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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry