Prominent Lebanese political analyst Nasser Kandil analyses the strategic significance of Iraqi Shia leader Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr’s recent call for a “million-man march”, which demanded that the US military completely withdraw from the Arab country.
Kandil is a regular fixture on Lebanese and Arab media, often commentating on matters relating to the regional ‘Resistance Axis’, an emerging anti-Israeli/anti-US imperialist alliance composed of, but not limited to, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi, Yemen’s Ansarullah, and various Palestinian armed factions.
Source: Nasser Kandil (YouTube)
Date: 18 January, 2020
Dear followers of “60 Minutes with Nasser Kandil”, welcome to the new, third, episode of 2020. The title of this episode is “Two Wars Progressing Side by Side”. The first war is the one that has been started by the Axis of Resistance to expel US forces from the region. This war was faced with some disruptions as a consequence of the Ukrainian plane crash, whether through the international community who’s taking advantage of this incident, or through its impact on public opinion in Iran where protests were held over the incident. But two developments put things back on track. The first was the speech of the Russian foreign minister, who’s considered a (credible) source when it comes to providing information. (In his speech), he says that a squadron of American F-35 jets were flying over Tehran at the time of the incident which disrupted Iranian defence systems in terms of handling flying objects whether civilian or military. The second development was Imam Khamenei’s speech that mobilized the Iranian people. This mobilization came in the form of the amazing crowds of millions in the streets of Tehran (who stayed) under freezing cold weather, and at temperatures between -1 and 4 °C. Not only did (the crowds) stay to pray, but they also listened to the speech in Persian and then the speech in Arabic. His eminence’s speech was strongly worded and clear, stating that the battle in the region will continue until US forces are expelled, and that the long-term goal is freeing Palestine. He advised Arabs and Muslims to unite over the cause of freeing Palestine, and expelling US forces, and to engage in dialogue with neighbouring countries and Arab regimes to prevent segregation, discord and divisions. This strong political message, in addition to these huge crowds, bring us back to square one, in which the resistance forces announced – that is before the consequences that came about after Iran took full responsibility for the downing of the Ukrainian plane – (we are back to) the same climate of cohesion and solidarity. In fact, what matters the most – not because Imam Khamenei’s speech is less important, not at all, but because actions speak louder than words.
(Looking at) the practical steps today, it is obvious that, according to the Axis of Resistance, the key arena in which it will clash with the Americans is Iraq. In other words, when we talk about expelling Americans (forces) from the region, no one should think that we will start from Saudi Arabia, for example, or from the waters of the Gulf. The key battle to expel US forces from the region revolves around beginning (the fight) to expel the US forces from Iraq, and making this a regional and international cause, thus ending automatically the American presence in Syria. Because the American presence in Syria would be impossible if there is no American presence in Iraq.
However, it is obvious that the battle in Iraq today is set according to a calendar. On one side, we have a prime minister, Dr. Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who is obviously making firm decisions. He brings the decision of the Council of Representatives, puts it on the table, addresses the American government with persistence and a serious attitude. He establishes committees to begin technical negotiations in order to devise a mechanism for this withdrawal. The situation will escalate at the diplomatic level, through addressing the Security Council and major powers, and escalation will take place with the US itself. American threats and intimidation, I believe, are empty for a simple reason. When Americans become convinced that they must withdraw (from Iraq), they will have two priorities: first, to make the withdrawal seem voluntary and not an expulsion. And in that case, it is against American interests to impose sanctions on Iraqi governments, because this would mean continuing the battle in a different form. Second, to try to protect their interests that lies with keeping a positive relationship with the Iraqi government. So now Americans can make threats, send messages, exploit divisions and fight the battle for survival. This is normal. It is unlikely for their position to change for months. But when their position starts to change towards them accepting the idea of leaving, Americans will make sure to – they will for sure adopt a position encouraging a friendly positive exit through negotiations. They will prepare a schedule that guarantees keeping a number of advisors for six months for purposes related to the fight with ISIS. After six months they will say they need to make sure that the Iraqi army is prepared and has the (necessary) potentials. They will link the issue to the relationship with Russia suggesting that the Russians act as an ally in fighting against terrorism. This will happen in the next stage. However, now, do not take American threats seriously. What should be taken seriously are the preparations that are being done by the Axis of Resistance to have this confrontation.
