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September 9, 2004
Sadr Loses Momentum, Cash After Najaf

Part-time rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the 21st century reincarnation of Enver Pasha in his military skills, has seen his position erode considerably since his ejection from Najaf and the Imam Ali shrine. The AP's Hamza Hendawi reports that Sadr's once-rabid militia has lost its zeal and the loss of senior members undermines their ability to rebuild:

The erosion of some of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's status showed recently when his supporters gathered outside his office here. They chanted a prayer for their leader but showed none of the zeal that marked similar rituals just weeks ago. ... [T]he mood among al-Sadr's followers has become somber. Gone is the swagger of the men loathed and feared by many people here for bringing death and destruction to one of Islam's holiest cities. ...

Some al-Sadr aides believe joining the mainstream would transform a charismatic movement into just another political party and cost it its appeal.

"We are essentially a social and religious reform movement," said Abbas al-Roabi, a senior al-Sadr follower who said he quit the movement following the Aug. 30 declaration that the Sadrists planned to enter politics.

As I wrote when Sadr backed down and left the mosque, he most certainly lost prestige in that negotiation. Sistani successfully asserted native philosophical control over Shi'ite Iraq, as opposed to Qumian (Iran's Shi'ite philosophical strain) radicalism. In a more practical sense, of course, rebels who continually sue for peace and give up territory -- especially holy ground like the Imam Ali shrine -- do not lead many men in the future.

Even more practically, Sadr's loss of status has led to a more measurable loss of cash flow. While controlling large mosques, Sadr had at his disposal the offerings given to the clerics by the faithful. At the Imam Ali shrine, this was a major source of income for Sadr and his militia, as believers make pilgrimages on a regular basis and usually leave large donations of cash, gold, and jewelry as their tithe.

Nor is that the only source of income for Shi'ite clerics. The mosques collect "taxes" from their regular attendees, which again go directly to the cleric. Sadr used to benefit from this cash source as well, but that has now dried up. His former mentor, Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri in Iran, now demands that the more radical Shi'a that paid Sadr these taxes instead pay his representatives, which not only hits Sadr's pocketbook but also underscores his Iranian ties.

Sadr does have his power base in Baghdad's Sadr City still left, but the Americans have been targeting that area in order to disarm it while his Mahdi army is demoralized and running low on funds. It appears to be part of a broad effort this month to reduce the areas under insurgent control throughout the Sunni triangle after Sadr's rebellion in the south was broken, and it threatens to leave Sadr even more isolated than before. But without the mosque revenue, Sadr will have difficulties in rebuilding again, and without the authority that Haeri stripped from him, he will find it hard to attract new recruits.

Sadr may be forced into politics to retain any relevancy at all. He proved himself to be an inept if charismatic revolutionary, and a diffident one at that. Perhaps a career on the stump would suit him better.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 9, 2004 5:18 AM

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