Writing a Profile of Muqtada al-Sadr

Michele Norris talks with Michael Hirsh, senior editor at Newsweek. Hirsh was one of the reporters on the magazine's cover story this week on the influence of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We're going to find out more now about a man we just heard mentioned in Jaime's piece and who's mentioned in almost every story or conversation about Iraq. Moqtada al-Sadr is a Shiite religious leader and the de facto head of the Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army. He's also a political force to be reckoned with. His political bloc controls 30 of the 275 seats in the Iraqi parliament.

And according to Newsweek magazine, he is the most dangerous man in Iraq. That's the headline on the cover of this week's issue. Newsweek dispatched a team of reporters to put together an extensive profile of the Muslim cleric. Their conclusion is that Sadr's influence is so great that he more than any other individual holds the key to determining America's fate in Iraq.

Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek. He's one of the reporters on that Newsweek cover story and he joins us now in the studio. Mike, thanks for being here.

Mr. MICHAEL HIRSCH (Senior Editor, Newsweek): Happy to be here.

NORRIS: Why is Moqtada al-Sadr the most dangerous man in Iraq?

Mr. HIRSCH: Well, mainly because he is the principal figure behind the most dangerous sectarian group on the Shiite side that has been responsible for many of the reprisal killings against the Sunni portion of the population led by the insurgency.

And of course when things really spun out of control in terms of these reprisal killings getting worse and worse over the past year, it was Sadr and his Mahdi Army who were behind it.

At the same time, he is dangerous because he supplies a substantial portion of the power base of the current Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who is really torn between two different champions, let's say, Sadr on one side whose virulently anti-American, and George W. Bush on the other side. So it's a very, very difficult situation politically for Maliki and for the United States.

NORRIS: Much of his power rests with his control, or at least his alleged control, of the Mahdi Army. I guess that's the question. How much does he really control that insurgency?

Mr. HIRSCH: I think there is certainly plausible deniability, let's say, in his control of some of these radicalized elements. There is some evidence, it's been reported in recent months that some extremist factions of the Mahdi Army are operating on their own.

But at the same time he's a figure of enormous prestige, a champion of the Iraqi underclass. The counterpoint ideologically to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who in the early days of the occupation was the most prestigious figure until Shiites finally decided you know what, we've had enough of restraint, which is what Sistani was counseling, and we need to sort of kick some butt. And that's what he's been doing.

NORRIS: He has long been a revered figure in Sadr City. He comes from a long line of clerics. How has he sort of built his populist appeal in the years since the U.S. invasion?

Mr. HIRSCH: Well, he has been riding this wave of anti-Americanism that has grown with each passing year. He was, you know, one of the original anti-American firebrands out there giving speeches in Sadr City.

At the same time, somewhat on the model of, say, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Mahdi Army has been the supplier of not just security, but has also provided services - health clinics, schools. So it's been very effective that way in winning hearts and minds in its own way.

NORRIS: Michael, I was interested to read how the Mahdi Army had taken control of many of the gas stations and the propane trade in Sadr City.

Mr. HIRSCH: Yeah. One of the things that Sadr has done very cleverly is to use his control, for example, of ministries like health and transportation to gain control of that trade in critical propane, for example. He proved to be a very, very powerful and effective populist politician.

NORRIS: What does he ultimately want?

Mr. HIRSCH: I think that that remains to be seen. As trite as that answer may sound. He says he wants an Islamicized Iraq. Whenever the Mahdi Army moves into any particular neighborhood or town, anything un-Islamic gets cast out. So you do have this sense of a mini Iran being created. And indeed, there's even some evidence that while Sadr was never a particular ally of the Iranians, he's getting more and more help from them. So I think, you know, a Shia Islamist type state run by him.

NORRIS: Would that preclude Sunnis from holding onto any kind of power in his vision of Iraq?

Mr. HIRSCH: I think in this environment, Michele, we have to think of Iraq as a place that is beyond healing in terms of the sectarian divide. There just seems to be no prospect for a genuine unity government led by someone like Sadr where Sunnis would be accorded genuine power, and I think you're going to end up, you know, with something like Bosnia with oil.

NORRIS: Michael, thanks so much.

Mr. HIRSCH: Thank you.

NORRIS: Michael Hirsch is a senior editor at Newsweek Magazine. He was one of the reporters on this week's cover story on Moqtada al-Sadr.

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