Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Moqtada Al Sadr’s not-so-barmy-army

The Sadr movement in Iraq is typically portrayed as a hard-line sect. But Sheikh Hassan al-Zarghani tells Katherine Haywood that its main goals are a united Iraq free from occupation.

July 1, 2006
5 min read

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle