Babylon & Beyond

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IRAQ: Verbal wars of Shiite clergy

March 25, 2008 |  9:00 am


Before clashes erupted in the southern port of Basra early today, there were many hints that tensions between Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia  and the Iraqi government could explode and imperil Sadr's seven-month cease-fire.   

If today's strife turns into a broader conflagration, people might look back at the war of words in sermons last Friday in Shiite mosques as a hint of what was to come.

Last Friday, in the Shiite holy city of Kufa, Sadrist cleric Sheik Abd Al Hadi Al Mohammedawi compared Iraq’s government to late dictator Saddam Hussein. According to the Sadrist newspaper Ishraqat al Sadr, Mohammedawi told worshippers:   “Today, the political parties are using the same old Saddamist methods.  They have changed from the olive uniforms to the turbans.”

Mohammedawi warned that the government was making a colossal mistake in carrying out raids against Sadr supporters. “They do not realize that the Sadr movement is a volcano throughout Iraq.  If it explodes it will crush all of the rotten heads until there are no tyrants on the face of the earth… but this is not our desire,” the paper quoted Mohammedawi as saying.

In turn, Sheik Jaladdin Sagheer, from the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), took a swipe at the Mahdi Army last Friday in his own sermon, according to the Al Sharqiya satellite channel. Sagheer asked in his Baghdad sermon why the Sadrist movement had so many outlaws and was leveling accusations against others -- a reference to both SIIC and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Dawa party, the two main Shiite bodies in the government.  Four days later, government security forces were battling the Mahdi Army in Basra, while Sadrists shut down neighborhoods in Baghdad with civil disobedience.

— Ned Parker in Baghdad