Nine months ago a poll indicated that 1% of Iraq’s population supported the rebel Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In a poll carried out in May the same organisation found that 68% of Iraqis supported him, second only to Ayatollah al-Sistani.
The outcome of the second siege of Najaf will have done nothing to undermine al-Sadr’s standing. For the second time the US-led coalition attempted to crush al-Sadr and his militia. For the second time they have failed utterly.
Militarily, there is no doubt that US firepower could crush al-Sadr’s ’Mahdi army’. But this is not only a military question. This is a guerrilla war where the Iraqi militia melt away when they face attack. And the more damage US imperialism inflicts, the more the fire of Iraqi national revolt is stoked up - ready to burst forth with renewed strength in the near future.
The recent three week-long onslaught on Najaf has undoubtedly killed many anti-occupation fighters as well as killing, maiming and making homeless countless civilians. But it resulted in the uprising spreading to at least seven cities and ended with US and coalition forces agreeing to pull out of Najaf, and al-Sadr being told by a Iraqi ’government’ minister that he is "as free as any Iraqi citizen to do what he likes" - even though his militia has not disarmed itself.
While al-Sadr has been strengthened, Allawi’s weak government has been exposed as a fig-leaf of US imperialism. Allawi could not carry out his threats to "crush" al-Sadr’s forces. Not only did the military action fail, it was entirely carried out by non-Iraqi, coalition ie US forces. Nor are Allawi’s problems limited to Najaf. Coalition and Allawi’s forces have almost entirely lost control of the Sunni areas of Iraq.
Ayatollah Sistani, the most senior Shia figure in Iraq, played a crucial role in getting the US off the hook in Najaf by brokering the peace deal. However, Sistani is trying to carry out a very difficult balancing act and his position will be undermined the more he is seen as supporting the US occupation.
By contrast al-Sadr is now the symbol of opposition to the US occupation. Sadr’s main basis of support comes from Sadr city, the poor Shia area of Baghdad, which has over 2 million of the 5.5 million population. Living in desperate poverty they fear that the Allawi government is attempting to reconstruct the Baathist, Sunni-dominated, state machine, cheating the Shia, who makeup 60% of the population, of any political control.
But while Sadr’s main base is amongst the poor Shia, he is also attempting to appeal to layers of the Sunni population on the basis of Iraqi nationalism. However, real unity of the Iraqi masses can only be achieved on a class basis.
Sadr’s broadening support gives a glimpse of the potential for a mass movement against the occupation that unites together the different ethnic and religious groups of Iraq. Nonetheless, Sadr’s programme, which is for a reactionary theocratic Shia state, does not offer a way forward for the Iraqi masses.
The solution lies with the working people and poor masses of Iraq. The Socialist Party stands for a mass movement of the working class and the oppressed masses for an end to the occupation of Iraq.
Such a movement should call for the convening of an Iraq-wide national assembly of democratically elected delegates to vote on the formation of a workers and poor farmers’ government - the basis to deal with the crushing problems facing Iraq. It should also establish multi-ethnic defence forces to guard against ethnic and religious clashes and to protect the security of all, under the democratic control of working people.
From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales