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Friday, May 25, 2007

Moqtada Al sadr Returns to Iraq.

"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History

HISTORY IN THE NEWS: DEVOTED TO THE DEEP ORIGINS OF CONTEMPORARY EVENTS AROUND THE WORLD.

BULLETIN. As a radical Iraqi cleric re-emerges from hiding, a long history of Shia nationalism in Iraq may gradually turn not just against the United States occupation, but against Shia Iran as well; and even against the Sunni-Shia sectarian war.

IN THE NEWS TODAY.: Moqtada Al Sadr, radical leader the powerful populist Shia party, the “Sadr Group” and the powerful militia, ‘The Mahdi Army’, returns to Iraq from a period of refuge in Iran. A master of timing and political tactics, al Sadr has reappeared at a time when his nationalist rhetoric may catch a tidal wave of anti-American, anti-occupation sentiment among rival Sunni and Shia groups alike.

Many say Al Sadr fled to Iran to avoid the US army crackdown and troop surge in Baghdad, but his followers say he never left Iraq. His re-emergence, however may have been timed to coincide with the departure to Iran for cancer treatment of Aziz al Hakim, the head of a rival Shia group, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC).

Al Sadr, despite alliances of convenience with Iran and with other Iraqi Shia groups, is a radical Iraqi nationalist and his “Reform and Reconciliation Project” is part of a move to unite with Sunni groups and overcome Sunni-Shia sectarian fighting in a joint effort to expel the US-led occupation To this end, he has cracked down on anti-Sunni extremists in his own militia. He also believes in a centralized Iraq. By contrast, Al Hakim, with his SIIC and Badr Corps militia, backed a constitutional decision for a loosely federated Iraq with autonomous Shia, Kurd and Sunni areas. Al Sadr has strongly opposed this. He has also criticized Al Hakim’s relatively close alignment with Iran and its moderate support of the US as well as the Iranian links of the other major Shia Party, Al Dawa.

Some analysts believe that Sadr and al Hakim could be headed for a violent showdown over centralist, ultra-nationalist versus federal visions for the country’s future.

LOOKING BACK: Even through they were oppressed under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Shia were divided: between those like the clerical family, the Hakim clan, who preferred to work for revolition in exile in Iran with backing from Teheran- and fervent nationalist Shia like Moqtada Sadr and the Sadr clan who preferred to work underground within Iraq, for a nationalist, Iraqi Shia revolution.

FROM PAST INTO PRESENT: Shiism originated in Iraq in the 7th century in a succession dispute over the Caliphate, a struggle in which those known as Sunnis prevailed. While the Shia continued to live in Iraq, it was neighbouring Iran which became the dominant Shia power when Iran converted to Shiism early in the sixteenth century.

The distinction of Iraqi 'Arab' versus 'Persian' or Iranian Shia dates from this period. Ethnically, Persia was Iranian while Iraq was Arab and so there developed Arab Shia in Iraq and Iranian Shia in Iran. Though Iraq continued to be ruled by Sunnis, under the Ottoman Empire, the Arab Shia region of the south retained a heavy cultural and relgious Persian influence from Iran. By the 18th century, pilgrimages to Iraq's Shia shrine cities, Iranian relgious authority and some Iranian migration into southern Iraq had two opposite effects: it created close bonds between Iranian and Iraq Shia but it also produced a nationalist 'Arab' reaction among many Iraqi Shia who felt threatened by Persian domination. In the 19th century mass migrations of Arabs from the Saudi Arabian desert into southern Iraq, where they converted to Shiism, increased a sense of Arab identity among the Iraqi Shia.

The same division among 'Iraqi nationalist' and 'pro-Iranian' Shia as persisted into modern Iraq. The myth that all Iraqi Shia secretlly favour a Shia hegemony from Iran was caused partly by the continuing oppression of Iraqi Shia by their Sunni rulers. The same suspicion of universal Shia fealty to Iran was true under British-supported Sunni rule after World War One and most recently under Saddam Hussein. But even under Saddam, the Shia were split. There were those who sought the protection of Iran and and Iran's backing for a Shia revolution in Iraq- like the Shia Hakim clan and their Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) which was founded in Iraq in 1982. And there were those Shia who fought for Saddam against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war and retained a strong sense of their Shia Arab nationalism. Along with the latter, there were also nationalist religious Shia like the Sadr clan who chose to remain inside Iraq and go underground.

The nationalist Shia and the pro-Iranian Shia re-emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein in the persons of Moqtada Al Sadr and Aziz al Haqim respectively. Al Hakim's SCIRI (now the SIIC) chose to seek support from outside powers by playing Iran and the US off against one another, while Moqtada al Sadr manipulated Iran in order to get money for his Iraqi nationalist cause while launching two nationalist armed Shia uprisings against the US occupation in 2004.

Even as Sunni Islamists ignited a sectarian war against Iraqi Shia in 2006, Al Sadr has reached out to the Sunnis in order to expand his nationalist, anti-American base. A brief nationalist uprising by a Sunni-Shia tribe in central Iraq last January suggests that the Sunni-Shia conflict may gradually give way to a ntaionalist tidal surge not just against the occupation but against Iran as well. Moqtada al Sadr wants to lead it. And even Aziz al Haqim, sensing a change in the wind, has been re-positioning his SIIC party to give it more natinalist credentials. The very name, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council is a nationalist reformulation of the name given at the party's birth in exile in Iran- 'The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolition in Iraq.'

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