Behind the lies of Petraeus
What is the truth about Muqtada al-Sadr's connections with Iran? Yassamine Mather looks at al-Sadr's pragmatic opportunism and puts the record straight
The inter-shia fighting in late March and early April in Basra and Baghdad has once again been used by both imperialist warmongers and apologists for the islamic regime in Iran to create confusion and spread misinformation about various factions of the shia United Iraqi Alliance - Dawa, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), and the Mahdi army (until September 2007) - and their relations with Iran.
On Tuesday April 8 general David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, made the latest in a long string of accusations against Iran and its “destructive” role in Iraq, including its financing of militia groups. He implied Iran had supported the Mahdi army in the recent battle for Basra, conveniently failing to mention Tehran’s support for the US occupation government in Baghdad. Ironically the same false claims are being used by Tehran apologists to ‘prove’ Iran’s credentials as an anti-imperialist force supporting the Iraqi resistance.1
However, the realities of the current inter-shia conflict are more complicated and, as most news agencies reported last week, it was in fact pressure from the Iranian regime, intervening on behalf of Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, that forced Muqtada al-Sadr to order his Mahdi followers to cease fire;2 and it is the same pressure that forced him this week to contemplate disbanding his militia if “the highest shi’ite religious authority demands it”,3 as well as call off the anti-occupation demonstration planned for April 9.4
A week is a long time in politics and an even longer one in shia politics. On March 31, al-Sadr repeated his criticism on Al Jazeera TV of Iran’s interference in Iraq and in particular of ‘supreme leader’ Ali Khamenei: “On my last visit to Khamenei I advised him - no, I reminded him - that I do not agree with Iran’s political and military aims in Iraq, and Iran must end this interference in the affairs of Iraq.” In the same interview with Al Jazeera, al-Sadr called on the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to oppose the occupation:
“I appeal to these parties to add legitimacy to the resistance and to stand by, not against, the Iraqi people because the Iraqi people need Arabs as much as they need any other person … The occupation is trying to divide sunnis and shias. It is trying to drive a wedge between Sadris and the sunnis. I love the sunnis. I am a shia, but we are all Iraqis.”
These comments, and in particular the reference to ayatollah Khamenei, were strongly attacked by newspapers and websites close to the Iranian ‘supreme leader’. The conservative website Tabnak, referring to Al Sadr’s “impudent” comments, writes: “This person was always a suspicious character. As elders have said, excessive militancy is a sign of either ignorance or treachery ... From the very beginning this group has failed to take a single step in the interests of islam. How dare he advise ayatollah Khamenei?”5 Other pro-Khamenei sites have dug out old documents claiming to prove that Muqtada al-Sadr’s father advised the shah’s court on shia practice, giving guidance to the shah’s closest ally and minister of court, Assadallah Alam.
As far as the shia leaders in Iran are concerned, al-Sadr’s emphasis on Iraqi nationalism and his call on the Arab League to show solidarity with the Iraqi resistance were tantamount to a betrayal of shia principles and over the last week al-Sadr has come under considerable pressure from the religious hierarchy in Ghom. His conciliatory moves, culminating in the cancellation of the April 9 anti-occupation demonstration in Baghdad, prove al-Sadr’s pragmatism in dealing with the shia establishment.
However, there is nothing new in either al-Sadr’s anti-occupation rhetoric or his criticism of Iran, and he will return to those themes if and when he feels the balance of forces in Basra or Sadr city is shifting in favour of his group. Over the last few years he has repeatedly stated his opposition to Iranian interference in Iraq and advocated Iraqi political unity against ‘Persian’ influence. He believes that the religious leadership of Iraq should be in the hands of ethnic Arabs, not the ethnic Persians who currently make up the higher echelons of the shia clerical establishment in Najaf.
Maybe that is why al-Sadr has recently been spending a good deal of time in Tehran, travelling twice a week to study at a seminary in Ghom in order to become an ayatollah (and presumably to change the balance of forces amongst high-ranking clerics in Najaf). Yet he realises that until such a day he has to compromise with the existing ayatollahs and grand ayatollahs (ayatollah ol ozma), such as Khamenei and Sistani. Here lies the root of his inconsistencies.
The Iranian regime is well aware that its current dominant position in the region following the coming to power of a shia government in Iraq, thanks to the US-UK invasion, is deeply resented by all Arab regimes. In addition Iran is currently in dispute with the Arab League over three islands in the Persian Gulf allegedly occupied by Iran. The League summit has urged the United Arab Emirates to seek “legal and peaceful ways” to regain the three islands (not forgetting the dispute about the name of the waters in question - Persian Gulf according to Iran, Arab Gulf according to the League).
To call on the Arab League to intervene in a dispute amongst shia factions is seen by Iran’s theocracy as total betrayal - it is as if two factions of the IRA had asked Ian Paisley to mediate between them at the height of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Iranian clerics spent last week reminding all factions of the Iraqi shia coalition of their responsibilities regarding the future of shias in a sunni-dominated region.
No-one is in any doubt that Tehran (and all factions of the regime) considers the current occupation government in Iraq as its main ally and, although publicly Iranian leaders often call for an end to the occupation, the Farsi blogs associated with the Islamic Republic Party are perfectly candid about the risks of such a withdrawal, gently reminding the shia faithful that the government of “our brotherly neighbour”, Maliki, will fall in the absence of US troops. Ironically they share this particular stance (opposition to US military withdrawal) with their arch-enemies on the soft left in Britain, such as the Euston Manifesto and Alliance for Workers’ Liberty!
