Muqtada comes in from the cold
DAMASCUS - In a surprising move that took observers off-guard, Iraqi Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr showed up in Istanbul at the weekend with a delegation of 70 supporters, including members of the 30-man Sadrist bloc in the Iraqi parliament.
The visit was at the request of Muqtada, only one month after United States President Barack Obama visited Turkey in April. The young cleric, 36, has visibly aged since last seen in an interview on the Doha-based al-Jazeera, in May 2008. More sober and tough, but with less inflammatory speech, white streaks have started to show on his beard - making him look at least 10 years older.
He has not been in public since 2007, which raised speculation in the Western press that he had been hiding in Iran. Muqtada held meetings with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Muqtada's spokesman Salah Ubaydi commented on the visit: "We [Muqtada's Madhi Army] have laid down our arms. We are certainly not going to use them against Iraqi soldiers. But the rebellion will go on."
He then identified the rebellion not in military terms, but as an "economic, political and cultural" one that will be waged "without weapons". This is new to Muqtada, reflecting a leader who is learning fast and maturing with age.
According to a Turkish news agency, the talks concentrated on "security in Iraq". Zaman, a Turkish newspaper, quoted a "diplomatic source" as saying that the US viewed his visit to Turkey in a positive light. Apart from speculation, nothing in the Iraqi or Turkish press explains why Muqtada suddenly decided to show up in Turkey - of all places - eight months ahead of general elections in Iraq.
Muqtada's talk about a cultural, economic and political rebellion is testimony to a conviction that arms alone will never end the occupation of Iraq that began with the US-led ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Arms must go hand-in-hand with what he likes to call "honorable cooperation", reflected by his decision to join the political process, with cabinet ministers and members of parliament, in 2005; this after waging fierce battle against the occupying forces.
This most likely is why he showed up in Turkey, to drum up regional support for his team, known as the Sadrist bloc, which plans on taking the elections and which seeks international legitimacy to rule Iraq, once the Americans start leaving in the summer of 2009.
Muqtada is taking advantage of the fact that his Shi'ite rival, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, is ill with cancer and cannot make regional visits to drum up similar support for his Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.
With regard to militias, Muqtada has also reached a realization that he will lay down his arms when all parties - both Sunnis and Shi'ites - call for an arms-free Iraq. This means the Badr Brigade of Hakim, the Awakening Councils of the Sunni community, and even the Kurdish Peshmerga militia in northern Iraq. This explains why his spokesman said, from Turkey, that Muqtada was going to continue the rebellion, without weapons.
Muqtada is eyeing the day the Americans start leaving Iraqi towns and cities this summer, and like everybody else in the Iraqi scene, he wants to fill the vacuum. In other words, he is dying to be recognized by the world around him as a seasoned statesman, rather than a guerilla warrior, and to break the stereotype of him in the US media of being an Iranian puppet good for nothing except armed warfare.
Muqtada sees himself as another Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader in Lebanon, a man able to become an all-Iraqi, and eventually, pan-Arab statesman. Very noticeable is that he went to Turkey after having visited Iran, and he is likely to show up in Qatar, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, before December.
This repeats what has happened to leaders of military groups throughout history, when they reach a point where they are fed up with war and want regional or international legitimacy to rule, rather than be members of an underground movement.
Hamas in Palestine was a clear example in 2006. Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, now regarded as the leading pro-Western party in Palestine, is another example. In 1974, Arafat went to the United Nations and made his famous speech, "I come to you carrying an olive branch, and a freedom fighter's gun. Don't let the olive branch fall from my hand."
And now, Muqtada has gone to Turkey - perhaps somewhat unwillingly - carrying an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun - for everybody to see, Arabs, Iranians and Iraqis too. He is also telling them, "Don't let the olive branch fall from my hand."
We must remember that Muqtada is an Islamic and Arab nationalist at heart, who has always dreamt of establishing an Iran-like theocracy in Iraq, but which is nevertheless free of Iranian influence. He still sees Iraq as part of the greater Arab nation and cannot dislocate it from its neighbors.
The US media have painted a very misleading image of the man, depicting him as an Iranian stooge since 2003. That is inaccurate, since although well connected to Iran, he has never been bankrolled by the Iranians, and has always had views that are contradictory to what the Iranians wanted for Iraq. Muqtada wants the world to see that he has allies and friends not only in Tehran.
He also clearly wants the Americans out of Iraq, a view shared by the Turks and the Syrians. Although involved in sectarian violence in 2006 - after the famous Samara bombing which was blamed on Iraqi Sunnis - he nevertheless has since been searching for creative ways to bring the Sunnis back into the political process. Iraq can only remain united and Arab in its identity, he believes, if it is co-led by Sunnis.
Sources close to him confirm that his militias were indeed implicated in the so-called "death squads", but justify the action, "It was either we kill, or be killed. It was civil war and in times like those, one has to defend himself, and his community."
This is no longer the case for Muqtada. On the contrary, he is now calling for joint prayers with Sunnis, and echoing some of their same demands, which include greater representation in government, a general amnesty for all those who had carried arms against the Americans - and more importantly - "no" to the enlargement of Iraqi Kurdistan, at the expense of Arabs.
As Muqtada has matured, he has realized that if he is to become the all-Iraqi leader his father Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr was, he has to reach out to both Sunnis and Shi'ites, and needs to get regional backing - or at least a truce - with countries that range from Iran to Saudi Arabia.
Before he quarreled with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in 2007, he tried to get him to grant Sunnis more say in the political process, and greater representation in government. His only blind spot remained with regard to the Ba'athists, whom Muqtada still cannot forgive for assassinating his father in 1999.
Apart from that, he is open to dealing with Sunni groups like the Iraqi Accordance Front, with whom he shared power for nearly two years under Maliki. He also played an important role recently in securing the election of a new Sunni speaker in parliament, Iyad Samarrai, to make the Sunnis feel less threatened by the all-Shi'ite government.
One common denominator he has with Sunnis is the issue of the oil-rich Kirkuk area, which neither Sunnis nor the Sadrist want to see annexed into semi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
During a brief Maliki-Kurdish honeymoon, the prime minister promised to hold a referendum (still pending) on Kirkuk, according to Article 140 of the constitution, to see if its inhabitants wanted to remain part of Iraq or to join Kurdistan. He even sponsored uprooting Arabs from Kirkuk, to increase the city's Kurdish population, claiming that Saddam had illegally brought them there in the 1980s.
The Turks cried foul play, and so did the Sadrists, who were equally enraged when Hakim called for an autonomous Shi'ite district in southern Iraq, similar to the Kurdish one in the north. That would only further divide the country, he noted, and serve the interests of the occupying US forces.
Muqtada and the Turks will have been pleased with a report on May 3 that United Nations diplomats working on the status of Kirkuk for more than a year had suggested delaying for five years the planned referendum to determine the status of Kirkuk.
Maliki's friendship with the Kurds is now eroding, as he failed to protect them from Turkish attacks in 2007 and 2008, and for failing to hold the referendum. On the contrary, Maliki is back in talks with Muqtada about creating a joint coalition, after the latter emerged victorious in provincial elections in January. A Maliki-Muqtada-Turkish memorandum of understanding over Kurdistan could turn the tables on Kurdish ambitions in Iraq.
Although all press reports said nothing about him discussing the Kurdish issue, it is clear that Iraqi Kurdistan was high on both his agenda, and that of Premier Erdogan.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.