The frontline of this confrontation is Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr’s call for millions (to demonstrate). Here I have to parenthetically say that we must look into the meaning, position, value and importance of this call. Because this entire American move, as I have said earlier when the Council of Representatives voted (to expel US forces) – it is not true that Americans were counting on a political coup in Iraq, by seeing whether they will succeed to exert influence on Sunni and Kurdish parliamentary groups under the auspices of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf or others. They knew they had that in their pocket. They are counting on the answer to this question: is there hope to (win) the battle in Iraq? Which brings up another question: is there hope to shatter the unity of the Shia community? Yes, or no? They pinned their hopes on shattering the unity of the Shia community via (effecting change in) Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr’s position, because they cannot manipulate the highest religious authority. They hope for divisions among the highest religious authorities in Qom on the one hand, and in Najaf on the other, especially since the highest religious authority in Najaf always tends to be more moderate. However, even the position of the highest religious authority in Najaf will be tougher if there is unity in the Shia community.
So, how does the Shia community unite? Or what is the factor that can divide them? Is it Ayad Allawi? Of course not. The factor that can divide them is Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr. The elections are the proof. Don’t we talk about the Sairoon political bloc, that is represented and led by Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr? When there was a dispute on which is the bigger bloc that should be entitled to nominate a candidate as the prime minister. The two competing blocs were Sairoon and Al-Binaa, i.e. Sayyed Muqtada and the resistance forces. And the dispute was resolved through the agreement of these two blocs to choose President Adel Abdul-Mahdi. This is the equation. This is the battle. Americans have tried, through third parties, especially through Gulf states and some Iraqi groups, to change Sayyed Muqtada’s position. They have succeeded to make accomplishments in some places, and failed in others. But the answer to the big question of “where does Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr stand?” remained unclear. Neither resistance forces have the answer to this question nor its opponents. Sayyed Muqtada has his own position.
In terms of Iraqi internal affairs, he is against the alliance of the resistance. However, regionally, he makes sure to reflect the image of an Iraqi patriot who develops relationships with Gulf states, Iran and Syria – but in his unique way which he makes sure to preserve. Therefore, the Gulf and American high hopes for the position of Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr (to change) is what explains America’s hard efforts to destabilize Iraq, especially after the last movement sponsored by Sayyed Muqtada. The reason is that they think that if the status, position and authority of Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr – and that is a reasonable and important assumption – shifts to become against Iran and the resistance forces, big changes will take place in Iraq, which is extremely accurate.
This (assumption) is based on the fact that, first, Sayyed Muqtada has inherited this enormous institution, in Baghdad in particular and in Iraq in general, from his father, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr who, during the previous regime, under the rule of Saddam Hussein, had a political vision that kept him away from violent clashes (with the regime). He also made sure to maintain his position as a top religious scholar without cutting ties and completely destroying relationships, although the previous regime showed great hostility towards Sayyed Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr and committed crimes against his family through murder, death sentences, etc….But Sayyed Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr turned into a social institution. Baghdad traders feel beholden to him. They used to pay contributions to his fund. While his institution has and is still providing for thousands of families, giving tens of thousands of (cases) of aid, taking care of a community of almost two million Iraqis and responding to their social, economic and developmental needs. This gave Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr, who followed in his father’s footsteps of honesty, integrity, and direct supervision, and having (close) ties with the poor, assuming the role of their leadership and authority, and representing their interests. This is the first factor.
