Najaf, Asharq Al-Awsat—In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Sadrist Movement leader Moqtada Al-Sadr gave his view about the current political and sectarian situation in Iraq, the Maliki government, and what lies in store for the country.
The Shi’ite cleric painted a bleak picture for Iraq’s future, saying that the country is presently hostage to terrorism, extremism, and violence and that the situation is only going to get worse.
Sadr spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat from his base in the holy city of Najaf, saying that while his Mahdi Army—based out of Sadr City in Baghdad—may no longer be operating on the ground, it still exists. He also spoke about the state of affairs between his own movement and off-shoot Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, confirming that many members of the organization had returned to the ranks of the Sadrist Movement.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How do you view the current situation in Iraq? What direction are things heading in?
Moqtada Al-Sadr: I have said, and still say, that the situation in Iraq is a dangerous one, although the country is not at the peak of danger. Iraq is a hostage to terrorism, extremism, and violence. We are ruled by car bombs, killing, and bloodshed; only death rules. This is Iraq and this is the situation.
Q: How did things reach this critical juncture?
In my opinion, the main reason behind the current situation is the absence of a paternal ruling figure. If there had been a father-like ruler supporting all spectrums of society, then the situation would be different. Of course, the main reason for this situation is the ‘destroyer’ (Saddam Hussein) and the Occupation.
Q: The Sadrist Movement played a pivotal rule in the formation of the current government, but you’re now speaking out against Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Why?
I tried to commission someone else to head the government. I tried to secure this post being assigned to Dr. Iyad Allawi, but we did not succeed. I tried to commission (former vice president) Dr. Adil Abdul-Mahdi but we also failed in this. I tried with other parties and we also did not succeed, to the point that I was dubbed the kingmaker.
Q: Were there external pressures that led to Nouri Al-Maliki being chosen as Prime Minister?
Pressure in the real sense of the word? No. But as I said, this appointment was forced through. There is no better description than the word ‘forced’ because it came about as a result of general pressure, including from the people. Some said I was the one delaying the formation of a new government…therefore I was forced to choose who was already there, so to speak.
Q: Do you think Maliki will remain Prime Minister for a third term?
Yes, in this political climate he will remain Prime Minister for life.
Q: What about all the political figures and parties that oppose him?
It seems that many are against him, but in reality there are many other factors that must be taken into account. There is the electoral commission, the agents on the ground, and internal and external support. There are many elements that affect our government, not just the people, and this includes political plotting. Maliki has begun cooperating with the Kurds again, as well as [Parliamentary Speaker] Osama Al-Nujaifi and the Arab Sunnis. He is beginning to put forward a new narrative, and this is how he will obtain the votes he needs to survive. This is if parliamentary elections in Iraq take place on time…they may be delayed indefinitely.
Q: Do you think, for example, that emergency laws or measures could be introduced in Iraq to keep Maliki in power without elections?
Well said….plus there are other matters. You, as a journalist, know what follows the cancellation of elections.
Q: Some observers say that the Sadrist Movement could form the next government? What do you think about that?
If it is written for the Sadrist movement to form the next government with a patriotic and paternal spirit, then I am all for it. However I’m against this if it means the Sadrist Movement committing the same mistakes as the current government. I am not aligned with any one figure’s interests; I am for the Iraqi people. If Iraq benefits from something, then I am for it. I am known for condemning and issuing directives against those who belong to my own group, more than against those who belong to other parties.
Q: What’s the story behind you initially distancing yourself from the political arena, only then to subsequently return to politics?
This was not a distancing from political work, but rather from despair. The proverb says that ‘one hand does not clap.’ I hear many comments criticizing me, saying that I am against the Shi’ites or that I am out of tune with the Shi’ite community. I am also sometimes even accused of operating outside of political and legal norms. In reality, I walk in line with popular norms, with divine norms, which I have discovered through my own God-fearing conscience. There is a wheel that is spinning both inside and outside of Iraq; while I have become like the stick in the spokes of this wheel. They want to break me, but cannot.
