Ayatollah Al-Sadr?

Muqtada al-Sadr has gone to Iran to hit the books — and the consequences could reach far beyond the quiet halls of the Shi’ite theological schools of Qom, Iran.

Hopes were raised in Iraq last Monday when an aide to the portly leader of the Shi’ite jihad announced that the notorious anti-American leader would disband his army if Shi’ite authorities told him to do so. An aide, Hassan Zargani, announced: “If they order the Mehdi Army to disband, Moqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr movement will obey the orders of the religious leaders.”

However, on Tuesday a spokesman for Iraq’s leading Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, denied that al-Sistani had any authority in this matter — while reiterating at al-Sistani wanted al-Sadr to disband his army. Said Jalal el-Din al-Saghier of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council: “Al-Sistani has a clear opinion in this regard; the law is the only authority in the country. The top Shiite cleric had not been consulted in establishing al-Mahdi army, so it could not interfere in dissolving it.” It was all up to al-Sadr himself: “Whosoever established the al-Mahdi army has to dissolve it. Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr established this army and it is only him who has to dissolve it. Al-Sistani asked al-Mahdi army to give in weapons to the government.”

Al-Sadr may have had statements like that in mind when he insisted on Al-Jazeera in late March: “No one can deny [the right] to conduct resistance. No human mind would deny it. Resistance is the legitimate right of all peoples. Resistance automatically appears wherever there is occupation. Allah willing, the U.S. will be vanquished, just like it was in Vietnam.”

In any case, the day after al-Saghier has stated that al-Sistani wanted al-Sadr to disband his army but would not order him to do so, the waters were further muddied by the news that al-Sadr had met with al-Sistani and another leading Iraqi Shi’ite, Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri. According to another al-Sadr spokesman, they advised the young fire-breather not to disband his army.

The oddly conflicting reports are just the latest indication of friction between al-Sistani, who has endeavored to stay above political wrangling, and al-Sadr, who has been urging jihad — and leading it — against the Americans in Iraq for years. And it is significant in this regard that the meeting between the three clerics took place not in Iraq at all, but in Qom, a Shi’ite theological center where al-Sadr has been studying apparently for the last year.
Two notable alumni of Qom’s centers of Islamic learning are the Ayatollah Khomeini, who spent ten years there, and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese jihad terrorist group Hizballah. Al-Sadr, while he is son of one Grand Ayatollah and son-in-law of another, is a seminary dropout and hardly a scholar of Islam. Now it appears that he has gone to Qom to resume his Islamic studies and eventually to emerge as an Ayatollah himself. An Ayatollah al-Sadr would have enough stature to be able to sideline al-Sistani, and would well-positioned — especially given his illustrious pedigree — to become the leader of Shi’ite Iraq after al-Sistani’s death, or even to shunt him aside before his death. And if al-Sadr was involved (as many have charged) in the April 2003 murder of a rival, the prominent Iraqi Imam Abdul Majid al-Khoei, he may not hesitate to accelerate al-Sistani’s passing — once he has the requisite religious credentials.

That won’t be for another five years at the earliest. However, the fact that al-Sadr has gone to study at Qom indicates that he has every intention of remaining a player on the Iraqi political scene for the foreseeable future — and at age 35, he could be on that scene for decades to come. His overall agenda he made clear in the Al-Jazeera interview: “Another important goal is to make society religious, rather than secular. People keep talking about an ‘Islamic government’ and so on. What is more important is to make society, not just the government, Islamic.”

Is Muqtada al-Sadr studying in Qom in order to position himself to become the Khomeini of a theocratic, Shi’ite Iraq? It’s a possibility that cannot be dismissed — and one that, if it comes to pass, would establish a Shi’ite Arab client state of Iran, inalterably hostile to the United States, in the heart of the Middle East.