Many have forgotten Moqtada al Sadr, the fiery young cleric, the “thug” that the U.S. military swore it would kill last spring. It has been assumed Sadr and U.S. forces entered into a truce last summer that he would support the coming elections in Iraq.
That assumption would be wrong.
“They must hear that the Iraqi people will always demand their rights, even if we give our lives!” the preacher declared. Behind him, slogans put up on a concrete blast wall echoed the protesters’ pleas. “We don’t want elections,” one read. “We want electricity.”
The protest in Baghdad and others in towns across southern Iraq, including Kut, Amarah and Karbala, marked the latest campaign by Sadr’s group, a grass-roots movement led by Shiite clergy that claims to speak on behalf of the Shiite downtrodden. Through protests, sermons and declarations by the reclusive Sadr, the movement is signaling its doubts about the Iraqi election, ending months of ambiguity over whether Sadr had surrendered his arms for a place in the political process.
Sadr’s men have stopped short of calling for a boycott but insist they are not supporting the election. In coded language, they have ridiculed Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s most influential religious leader, whose perceived backing of the top Shiite coalition has made it the favorite in the vote.
The movement is gambling that the deep disenchantment in the capital over epidemic kidnappings, shortfalls in food rations, the threat of insurgent attacks and, most visibly, the fuel crisis will persist under a new government.
On the outside looking in, unsullied by a role in that government, Sadr’s men say they will capitalize on the disenchantment, turning their numbers “from hundreds of thousands into millions,” as one official put it. They are fashioning themselves as a street-level protest movement, as nationalist as it is religious, with the threat of force to back its demands.
“The government has given nothing to the Iraqi people, and all the political parties say yes to the Americans. The elections are useless. They will do nothing for us,” said Nizar Khanjar, 27, a participant in last week’s protest, where hardly any of the men had gray hair and some were too young to shave. “Only the Sadr office is defending the rights of the people.”
As recently as this month, U.S. officials were saying they thought Sadr would take part in the elections, but they are reconsidering. At the same time, many say they don’t believe a renewal of fighting with his militia, the Mahdi Army, is imminent, even if suspicions were raised by the killing this month of a police chief and local council member in the Baghdad slum where he enjoys his most strident support.
“Today, he seems to be choosing neither” political participation nor armed revolt, the diplomat said.
“I personally will stay away [from the elections] until the occupiers stay away from them, and until our beloved Sunnis participate in them,” the statement read. “Otherwise they will lack legitimacy and democracy.”