The second factor is that Sayyed Muqtada was not among those who fled from Iraq. Therefore, opposition forces who came back to Iraq when the American occupation began can be criticized by those who are affiliated with the previous regime and by the Sunni commentators who have the same stances as the representatives of the previous regime; those who consider that the patriotic position against the occupation lowered the status of Sunnis in the government and gave Shias a high status. Those people can face Shia leaders, and say: “you came with the American tanks. Don’t give us a lesson in patriotism. We have fought”, because at the beginning members of the resistance were mainly Sunni. However, they cannot say this to Sayyed Muqtada. First, he didn’t come (to Iraq) on American tanks. He was in Iraq from the beginning. Second, and most importantly, he is one of the first Iraqi leaders to call for resistance. He also never had any relationship with the occupation. He was the symbol of fighting the occupation. He established the Mahdi Army with the objective of fighting the occupation. And on top of that, when the battle of Fallujah took place following the actions of the resistance, and when Americans raided the city, committed what they committed, put its people under siege and deprived them of food, drinks and electricity; no one stood with Fallujah, except for Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr. He offered moral and financial support, and sent food supplies and aid convoys. He adopted a tough stance during the demonstrations that were held in support of Fallujah in Shia regions. Therefore, people of Fallujah and people of central Iraq in general, Sunni people, will always be grateful to him. Then, this issue happened again, when Nour al-Maliki was the prime minster, during the al-Anbar uprising, and the uprising of Sunni people against al-Maliki, who ofcourse later took a stand (against) the occupation, the (in support) of the resistance, and in support of the forces affiliated to the Axis of Resistance. However, Sayyed Muqtada, at the time, in addition to beating others in terms of his position in support of the resistance, also showed solidarity with the people of al-Anbar and central areas against the government of Nour al-Maliki. He was also the one that gave this opposition a national united aspect, which was another reason that increased his status and influence. At least, if anything, it results in the inability to challenge (Sadr) regarding his sincerity in confronting the occupation.
Today, when Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr calls for a ‘million-strong march’ to expel the occupier, no one can challenge his position as a leading religious scholar and as a patriot. On the one hand, no one has a record that is like Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr’s record in confronting the occupation. On the other hand, regarding the issue of national unity i.e. refraining from sectarian calculations and sectarian violence, no one emulates the position of Sayyed Muqtada. Neither have the Sunni leaderships succeeded in showing solidarity with the concerns of Shias, nor have the rest of the Shia leaderships succeeded in showing solidarity with the concerns of Sunnis as the Shia leader Sayyed Muqtada has done. He always pays attention to the suggestions and concerns of Sunnis which secures in turn his strong position in politics and society amongst all Iraqi leaders. Thus, when Sayyed Muqtada himself calls for this march and the resistance forces join in, it means that he didn’t issue the call in competition with the resistance forces. Not at all, this has happened in coordination between them all. As they did when they nominated the Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the resistance leaders communicated with Sayyed Muqtada, met him, and agreed with each other, but this time the equation is more accurate and clearer; it came as a shock to the US and the Gulf. (The shock came in the form of) the political leadership of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, in addition to the popular leadership of Sayyed Muqtada, in addition to the presence of the resistance forces who stand in support behind both (Abdul-Mahdi and Sadr). This reflects a smart, mature, wise and courageous advancement that offers the resistance forces the ability to decide the appropriate timing and tempo of (military) resistance actions that serve the interests of the battle taking place on the legal, diplomatic and populist path i.e. the path being led legally and diplomatically by Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and the one being led on the popular level by Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr. Thus, the ‘million-strong march’ beginning on Friday is not just one march; it represents a starting point on the path that will be followed by other ‘million-strong marches’ on the popular level.
The US and the Gulf rushed to work on how they can agitate the civil movement to challenge the call of Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr. They found groups that can gather merely hundreds of people. In contrast, the great mass of people that were at the beginning of the (recent) Iraqi (protest) movement and that moves in the name of Sayyed Muqtada value his stance towards the movement; they know that he is an Iraqi patriotic leader and an Iraqi populist leader; they know that (Sayyed Muqtada) is on the front lines in fighting corruption, and in terms of fighting the occupation he is on the front lines, and he is the most eligible and capable to clash with any (Iraqi) government or authority. In fact, we have an excellent opportunity (before us).
