LONDON— Twelve centuries ago, the political leader who ruled the Islamic Abbasid Empire from his seat in Baghdad—named Abu Ja’far al-Mansur—was asked what it took to govern the massive swath of land that stretched from modern-day Tunisia to Pakistan. He said, “There are four people I need by my side: the chief judge, the chief of police, the chief of taxation, and the postmaster—who keeps tabs on the first three and writes me reliable reports about them.” Clearly, Iraq’s reputation as land of corruption, infighting and double-dealing has deep roots.
That uncertainty is being felt in Iraq today as two positive stories—the U.S. announcing it will withdraw all troops by Christmas, and the long dreamed-of reality of a democratic, federal Iraq standing on its own—have instantly yielded to a series of negative questions about Iraq’s future.
Will Iraq become a pawn of Iran? Will it become the ground upon which Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran fight for supremacy of the Muslim world? Will it quickly descend into civil war between minority Sunnis and majority Shiites? Will Iraqi Kurds—Sunnis who make up one fifth of the population—try to break away to form their own state? And will Iraq’s fledgling military and security forces be able to keep the peace?
Amidst this cascade of uncertainty lies one absolute: whether Iraq devolves into violence or builds toward stability, the road will run through a radical anti-American Shiite cleric who was catapulted to power before he was ready, directs his flock with uncertainty and has yet to demonstrate he can preach anything but hate.
If the future of Iraq seems confusing, it is in part due to the fact that nobody seems to know the mind of Moqtada al-Sadr—including Sadr himself. As the International Crisis Group put it in a 2006 report, Moqtada still seems to be deciding whether he wants to play the role of “spoiler or stabilizer.”
Dubbed the “Atari Ayatollah” for his love of video games, the 38 year-old imam comes from religious royalty, tracing a lineage that goes back to the Prophet Muhammad.
His father’s cousin, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, challenged the Quietist school of the Shiite establishment in the 1970s: the belief, among Shiite Muslims, that religion and politics should stay separate. Preaching the integration of Islamic law into national law, his growing popularity threatened Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who had him killed in 1980.
Picking up where Muhammad Baqir left off, Muqtada’s father—Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr—became a champion of disenfranchised Iraqis. Wary of Saddam, he closed his Friday sermons by thundering, “Down with America. Down with Israel.” It was to no avail: Saddam had Moqtada’s father assassinated in 1999, along with his two oldest brothers.
A third brother became a recluse. As a result, virtually overnight, Moqtada—then just 25 years old—was thrust into the role as spiritual leader to thousands. He was overmatched—a profile at the time by journalist Hazem Al-Amin observed that the “black turban hasn’t quite settled on his head” and that his rhetorical style failed “to rise even to level of the average literate Iraqi.”
But he had a fundamental hatred at his core: not just for Saddam, who had killed at least a dozen members of his extended family, but for America. He viewed the U.S. as the party responsible for propping up Saddam for decades—the one who had also abandoned thousands of Shiites to slaughter in the early 1990s after encouraging their uprising following the first Gulf War.
When U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003, Moqtada found his voice and purpose. Launching a militia called the Mahdi Army to “free” Iraq from occupation, Moqtada’s forces became the most deadly in Iraq, targeting U.S. troops while killing tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims during the sectarian war of 2006-07. He was an equal opportunity killer: in 2003, he ordered his thugs to kill Shiite cleric Sheikh Abdul Majid Khoei, whose father was grand ayatollah for two decades, and who made the “mistake” of cooperating with U.S. troops.
In southern Iraq and parts of Baghdad, the Mahdi army created religious courts and banned all things considered “pro-Western,” from music to bars. After being routed by U.S. forces in 2008, Moqtada retreated to Iran, where he studied at the same religious school as the Ayatollah Khomeini. From Iran, he transformed his flock into a political party, winning 40 seats in the March 2010 parliamentary elections. He used that leverage, first to block Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s return to power, and then to form a coalition government with Maliki.
Returning to Iraq in January as U.S. and Iraqi officials discussed an extension of the U.S. military presence, he warned that “if the Americans don’t leave Iraq on time, we will restart the activities of the Mahdi Army.” When President Barack Obama announced that all troops would leave by Christmas, with some decamping to other parts of the Middle East, he charged, “America is not only occupying Iraq but also other Islamic countries.” When asked the message of the Sadr Movement last week, he replied, “I say to the American solider: get out for good.”
Whether Moqtada is capable of anything but anti-Americanism remains to be seen. His contradictions confuse his own people: while he claims to be an Iraqi nationalist, his frequent trips to Iran and cozy ties to its mullahs lead many to question which capital holds his affection. While he has sworn off sectarian violence, it was a high-ranking Mahdi officer who reportedly hired a Mexican drug lord in the bizarre plot last month to kill a Saudi envoy on U.S. soil. While he is responsible for Maliki remaining in office, he constantly undermines him, warning the prime minister last week not to accept an Obama invitation to visit Washington.
But it is hard to imagine the successor to two legendary ayatollahs—who reportedly dreams of being grand ayatollah of Iraq himself—either driving America out or selling Iraq out. In a perfect world, he would be tried for the murder of Sheik Khoei. But in this world, not even Moqtada seems to know his next move. Unlike a video game, it’s not entirely clear who the friends and enemies of the Atari Ayatollah really are—or what it means to win.