US administrator Paul Bremer has very quietly brought the rebel hothead Moqtada al-Sadr into the Iraqi mainstream Shiite leadership fold, removing the threat posed in the last six months of a split in Iraq’s largest religious group.
The reconciliation ceremony took place in Karbala Monday, December 29.
This division would have resulted from the militia led by al-Sadr mounting a resistance campaign against the American occupation backed from Tehran or joining the Baath party’s guerrilla war.
Instead of confronting the maverick with force, Bremer opted to bring him in line by indirect means. He had the young cleric’s residence and the homes of several of his top aides clamped under siege. He also made sure they were denied funds and positions of power in Iraq’s US-appointed governing council.
In the end, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraq sources report, a three-man panel of the governing council led by Ibrahim Jaafri, head of the Shiite Daawa party, cut a deal with al-Sadr under which he acknowledged the legitimacy of the governing council and pledged his cooperation.
Such arrangements are never normally announced publicly in Iraq – that’s not the way things are done. Instead, word is carefully filtered out to a public long accustomed to reading between the lines of communiques and speeches.
As soon as the new deal became known, the entire Shiite leadership gathered for a memorial ceremony on Monday night, December 29, in honor of al-Sadr’s father, grand ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, whom Saddam Hussein ordered assassinated. In a speech praising the son, Moqtada al-Sadr, Ayatollah Harii said pointedly: “Most importantly, he is now with us.”
The remark aimed a strong hint at al-Sadr’s black sheep past and his revolt against the moderate Shiite leadership and the authority of its head, grand ayatollah Ali Sistani.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, al-Sadr finally decided to throw in his lot with the majority when he saw how the grief-stricken people of Karbala reacted to the suicide bombing atrocities in Karbala on December 27 in which some 20 people, mostly local Iraqis, were killed and 175 wounded. Thousands of Shiites took to the streets of the holy city, waving black flags and declaring the violence must stop.
He realized that popular sentiment had changed – particularly since Saddam Hussein’s capture. Seeing which way the wind blew, he decided to place himself and his following inside the Shiite establishment rather than in opposition.
Al-Sadr’s change of heart represents one of Bremer’s greatest political achievements in the pacification of Iraq. His first, well thought-out, move was to lock in mainstream Shiite support for Washington’s position in Iraq in the critical period leading to general elections and self-rule. This he rounded off by bringing the recalcitrant Shiite cleric into line and lifting the threat of discord in the community. He also paved the way to an even more significant feat.