Sitting in his North London hotel lobby in a sharp, grey, shiny suit, light blue shirt and neat, trimmed beard, Sheikh Hassan al-Zarghani projects an image far removed from what you might expect from the international representative of the radical, Islamic and militant Sadr Movement in Iraq.
His organisation has been vilified in the press for the fiery language with which its leader, Moqtada Al Sadr, incited his supporters to take up arms against American forces.
But Zarghani says that the Sadr movement’s strategy has changed since the summer of 2004. After the intervention of the Grand Ayatolla Al Sistani in the stand off with the Americans in Najaf, Sadr called for a ceasefire and began engaging with the political process.
‘Every stage has its own tactics. We were attacked by the American forces in Najaf and elsewhere so we defended ourselves,’ he says. ‘But we also take part in the political struggle. That is why we entered the election and won seats in parliament.’
He does not rule out using arms in future if necessary. ‘We carry our arms not to attack but to defend ourselves. These are basic weapons. We don’t have planes or tanks,’ he says. Since making that statement, a faction of Sadr’s army claimed responsibility for shooting down a British helicopter in April. But in March, one of the bloodiest months so far in the country’s sectarian conflict, Sadr appealed for calm and said he would not retaliate.
Sadr now controls 32 seats of the ruling Shia alliance’s 128 in the 275 member parliament. His support base spreads from Kirkuk to Basra, brought together through a network of small local offices and a variety of national newspapers. Although the movement is strongly religious, with Sadr’s father a prominent cleric who was murdered by Saddam’s forces, Zarghani says that its support base lies with Iraq’s poor, both Shia and Sunni. Under Saddam, the Sadr movement built up a network of social and economic support for the families of those killed by the regime, which has continued since the war.
Zarghani says Sadr is keen to play a prominent role in the formation of ‘a free, sovereign and unified Iraq’. Sadr is firmly opposed to the type of federalism promoted by the US. ‘We will not permit a division of Iraq,’ Zarghani states clearly.
Neither does the Sadr movement accept the economic structures put in place by the provisional coalition authority under Paul Bremmer or the interim Iraqi government led by Ayad Alawi. Zarghani expresses concern about privatisation and the opening up of the Iraqi economy to foreign investors, as decreed by Bremmer. But he explains that Sadr’s primary concern is getting foreign troops out of the country. ‘We cannot deal with the economic issue without dealing with the military occupation. Only then will we be able to address more effectively the looting of the Iraqi economy and the country’s resources.’
‘The longer the troops stay, the more the possibility there is for civil war,’ he says, dismissing the idea that withdrawal itself would inflame internal fighting. ‘The current sectarian strife in Iraq was imposed on the country by the invading army, which wanted to implement its own policies through divide and rule.’
He says Al Qaeda and remaining elements of the Ba’athist regime are stirring up hatred within the traditionally plural society, claiming that the Sadr movement is a unifying force. ‘We want a non-sectarian programme,’ he says, which incorporates ‘a lot of political parties and movements in Iraq, regardless of their sector and religious affiliation, to participate in the patriotic programme’.
Zarghani is keen to show the movement’s openness. He says that the Shia cleric’s Mahdi Army defended Sunni mosques from retaliatory attacks last February, and that Sadr has suggested communal Friday prayers at alternating Sunni and Shia mosques. Zarghani displays a photo on his camera-phone depicting Sadr sitting next to the patriarch Mar Adi, head of the Assyrian community in Iraq. The image portrays a willingness to reach out to other religions, although some analysts claim that the Sadr movement’s actions in its stronghold of Najaf belie that claim.
On the relationship between religion and the State, Zarghani steers clear of insisting upon an Islamic state, sticking to generalised comments: ‘We are hoping for a government that respects the religion of the majority of Iraqi people – Islam. But it is important the interests of ethnic and religious minorities are safeguarded.’
This insistence upon the unity of Iraqi people is uppermost for the Sadrists. ‘The main dangers facing our people are the threat of partition and the threat of sectarian war,’ Zarghani concludes.