Does a Hizbullah-Sadr axis exist? By Haytham Mouzahem

Does a Hizbullah-Sadr axis exist?

July 21, 2004 12:00 AM
By Haytham Mouzahem

Following the assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin last March, the young Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr declared that he and his followers were at the service of his brothers in Hizbullah and Hamas. This came after a week of conflict with American forces over the closing down of a Sadrist newspaper. The statement was the first public mention by Sadr of a prospective relationship with Hizbullah.

Sadr's followers have often raised pictures of Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah at their rallies and demonstrations. In turn, Sadr's picture was also raised at a mass Hizbullah rally held in Beirut's southern suburbs on May 20 to protest against US actions in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

These overt signs of sympathy aside, Iraqi Shiite sources have said that the connection between the two groups isn't a political alliance, or one involving military cooperation. They have described the relationship as one that is normal between two Arab Shiite parties that have the same religious background as well as a common vision for opposing the foreign occupation of Iraq.

Indeed, this relation may be similar to past links established between Shiite groups in Lebanon and their counterparts in Iraq. When the Islamist Al-Daawa Party was formed in 1958 by Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim and others, several Lebanese religious scholars who resided in Iraq at the time joined the party and the political opposition against the Iraqi regime. Among them were Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah and Ayatollah Mohammed Mehdi Shamseddine. Both moved to Lebanon in the 1960s and maintained relations with Al-Daawa and the Shiite marjaiyyeh (religious leadership) in Najaf, and they became Lebanese representatives of Ayatollah Abu al-Qassem al-Khoei.

Shamseddine later joined Imam Musa Sadr's movement in Lebanon and became his deputy at the Higher Shiite Council, while Fadlallah and others formed a Lebanese branch of Al-Daawa. Fadlallah, preserving his independence and pursuing his religious and political activities according to Al-Daawa's principles, established with colleagues the Muslim Students' Union as a cover for the party. Fadlallah claims he was never a member of any group. Iraqi sources, however, note that he left Al-Daawa in the early 1980s, and it is no secret that the party considers Fadlallah a "spiritual guide," a term once used to describe his relationship with Hizbullah.

In the summer of 1979, Al-Daawa formed a "Jihad" leadership committee of three members, which included Sheikh Sobhi Tufayli, who later became the first secretary-general of Hizbullah. In the fall of that year, following the assassination of Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr by Saddam Hussein's regime, Al-Daawa formed a new five-member leadership that included a Lebanese cleric, Sheikh Hussein Kourani, who later became an official in Hizbullah.

In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in February 1979, Iraqi and Lebanese Islamist Shiites moved closer to the Islamic Republic headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A year later, the Iraqi Baath regime began its eight-year war against Iran, and thousands of Iraqi Shiite clerics left for Iran or Lebanon, while maintaining relations with their Shiite brethren back home. Indeed, Iraq's Shiite opposition was dependent on Iranian support in its struggle against the Iraqi regime. Soon, too, Lebanon's Shiites needed Tehran's support in their resistance against the Israeli occupation that followed the invasion of summer 1982, which led to the emergence of Hizbullah. Not surprisingly, many of those linked to Al-Daawa and to the Muslim Students' Union became a major force in the new party.

As for Iraq, in 1983 Tehran backed the creation of a new umbrella organization that brought together Iraqi Shiite parties, including Al-Daawa. This was the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), headed by the late Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim. Hizbullah and SCIRI were once close, as both subscribe to the Velayet-e Faqih (guardianship of the jurisconsult) concept developed by Khomeini, and now represented by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Relations between Shiite groups in Lebanon and Iraq are based not only on religious links or on political alliances and organizational cooperation; they are also based on historical, personal and social ties that have existed in some cases for centuries. For example, the Sadr and Hakim families have branches in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran, and Fadlallah was the cousin of Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim.

Any effort to determine a relationship between Sadr and Hizbullah must also take into consideration Sadr's relations with Iran. A year ago, Moqtada al-Sadr was invited to Tehran and met senior leaders including Khamenei. The Iranians reportedly found him immature politically and feared that his unpredictable behavior would cause them trouble with the Americans in Iraq. Other sources believe that Sadr refused to become a follower of the Iranians due to his Arab background, his independent personality and his desire for absolute leadership.

Iraqi Shiite sources, in turn, explain that the failure of cooperation between the two sides resulted from SCIRI objections - the Supreme Council is Sadr's main adversary in Iraq. This prompted the Iranians to change their mind because they feared losing their alliance with the SCIRI with no guarantee they would win Sadr's loyalty.

Hence, when members of Sadr's Mehdi Army raise pictures of Nasrallah or Hizbullah flags, this is mainly an attempt to derive legitimacy from Hizbullah's regional reputation after its victory against the Israeli occupation in South Lebanon. On the other side, Hizbullah's statements backing Sadr against the Americans could be a way of managing its embarrassment over a situation in Iraq where the party has found itself in a dilemma - simultaneously sympathizing with Iraq's Shiites, whose attitude toward the Americans has been ambiguous, while also advocating an Islamic and nationalist discourse that is staunchly anti-American and that pleases Iraqi Sunnis who most fervently oppose the occupation.

This said, Iran and Hizbullah have reportedly played a major role in persuading Sadr to wind down his uprising against the Americans. In this context, some analysts don't exclude secret military and intelligence cooperation between the three parties now or in the future.

Haytham Mouzahem is a Lebanese journalist and researcher specializing in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR


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