AS the "student" arrives in a bulletproof limousine with heavily
armed guards, his teachers, ignoring that he's two hours late, greet
The scene takes place at the Shiite
seminary in Qom, Iran's holy city. The 35-year-old "student": Muqtada
al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, a militia often deemed one of Iran's
chief assets in Iraq.
Sadr has spent much of the last 10
months in Iran, living in a 14-bedroom villa in Tehran's posh Farmanieh
neighborhood. From there, he travels 90 minutes to Qom twice a week,
for a crash course designed to transform him first into a Hojat al-Islam (Proof of Islam) and then a full-fledged ayatollah (Sign of God).
Sadr hails from an old family of clerics but was never meant for the
cloth. His father and uncle were grand ayatollahs - until Saddam
Hussein put both to death, then also eliminated Muqtada's elder
brothers, who might have emerged as credible clerics. Thus, when Saddam
fell in '03, Muqtada, although wearing a turban and a beard, had little
In the ensuing confusion, he tried to
transform himself into a political leader by playing the pan-Arab card.
Thanks to his family's renown and to Iraqi Shiites' thirst for power,
Muqtada became a player in post-Saddam politics.
But it soon
became clear that he would always be hamstrung by his lack of religious
authority. Each time he tried to go beyond certain limits, Grand
Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of Iraq's Shiite clergy, intervened to curtail his ambitions.
For a while, Sadr sought clerical cover from two ayatollahs whom his
father had named "worthy of trust": Ayatollah Bashir Fayyadh, an
Afghan-born cleric who lives in Najaf, and Ayatollah Muhammad Ha'eri
Yazdi, an Iranian theologian based in Qom. They raised millions of
dollars for his movement, but neither would endorse his maverick
project - which, if pushed too far, could split the Shiites and give
Iran veto power over Iraqi affairs.
By the end of '04, Muqtada
had become almost dependent on Tehran - which he had castigated as an
"evil power" a year earlier. And the Iranian regime, having adopted
him, set out to transform him into a religious authority.
It normally takes at least 12 years of intensive studies to become a "mujtahid"
(who can offer religious guidance). And the title "Sign of God" can't
be secured solely by studying: Ayatollahs bestow it on only a few
individuals in each generation. The candidate must author a "resaleh" (dissertation), with at least one grand ayatollah publicly acknowledging its theological value.
Traditionally, no man under 40 could pretend to be a "Proof of
Islam," for it was at 40 that the Prophet Muhammad was approached by
Archangel Gabriel and informed of his divine mission.
"Muqtada Project" envisages shortcuts. Sadr is to complete the 12-year
course in four or five years, by which time he'd also be 40. Someone
could write a resaleh for him and someone else could attest to the work's authority. He could then receive endorsement (tasdiq) from ayatollahs close to the Tehran authorities.
Sometime in 2012 or so, we may meet Ayatollah al-Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr
al-Mahallati al-Tabatabai. By then, Najaf's four aging grand ayatollahs
could have passed on, thus making it easier for Tehran to market
Muqtada as a religious authority for Iraqis.
To win control of
Iraq after the Americans leave, Iran needs to control Najaf. But none
of the senior clerics there now is prepared to accept the authority of
Iranian "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei (himself the product of a similar
political project for manufacturing an ayatollah). So Muqtada's
makeover is of vital importance to Iran's strategy in Iraq.
Yet that plan faces other problems. The US may not run away after all.
And Sadr's followers may not wait until he has finished his makeover.
Several influential mullahs are already calling for the Mahdi Army to
end its self-declared cease-fire and resume killing Sunnis and
Indeed, Sadr's movement is growing
fragmented and marginalized. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has all but
excluded the Sadrists from his coalition, and is determined not to let
them make a splash in the coming municipal elections.
Tehran's largesse, the Mahdi Army can't meet its costs without its
usual criminal activities, including oil smuggling, hostage-taking and
dipping hands into the government cookie jar.
Muqtada faces a
tough choice. Should he continue with the Iranian project, in hopes of
winning big in four or five years - at the risk that others will fill
the vacuum in his absence? Or interrupt the Iranian project and return
to Iraq to reactivate his armed gangs - possibly exposing himself to
the Americans' full fire - which, with Sunni pressure almost gone,
could crush him?
Sadr's best bet would be to distance himself
from Tehran and return to Iraq to lead his faction with full respect
for the new constitution and the principle of changing policies and
governments via elections, rather than armed action.
Sadrists represent a real constituency; they pulled almost 11 percent
in the last general election. They can and must have a place in Iraq's
new pluralist system; they do not need to become Tehran's cat's paw in Iraq.
But does Sadr have the freedom to decide his future? He might be a
virtual prisoner, along with his new Persian bride, in that villa
facing the snow-capped Towchall mountains.