions, as the political deadlock has left the country without a new government, prime minister or president since elections in October last year.

After last week’s unrest brought tensions to a boil, Sadr supporters said they were willing to give their lives for their leader. “I am ready to be the first of the martyrs,” said Taleb Saad, 60, who said he had been caught up in the violence. “My wish is to be buried here,” he said, pointing at graves adorned with plastic flowers and large portraits of young men.

‘Under his command’

Sadr gained widespread popularity following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, when he ran the feared Mahdi Army militia that fought against American and Iraqi government forces. He has now reinvented himself as a champion of reform in a country blighted by endemic corruption-though opponents accuse Sadrist officials of being as unscrupulous as other political forces.

Sadr’s rise was aided by the reputation of his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadek Sadr, whom former dictator Saddam Hussein had assassinated in 1999. The grey-bearded cleric retains a devoted following of millions among the country’s majority Shiite population. As fighting raged in the Green Zone, all it took was one stern statement from Sadr for his loyalists to begin streaming out of the area.

In the Najaf cemetery-established in 2004 to bury Mahdi Army fighters-grief did not douse their support. “We obey the orders of our leader and commander-whatever he wants, we are ready,” said Sadeq Jaber, mourning a 16-year-old from his tribe who was shot dead last week. The boy’s given name was Moqtada Sadr.

“All of us, with our children, houses and families-we are all under his command,” Jaber said. Nearby, women clad in black wailed at graves so recent they bore temporary paper tombstones, as cemetery workers made space for corpses arriving almost daily from Baghdad’s hospitals. Jaber, who drove two hours from the capital to pay his respects, said the cemetery would keep growing. “There will continue to be martyrs as long as this ruling class is in power,” he said.

Clergy politics

Iraq’s current political standoff has pitted Sadr against the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, which includes lawmakers from the party of his longtime foe, ex-prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. Sadr wants snap elections and the dissolution of parliament but the rival Shiite bloc wants a new head of government appointed before any new polls are held. “There can’t be a reconciliation between them,” said Sadr-leaning cleric Fadel al-Bdeiri.

“The people either side with the Sadrist movement and wage this battle and secure their demands, or they side with the Framework and remain mired… in the status quo,” he told AFP from his Najaf office. The holy shrine city-home to Iraq’s Shiite spiritual leadership, headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani-has not been immune to the tug of war, even though clerics there insist they are independent of party politics.

In an unusual move, spiritual leader Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, who provides religious cover for Sadr and counts many of the cleric’s loyalists among his followers, announced his retirement late last month. Haeri, who has lived in Iran for decades, called on his base to back the Islamic republic’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a blow to the Shiite seat of power in Najaf.

“We don’t know the circumstances that forced him to write this statement,” Bdeiri said, adding there were signs of “pressure” from certain parties, alluding to Iran. Looking to Iraq’s future, Bdeiri said he was not optimistic. “We hope for the best, but the reality on the ground is not promising,” he said. – AFP

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