Q: What is the relationship between the Sadrist Movement, the organization’s political authority, and the Ahrar parliamentary bloc that is affiliated to your movement?
There is a good relationship, but I criticize those who fall short in their work, and there are many such people. We do not say that the Ahrar parliamentary bloc or the political authority is infallible, but I can say that they are not as bad as others.
Q: Is there any financial corruption within the Sadrist Movement or its affiliates?
I am continually on the search for any cases of corruption among the Sadrist Movement, its political authority, and the Ahrar parliamentary bloc. If I were to uncover any corruption, I would reveal this to the world immediately.
Q: Senior Sadrist movement member Qusay Al-Suhail announced his resignation as deputy parliamentary speaker, only to come out later and retract this. What’s the story behind this?
It was a minor disagreement which was then resolved. There is no ambiguity, but we wish him to be more serious in his work and more beneficial to his community. I am hard on others and push them very much—those close to me know this and they dislike me sometimes for it.
Q: Have you finished your seminary study, or will you seek to return to Qom?
I’ve done enough. Grant me sufficient opportunity and time and I will continue to study, but the problems of Iraq, its people, and its political system, have delayed my studies.
Q: Are you seeking to become a religious authority?
How would I become a religious authority? My goal is to be a mujtahid (a quality in Shi’ite jurisprudence), but becoming a religious authority requires more than being a mujtahid. I am concerned about jurisprudence, but becoming a religious authority is another matter.
Q: Shi’ite jurisprudence does not distinguish between Arab or non-Arab religious authorities, so why are there no Arab Iraqi Shi’ite authorities?
I say that conditions in Iraq have led to this current situation. If we look at Iran, they have security and stability and the conditions are ripe for seminary studies. I experienced the seminary system in Iran, and it’s a great system which flows smoothly; the student works until he becomes a mujtahid. Here in Najaf, there are thousands of obstacles in the path of the students, and that is merely until he reaches the level of mujtahid. Simply qualifying to wear the turban is difficult enough; here we must streamline the system. Iran is more unified whereas in Iraq, each person takes a different direction, each one saying: “I’m with such-and-such a party.”
Q: Does the Mahdi Army, which is under your leadership, still exist?
Yes, but it is not currently operating.
Q: What’s your relationship with Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, which began as a splinter group from your organization? Are relations still tense?
They now come and sit down with us. They are returning to the ranks of the Sadrist trend and uniting it. There is no longer any Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq; they are leaving this group to return to us. What remains of the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq have moved closer to the government, and we can call them sponsored militias.
Q: Sponsored by whom?
By the government, and this is something that is unacceptable.
Q: While we’re on the subject of the government, are you satisfied with the government’s operation? Bear in mind that anti-government protests have been reported in a number of provinces.
The people were not united in these demonstrations: if they had been, they would have achieved something. If you’re asking me about the government’s performance of its duties, I say that if it had performed any of its duties I could comment, however since it has not performed anything, what can I say?
Q: So you are saying that the Baghdad government has failed to perform any of its duties?
The government has not done anything. The only thing that the government has sought to do is preserve its grip on power, and they have succeeded in that.
Q: What is their objective in maintaining power?
Preserving power has become a goal in and of itself.
Q: What about corruption?
We can’t describe what is happening as being corruption; if you have a better description for this phenomenon, I would prefer you use that term. I cannot think of another word right now, but if you have a better one please use it.
Q: The Iraqi people specifically used this term, taking to the streets across the country to protest against government corruption. Do you agree with this?
It is the people’s right to use any description that they want, but I would say that the government is paralyzed and cannot do anything.
Q: Which political bloc or party is the Sadrist trend closest to?
We are close to all of them. We have good relations with the Kurds. We have a strong relationship with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) that is led by Ammar Al-Hakim, as well as the Iraqiya bloc and many of its members, most notably Dr. Iyad Allawi. I have tried to develop good relations with the State of Law coalition (SLC), led by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, but it seems that there is a big wall between us that we cannot break down. However there are ties that bind us to that group.