The communiqué following Ahmadinejad’s visit to Iraq in March reflects the current official position of the Iranian government: “Iran has once again stressed the need for strengthening the national unity and territorial integrity of Iraq, voicing full support for prime minister Maliki’s national reconciliation plan, aimed at encouraging the presence of Iraqis of all walks of life in the political process of the country. The two sides denounced all types of terrorism against human beings, economic centres, state facilities and religious centres in Iraq. The islamic republic of Iran also voiced full support for the Iraqi government and the nation’s resolute will to continue their all-out campaign against terrorist and criminal activities.” Iran’s president announced $1 billion in loans, as well as a clutch of trade pacts with Iran’s “brotherly” neighbour.
However, despite Iran’s commitments to the Maliki regime and the war of words between supporters of ayatollah Khamenei and al-Sadr, Iran has long-term ambitions in Iraq. That is why, in the tradition of Realpolitik pursued by islamic clerics since the day they came to power, Iran will maintain ‘good relations’ with all Iraqi shia groups and leaders (including those the USA first attempted to foist on Baghdad, like Ayad Alavi and Ahmed Chalabi), warning them all about the dangers of in-fighting, while waiting to see who will gain the upper hand in current and future conflicts.
Iran’s decision to give full support to Iraqi shia opposition groups dates back to the Iranian revolution in 1979. During the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88), the Iranian clergy organised the pro-Iran, Iraqi shia opposition parties - Sciri and the Islamic Dawa Party.
Sciri was led by ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, who was among about 100 people killed in a car bomb in Najaf in August 2003. At the time many blamed al-Sadr for the attack - Hakim had offered support to the US-appointed governing council. Following his death his brother, Abdel Aziz, took over as leader of Sciri and is now a minister in the Maliki government.
The Dawa party is the oldest of the shia groups. It was set up in the 1950s as the religious party, al-Dawa al-Islamiya. Along with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Al-Dawa is an integral part of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a coalition of religious shia parties conceived and blessed by grand ayatollah Ali Sistani. Prime minister Maliki is a leading Dawa figure.
Although anti-occupation sentiment is growing by the day amongst all Iraqis, including the shia population, the vested interests of most shia political groups and clerics, not least their allegiance to the clerics in Iran (or from Iran in the case of Sistani), ensure that they remain part of the problem - ie, the imperialist occupation - rather than part of the solution.
Of course, in Basra there is a force worthy of support: Iraq’s oil workers and their union. However, even here, the influence of the shia religion and ayatollah Sistani, at least amongst individual leaders of the union, including Hassan Jomeh,6 can only lead to compromise with this or that faction of the shia coalition. One factor that has differentiated Iranian oil workers, who played a historic role in bringing down the shah’s regime, from the oil workers in Basra is the persistence of religious allegiance amongst members of the leadership, including of Naftana, the UK support committee for the Iraq Federation of Oil Unions (or at least those we have heard). Many are influenced by Sistani, who is no more than a representative of the landowning, merchant classes in Iraq.
True to his faith, Sistani is committed to do all in his power to create the kind of social disaster that will ‘precipitate’ the return of Imam Mahdi (the nine-year-old 12th imam who fell down a well 12 centuries ago and will soon rise from it again to rescue the world). While Ahmadinejad is building motorways to aid Mahdi’s speedy return, and Muqtada al-Sadr is preparing his army, the Jaish Mahdi, pious shia capitalists are doing their best to create the kind of hell on earth that should result in the resurrection of the 12th imam. Meanwhile the ayatollah ol ozma such as Khamenei and Sistani try their utmost to fool the masses with simplistic rhetoric and silly decrees, while holding out to the poor the promise of heaven and a better life after Mahdi’s return.
Sistani produces not only a list of recommended candidates at election time: he actually produces a list of everything you should do from the moment you wake up to the moment you go back to sleep. Sistani’s website provides guidance to the faithful for every trivial aspect of their lives - from the way they should drink water, to the way they should put down a pen, to the kind of music they should listen to. The question and answer section in Farsi and English covers matters as diverse as whether it is acceptable for a shia women to carry a mobile phone to the procedure to follow if a dog should lick your clothes … Yet there is a remarkable absence of any ‘answers’ regarding what most would consider the burning issues - eg, the privatisation of Iraqi (or for that matter Iranian) oil,7 privatisation in general or the US occupation itself. Repeated attempts by devout shias (and at times not so devout ex-shias) to use the interactive Q&A section of Sistani’s website in order to obtain a response on these issues have drawn a blank.
Until the anti-imperialist, anti-war working class forces, including the Basra oil workers, rid themselves of their illusions in all the shia or sunni political parties and their conservative leaders, in Iran and in Iraq, revolutionary forces will not be able to defeat the “bringers of death and destruction in Iraq”.
The systematic destruction of Iraq could not have happened without the help of Iran and its protégés in the shia coalition of the occupation government. Of course, Baghdad has a long way to go before it attains the level of corruption achieved by its “brotherly” neighbour in Tehran, whose theocracy holds the unenviable ranking of 179th out of 179 countries on Transparency International’s ‘corruption perceptions index’.8 Nor have they yet managed the levels of privatisation achieved by the islamic regime in Iran.9
However, when it comes to exploitation, capitalism and its inevitable consequences, one can already see where the shia factions of Iraq are heading. That is why workers in Iran and Iraq - and oil workers in particular - share a common struggle against war, against occupation, but also against privatisation and rampant corruption.
1. See, for example, Sami Ramadani on the Stop the War Coalition’s website: www.stopwar.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id =578&Itemid=27
2. Reported on many Iranian sites, including Akhbar Rouz: www.iran-chabar.de/news.jsp?essayId=14450
3. The Independent April 8.
4. www.alalam.ir/english/enNewsPage.asp?newsid =0310 30120080408184803
6. See www.labournet.net/world/0410/iraq1.html
9. www.mehrnews.com/fa/Default.aspx?Page=6&t =Economic