Messiah or realist?
May 14-20, 2009
What was Muqtada Al-Sadr doing in Turkey? Salah Hemeid tries to untangle the mystery behind the Shia leader's surprise visit to Iraq's northern neighbour
The trip by Al-Sadr to Ankara and his discussions with top Turkish leaders last week raised a lot of eyebrows in Iraq and in the region. It was the first public appearance of the firebrand Iraqi Shia leader since 2007 when he decided to take time off to study in the Iranian holy city of Qom, the prestigious seat of Shia theology. It also came a couple of months ahead of the scheduled US withdrawal from Iraqi cities on 30 June and coincided with an upsurge in suicide attacks in several areas in Baghdad, including Shia-dominated Sadr City, the key stronghold of his followers.
The official Turkish explanation for the visit was that Al-Sadr was invited to talk with top Turkish officials, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the question of establishing stability in Iraq, as well as the upcoming elections in Iraq in December. That alone could hardly justify the visit, which coincided with the appointment of the architect of Turkey's new vigorous Middle East policies, Ahmet Davutoglu, as the country's new foreign minister. Davutoglu is known to be an advocate of a bigger and stronger role for Turkey in Iraq with a focus on building closer relations with Iraq's diversified ethnic groups.
Turkish analysts, however, suggested that by showing up in Ankara after disappearing nearly two years ago, Al-Sadr wants to emphasise that he is not just an agent of Tehran, that the visit seemed aimed more at weakening Iran's influence in Iraq. Some did not rule out the possibility that the United States had encouraged the visit to give Turkey a bigger role in Iraq's stabilising efforts. Others say Al-Sadr is only trying to join the ranks of Iraq leaders who have been building closer relations with Ankara. Whatever Al-Sadr's motives, by receiving him Ankara increased its Iraqi profile ahead of the planned US withdrawal in 2011.
Seen from Baghdad, Al-Sadr's visit to Turkey could hardly have gone unnoticed, especially by his foes. The trip could usher in a new era for the radical Shia leader and his bloc, which has been repeatedly written off since his disappearance from public life some two years ago. The bloc, who took 28 out of 275 seats in the Iraqi parliament, is trying to secure its hold. Al-Sadr, whose followers claim that he has assumed the title of Grand Ayatollah after concluding his studies in Qom, is expected to return to Iraq soon to play a central role in Iraq's future.
Perhaps as important, Al-Sadr also reportedly met with a large number of Sadrist officials and personalities as well as a delegation of top leaders who came from Iraq. During the meeting, he reportedly laid out the political strategy for the movement in the new era which he said will remain focussed on pushing the American troops to leave Iraq sooner rather than later. The assembled Sadrists took the opportunity to discuss political strategies and coalitions for the coming election period in light of the failure of the Shia United Iraqi Alliance. Al-Sadr reportedly spoke of "continued resistance" to occupation, promising not to use weapons against Iraqi soldiers but to continue all forms of resistance.
It is difficult to figure out what exactly lies behind Al-Sadr's surprise visit to Turkey but one can understand the fear it had sparked both inside and outside Iraq. Iraqi Kurds, for example, were more than worried. The Kurdish Globe, the only Kurdish newspaper published in Iraqi Kurdistan, reported that the controversial issue of Kirkuk was the common denominator between Al-Sadr and Turkish leaders during their talks. It even suggested that Al-Sadr was assuming the role of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's unofficial envoy to coordinate stances with Turkey in order to press the Kurds and the UN on the status of the oil-rich Kirkuk. Arabs, both Sunnis and Shias, along with Iraqi Turkomen in the province, oppose the Kurdish proposal to incorporate Kirkuk into the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, and Kurds fear this will encourage Turkey to interfere in the dispute.
Many Arab countries seem not at ease with Ankara's increasing role in Iraq, though Turkish newspapers reported that Turkey informed some Arab officials that Ankara had invited Al-Sadr to Turkey "in order to calm the situation in the region." The Saudi- owned London-based daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat questioned "the reasons behind Al-Sadr's surprise appearance in Turkey after an almost two-year absence in Iran. The welcome that Al-Sadr received in Turkey with regards to his meetings with both the Turkish president and the prime minister justifies questions being asked on the real motive behind the visit. Are we looking at mediation, or the arrangement of the situation in Iraq by Turkey and Iran prior to US withdrawal?"
Egypt has also shown clear interests in Al-Sadr's visit to Turkey and sent one of its senior diplomats to Ankara to talk to Turkish officials about Iraq. Foreign Ministry Assistant for Arab Affairs Salaheddin Abdel-Rahman travelled to Ankara on Saturday for talks with top Turkish diplomats to know Turkey's assessment of the situation in Iraq.
Even though many had expected that the Al-Sadrist Trend has vanished in the ashes of the 2006- 2007 civil war, Al-Sadr's trip to Turkey may signal his comeback to the chaotic Iraqi political scene. The Shia leader did not divulge his new agenda except by urging his followers "to continue fighting the occupation of their country and demand the removal of all foreign troops." Yet many of his aides talked about renewal of the movement that counts largely on support of millions of marginalised Shias including a determination to participate in December's parliamentary election. Some of these aides who participated in the Istanbul conference said Al-Sadr refused to turn the trend into a political party, fearing that would weaken the social and political foundations of the trend which tries to appeal even to Iraq Sunni Arabs.
Al-Sadrists have always been basically a loose amalgam of disgruntled Shia groups and militias, and Al-Sadr himself was at first no more than an inexperienced young cleric using his family credentials to appeal to angry and deprived Shia urban poor. It is time to see if his "disappearance" to study in Iran has reinvented him as a politician who understands the complexity of Iraq's politics rather than a messiah pushing Shias into uprisings against the Americans and the new Iraqi establishment without a clear agenda. It is an open question whether he is capable of such an effort and there is widespread legitimate concern that his Turkish visit will only turn him into another Iraqi pawn in the regional chessboard.