In practice, the unique (position) of Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr has been proven in practice with the following example: the US and the Gulf had bet on creating division in Lebanon among the (Speaker of the Parliament) Nabih Berri ̶ that is between Hezbollah and the Amal movement – their assumption being that (these two parties) compete with each other (on the Lebanese scene), and that (Parliament Speaker) Berri has his own unique (characteristics), his own approach towards (political) issues, that he follows his own path concerning his relations with the Gulf and the international environment, while Hezbollah adopts a more deep-rooted stance in the political and regional arena. During the key stages and (historical) moments that (Lebanon witnessed), the US and the Gulf made their bets and calculations (based on such assumptions). In 2005, we read a lot of analyses, and today we arrive at the same scene, that all parties, the (Lebanese) March 14 alliance, the US, and the Gulf used to hold that: the struggle is to find out how to attract (Parliament Speaker) Berri and get him out of (his) relationship with Hezbollah, but (these parties) found an impenetrable wall and lost all the cards (which they were betting upon).
Today in Iraq the same scene is repeated. In so much as the Iranian leadership and his eminence Sayyed (Hassan Nasrallah) have always been keen to preserve the relationship with (Parliament Speaker) Berri in Lebanon, they also make sure to preserve the relationship with Sayyed Muqtada (in Iraq). Previously, we didn’t use to say this (publicly) but today we have an interest in saying this: the relationship and the meetings of Sayyed Muqtada with the Iranian leadership have never stopped, and his relationship, meetings and visits to his eminence Sayyed (Hassan Nasrallah) have never stopped either. There was always an acceptance and understanding (by Iran and Hezbollah) of the special room for manoeuvre that Sayyed Muqtada had assumed within which he was carrying out his (political) movements and stances. Thus the relationship (between Sadr and Iran/Hezbollah) was always based on accommodating this specificity. However, the moment that the situation becomes critical, (it was agreed that) Sayyed Muqtada will not be outside this decisiveness in terms of taking a political stance. Concerning this battle, when Imam Khamenei spoke about expelling the US (forces) from the region, he was not merely giving lip service on this matter. Nor was Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah giving lip service on this matter either. Not at all. The (regional) resistance (movement), its leadership, the leadership of the Resistance Axis, holds that the battle today (must be waged) in Iraq, and that it is a political and popular battle, within which the (resistance forces) have to gradually warm-up (the circumstances and conditions), such that when the resistance in the battlefield is required to undertake its highest level of (military action), it will be ready to carry it out.
The US is facing a challenge: it is now trying to engage in sowing sedition in a political, diplomatic and security battle to remain in Iraq, yet in any case it will lose (this battle), because with regards to the issue of ‘sedition’, the US’ options are linked with the ability of finding an environment (conducive for this). However, when Sayyed Muqtada is the focus of the struggle, it is difficult to find large solid Sunni blocs that can fight Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr. (In that case) they will prove to be disloyal and ungrateful. They will appear as if they are denying the history, unity and stance in confronting the occupation. It is difficult for these (Sunni forces) to fight (in such circumstances) with the forces that it accuses of being an extension of Iran, or (fight) with the resistance forces whose leaderships appeared after the occupation began. (Let alone) when talking about Sayyed Muqtada. If they want to say that you didn’t take into account the (political) storms and tribulations that Sunni regions have faced, they can’t say it about Sayyed Muqtada. Therefore, the intelligent manner in which this current struggle (against the US occupation) is being waged nullifies the possibility of sedition. It nullifies the possibility of sedition with the Kurds as well. The joining of forces between Adel Abdul Mahdi and Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr creates a new balance on the political, psychological and social scene in which the fight against the US occupation is taking place. What can the US do in such a situation? It will certainly (try whatever it can do) since it is difficult for it to (accept) going down in defeat.