08/20/2004, 00.00
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Moqtada al-Sadr and the self-delusion of Europeans and Arabs

by Bernardo Cervellera

Interview with Saywan Barzani, European representative of the Kurdistan regional government.

Paris (AsiaNews) – Europe and the Arab world have turned Moqtada al-Sadr into some kind of resistance hero. For most Iraqis, even Shiites, he is just someone "unstable" for whom one may feel sorry but someone who must be stopped.

Saywan Barzani, European representative of the Kurdistan regional government, accuses the West and the Arab world of ulterior motives when they portray Moqtada al-Sadr in a positive light. In his opinion, Iraq has become a convenient backdrop in which Western countries "settle scores" because of knee-jerk hatred of the US, economic competition, and political divisions. Not even Italy is spared. When Saddam was in power Italy sold him weapons. Today the Italian left is "against the new Iraq because it wants to defeat Berlusconi". On the other hand, Arabs are just afraid the new Iraq might actually become a rich democratic country.

According to the latest report Moqtada al Sadr surrendered the Imam Ali shrine to local Shiite religious leaders with the blessing of grand ayatollah al-Sistani, who is in London for heart treatment. Given al-Sadr's record of changing positions it is not clear whether he will comply with the government's repeated demands that his militia disarm.

What are Moqtada al-Sadr's intentions and what support does he have among Iraqis?

Moqtada al-Sadr's father –the ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr– was known throughout the country but was murdered by Saddam's agents. He represented an Islamist trend within the Shia world that is in favour of a more political Islam. Unlike him the young son has little charisma. His speeches are often too convoluted to understand. He belongs to a generation –the twenty-something– that wants to imitate Hezbollah. These people are underprivileged, lost, and without points of reference, not resistance fighters.

Everyone in Najaf is against them: the population, the Council of ayatollahs, and most marjah, those with highest authority on religion and law in Shiism. And most of these people have actually left the city so as not to be associated with these bandits, who clearly have foreign backing.

From a political and a military point of view, even from a psychological point of view, they are Saddam's children. In schools students did not get too many books but underwent military training. From morning till night people sang the glory of Saddam and prepared for future wars. Arabic poetry extolled the virtues of violence and war: kill! Cut someone's head off! School text books were drafted to disseminate a culture of death and violence

For 30 years people endured this type. Inevitably, it left enormous psychological scars. This is why al-Sadr's men are not normal; they need treatment.

Iraq has many obstacles to overcome but the resistance these men claim to offer is not what it needs. These people are unstable and penniless patsies, sometimes drug addicts.

It seems clear that Mr al-Sadr wants to be another ayatollah Nasrallah, head of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement. It is also clear that he wants to follow in his father's footsteps. Unfortunately, his father's shoes are too big him.

The new government laid down conditions and proposed solutions several times, but al-Sadr seems to waver between accepting and not accepting . . .

As I said mental illness is a widespread problem in Iraq and Mr al-Sadr is part of it. If one listens carefully to his speeches, one can see how . . . unhinged he is. His father was murdered; he grew in a hate-filled environment . . .

Najaf seems to have become the testing ground of the new Iraq. What will happen?

Najaf is the capital of Shia Islam. Ali's tomb is there, revered by 100 million Shiites. What the city needs is security. What it does not need are paramilitary groups. Because of them people left the city. Unfortunately, many Shiite politicians are afraid to bite the bullet but they should. The Mahdi army must be disbanded

Imagine! Al-Sadr's madness is such that he claims the army is not his, but that of the real Mahdi, the hidden imam who will soon reappear. However, the hidden imam is supposed to have given him stewardship over it. We truly live in strange times!

If one listens to what he says and looks at what he does, one can see an impulsive boy, not a grown man. By contrast Arab media tend to portray him as a resistance leader fighting the Americans.

Why do you think so much attention is given to Moqtada al-Sadr's "resistance" in the West?

There are three reasons for Europe's stance. First of all, there is a knee-jerk anti-Americanism that makes people think that whatever the US does must be wrong. Secondly, there is jealousy. Saddam's regime was very lucrative to Europe and his demise, sadly for the countries that backed him, ended juicy contracts worth billions. Finally, there is the position of Europe's Left. In a country like Italy for example, the Left opposes Italian involvement in building the new Iraq in a bid to defeat [incumbent conservative Prime Minister] Berlusconi. Iraq has become a surrogate for everyone's desire to settle scores with the US. And this is done on the backs of the people of Iraq.

For 30 years no one cared: Kurds were victims of genocide; 1.3 millions people disappeared mostly buried in desert sands; more than 2 million died in the regime's wars. But the West made money in such wars: land mines "Made in Italy" buried across Kurdistan, chemical arms sold by Germany, bombers from France . . . and no one saying anything. But of course arms sales were good for the balance sheets.

Now that Iraqis are trying to build a small democratic state, everyone is against. Our Arab neighbours, who are mostly one-man dictatorships, find our process of democratisation too close for comfort.

Have relations with neighbouring Arab countries and some Western countries improved since the fall of Saddam?

Nothing has changed! Our neighbours remain suspicious of our democratic system. In the Middle East the press is not free but in Iraq there are now 400 newspapers. We have dozens of television stations and political parties. Salaries have risen in some cases up to US$ 400 (it used to be around 2-14 dollars under Saddam). Our neighbours don't like it because it is different from how they live: permanent state of emergency, poverty, dictatorship, meekness.

Most suicide bombers come from the surrounding countries as do most of the bombs that blow up in our cities. God willing the Iraqi government has taken over security functions and is better able to protect our borders.

European public opinion is swayed by the media. When a bomb goes off in one of Baghdad's 89 neighbourhoods the others are largely unaware of what happened. In Iraqi Kurdistan things are quite. Most Iraqi cities are quite. Moreover, one would be hard pressed to read or hear about the country's economic and political progress. All the media are interested in are some bomb going off here and there, what Moqtada al-Sadr says, what some Baathist criminal does, nothing about what the other 24 million Iraqis do.

What the media reported, especially what they did not report, played a role in Saddam Hussein's regime, a regime responsible for the death of 3.5 million people, the most bloodthirsty regime in the world. Now all they can report is complaints about the US presence.

No one wants an American occupation, but for us Iraqis the truly violent occupation was that by Saddam Hussein. Just because he was Iraqi did not make his rule more bearable.

Now that we can rebuild our country, the mass media seem to be bent on denigrating our efforts. One only needs to look at what is written and said in Europe.
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See also
Security reasons cut size of delegation from national conference to Najaf
Violence to stop al-Sistani's march on Najaf
Al Sistani and Al Sadr: two differing visions of Iraq
Four die in Basra in clashes between Sadrists and pro-Iranian group
01/09/2022 17:22
Al-Maliki against al-Sadr with Basra in the balance


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