While Moqtada al-Sadr is gloating over his showing in Iraq’s 2013 provincial elections, and picking up his attacks upon Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki he has another issue to deal with. That is the Sadrist breakaway group the League of the Righteous led by Qais Khazali, who was one of the followers of Sadr’s father Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. Both claim to be maintaining the legacy of the elder Sadr. That has often led to clashes between the two, which picked up in recent months. This dispute plays into the larger struggle over who will be the leader of Iraq’s Shiite community.
During the summer of 2013 the Sadr movement and the League of the Righteous had a running battle with each other. In early June, the Sadrists held a rally in Baghdad’s Kadhimiya, which angered members of the League. That led to a shouting match, which quickly escalated to shooting with one League member ending up dead. Cleric Hazim Araji who is in charge of the Sadr office in Kadhimiya claimed that this was an assassination attempt against him. Immediately afterward there was another clash between the two groups in Baghdad. The Sadr movement accused the League of colluding with the government, claiming that a Federal Police unit knew about the attack beforehand, but did nothing. The head of the League, Qais Khazali went to two clerics to act as mediators to defuse the situation. Four days later, Araji changed his tune claiming that he was not targeted, while Khazali stated that the whole affair was the result of a personal dispute, and thanked Moqtada for not letting things get out of hand. The next month, the League of the Righteous burned several shops that were run by Sadrists in Shorja Market in Baghdad’s Karrada district. That was followed by another armed clash in August after a Mahdi Army commander Jassim Hajami got into it with Sami Salim, a leader in the League. Salim ended up shooting and killing Hajami. That provoked Mahdi militiamen to kidnap Salim, and the exchange of more gunfire between the two sides with one League member getting killed. League fighters then stormed a mosque, killing one Sadrist, and wounding another, (1) and burned three houses as well. To calm things down, the two groups paid blood money to the families of the deceased. Still, Moqtada closed his office in Najaf two days later to protest the fighting, and announced his withdrawal from politics the next day on August 6. Sadr has always had problems controlling his militia. It is not a real organization, but rather a collection of local fighters that pledge allegiance to him with little command and control. Sadr wants to focus upon politics right now, especially after he was able to work with other parties to shut out Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law in several important provinces such as Baghdad and Basra after the 2013 elections. Having his militiamen getting into yelling matches and shoot outs each month with the League of the Righteous can only be a distraction from Sadr’s larger goals. Khazali on the other hand, wants to challenge Sadr on all fronts. The League has said that it wants to enter politics, but may not be quite ready to do that since it has just said that it gave up armed struggle against the West. Instead, what it is prepared for right now is to battle the Sadr Trend in the streets through these constant provocations and fire fights. This might also have the support of the government since Maliki has cozied up to the League to provide a counter to the Sadr movement. That’s an added frustration for Moqtada. His reaction has been to pull back from politics to try to get his house in order and reign in his followers to try to prevent further clashes, and focus upon his own agenda instead of getting pulled into the League’s.
Moqtada al-Sadr and the League of the Righteous have an on going conflict over who is to assume Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr’s mantle, which they believe is the path to becoming the leader of Iraq’s Shiite community. Moqtada’s recent victories in the 2010 and 2013 elections has made him believe that he is on the verge of challenging Nouri al-Maliki and his State of Law for the premiership. The clashes with the League of the Righteous during the summer was nothing but a headache for Sadr, because getting into street fights was not what a national leader was supposed to be involved in. On the League’s part, taking these stabs at the Sadrists was a way to establish itself after going from an underground group to an open one. Being able to take on the much larger Sadr movement was meant to show their strength and power to the people of Baghdad. They might have even been encouraged to do so by Maliki who has allied with them to cut into Sadr’s base. No one came out the winner during the summer however, which probably means more armed clashes will occur in the future.
1. Dar Addustour, “Violent clashes between the Mahdi Army and Asaib,” 8/3/13
Ali, Ahmed, “2013 Iraq Update #23: Sadrists and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq Fight for Baghdad,” Institute for the Study of War, 6/11/13
Dar Addustour, “Violent clashes between the Mahdi Army and Asaib,” 8/3/13
Lewis, Jessica, Ali, Ahmed, and Kagan, Kimberly, “Iraq’s sectarian crisis reignites as Shi’a militias execute civilians and remobilize,” Institute for the Study of War, 5/31/13
Al-Mada, “Tensions between the Sadrists and Asaib worry neighborhoods of Baghdad and al-Khazali and clings to the truce,” 6/11/13
National Iraqi News Agency, “Sadr condemns clashes between his supporters and / Ahlil-Haq militia/in Baghdad,” 6/3/13
New Sabah, “”The people of the right to” reveal the details turned into a brawl and shooting deaths,” 6/9/13
- “Sadr solemn assembly a “threat” addressed to the Government,” 8/6/13
Sadah, Ali Abel, “Sadr Reconsiders Political Role, Mahdi Army,” Al-Monitor, 8/28/13
Ur News Agency, “War fires between Asaib and the Sadrists,” 7/4/13