Q: Is this a political wall? Or is this caused by attempts to exert control over Iraq’s Shi’ites?
It is a political wall, and this is completely unrelated to the Shi’ite issue. On the contrary, Maliki and his coterie are from the Islamic Da’wa Party, and this means that they belong to my uncle and father’s party [Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr and Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq Al-Sadr had been leading members of the Islamic Da’wa Party].
Q: Do you think the Islamic Da’wa party under Maliki today remains the same party that your father and uncle had been a part of, namely a party formed in the name of just and noble values?
Maliki’s bloc makes this claim, but I disagree. They claim that they are a continuation of the original Islamic Da’wa Party which was founded by my uncle Mohammad Baqir Al-Sadr, and my father, Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq Al-Sadr. However, a lot of the rules and principles have changed. Many of the party’s older membership demonstrate sincere patriotism and dedication, but unfortunately they are not in control of the party. New members are dominating the party, and they have changed many of its principles. Despite this, I wish them luck.
Q: Would you describe the Islamic Da’wa Party as the ruling party?
Yes, even metaphorically. The Islamic Da’wa Party is the ruling party.
Q: What’s your view of the Kurdistan region’s latest parliamentary elections?
The transparency and fairness of these elections have been confirmed internationally, and as long as this is true, I wish them luck in achieving democracy.
Q: What is your opinion of the way that the Kurdistan Region is being governed? How do you rate their democratization process?
We need some open-mindedness because change doesn’t happen overnight. Nechirvan Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is my friend, and we are always in contact. He is trying to repair, construct, and innovate as much as he can. In Erbil, we see continuous cooperation and good relations between the people and the government. As for the rest of Iraq, we cannot say the same.
Q: Why hasn’t Baghdad tried to borrow from the Kurdish experience in building and developing Iraq? Do you think may be out of arrogance or conceit?
The reason is political conflict. Barham Saleh, former Iraqi deputy prime minister and former KRG prime minister, informed me that he had requested that a company be tasked with establishing an electric power plant in Najaf, but this was refused. He told them that he would undertake this project for free for the families of Najaf, but they still refused, fearing that this would be viewed as a victory for the Kurds.
Q: In your opinion, who is responsible for the daily bloodshed taking place in Iraq?
Everyone is responsible for this bloodshed without exception, but of course the degree of responsibility differs among our leadership, the people, the government, religious leaders, the security apparatus, intelligence agencies, and others.
Q: If we are all responsible for the spilling of Iraqi blood, who can we hold accountable for this tragic situation?
At its core, Saddam Hussein is responsible for this, but it is illogical to try to correct a mistake by making another mistake. This reminds me of the story of a house with mice problems. The family wants to get rid of the mice so they buy a cat, only then to be confronted with a cat problem. To solve this, they buy a dog. Then, of course, the dog becomes a problem so they bring in an elephant to get rid of it, and once the elephant becomes an issue, they bring in a mouse to scare off the elephant! This is precisely what is happening in Iraq today. Security officials, the commander in chief, the Ministries of Defense and the Interior, and all the security leadership, are shouldering the responsibility; but we should not hold them completely responsible.
Q: What about external factors?
This is a good point. External factors also have a large impact on this issue, negatively affecting the domestic situation.
Q: Is it true that Iran is interfering in Iraq’s domestic affairs?
Of course. In fact, Iran does not try to conceal this. Everybody is trying to support their own country, and it is known that controlling Iraq supports Iran and its politics.
Q: What about Turkey? Do you think Ankara is negatively interfering in Iraqi affairs?
No, I don’t consider their intervention negative. They intervened in the demonstrations in western Iraq, in Mosul, Al-Anbar, and Samarra. However, other than that, they don’t interfere in our internal affairs.
Q: What’s your view of the massive demonstrations that took place in Iraq’s western provinces?
I view them as being popular and legitimate, so long as they are peaceful.
Q: Do you support them?
I support them verbally and morally, but I have my own demonstrations that need my support.
Q: Is it possible to unite your demonstrations with those taking place in the western provinces?
No…they are too far away. This means that sectarian division has been imposed on us, against our will.
Q: So this is solely due to geography and distance?
This is due to the geographical factor, and also for fear of Sunni extremism, and this far outweighs my own fear of Shi’ite extremism. I call on the Sunnis to be more courageous in addressing extremism. Whenever I see Shi’ite extremism or militancy, I speak out against it; Sunnis must also condemn the sectarian attacks on Shi’ites and say outright that this is wrong. I’m not alone in saying that bombing Sunni areas is wrong and when I hear Shi’ites insulting Umar Ibn Al-Khattab [Second Caliph of Islam and divisive figure between Sunnis and Shi’ites] I leave the mosque. A brave person must say: ‘This is not right,’ while Sunnis should also know that insulting Imam Ali is wrong.
Q: Do you think there should be legislation to criminalize sectarian insults?
The law emanates from rational people; we should produce legislation that addresses this trend.
Q: What’s your view of government decisions prohibiting and banning demonstrations?
Such decisions are undemocratic, violating freedom and oppressing the Iraqi people.
Q: Over the most recent period, the Sadrist Movement has largely refrained from calling for protests. Why?
We called for a million-man march on many occasions in the past but we have grown weary. I do not want the Sadrist Movement to become over-burdened, we are part of the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi people may have other ideas that we don’t want to appropriate by demonstrating. If the Iraqi people are united, I’m one hundred percent behind demonstrations.
Q: The Sadrist movement is a big part of the Iraqi opposition and enjoys support by many Iraqis regardless of sectarian association. Is the Sadrist Movement attempting to become a more mainstream organization, away from sectarian or ethnic characteristics?
First, the opposition must be constructive and not destructive. Second, we are not moving away from our Islamic identity, but we are also not an organization that is just for Muslims, this would be a grave error. Our Islamic nature is paternal, and this is something that both Muslims and non-Muslims can get behind. Our movement is a paternal one, and it brings everyone together without exception, whether Muslim, non-Muslim, secularist, Christian, or a member of any other religion or sect.
Q: Your relations with Arab states are receding. Why is this?
Where are the Arabs? They are all occupied with the Arab Spring revolutions. We have a plan to visit Bahrain in order to bridge the gap between our viewpoints and move away from the spectre of sectarian strife, God-willing. Saudi Arabia is sacred for us, as the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located there.
Q: What do you think is the cause of sectarianism in Iraq and elsewhere?
These are the plans of America, Britain, and Israel. They did not benefit from occupying Iraq, as we kicked them out of our land, and so they sought refuge in sectarianism in order to weaken and control us.
Q: In your view why have US troops left Iraq? Who or what is responsible for getting them out?
Military resistance, both Sunni and Shi’ite. All Iraqis resisted the occupation.
Q: Maliki claims that he is behind the withdrawal of US troops.
That’s his opinion.
Q: What’s the latest regarding the Sadrist detainees?
They are still being held to this day. The main issue is that they have not been brought before court or charged with anything; if they were accused of something and evidence was brought against them, I would not stand with them. I want all innocents and resistance fighters out of detention. Attacking occupation tanks is not a crime; it is resistance. A lawmaker handed me a file on some of these resistance fighters that said they were accused of targeting American tanks and thus are considered terrorists. This is shameful! Even America doesn’t consider this terrorism. Even [former US president] Bush said that if his country were occupied, he would resist.
Q: Will you seek to participate in the next elections in a strong and sustainable manner?
Yes; I’m trying to unite Shi’ites and if this happens we will participate. I am also trying to lessen the possibility that citizens will refuse to participate in elections, because this is a scary prospect.
Q: Do you think that patriotism has subsided among Iraqis?
Very much so. I’d say that the fear is not of sectarianism in politics, but of people themselves becoming sectarian.
Q: One last question, what do you think lies in store for Iraq, particularly the country’s near future?
The near future will be bad. And it will only get worse.