[Marxism] Achcar criticism of Juan Cole coverage of pro-Sadr protests in Iraq

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sat Aug 27 16:51:06 MDT 2005

The following is a letter from Gilbert Achcar on the protests of 100,000
inspired by the Sadr movement in Shiite communities.  Basing myself on
Cole and others, I have described Sadr as opposing the constitution.
Not quite right. Achcar, who is quite well informed as compared to
myself, argues that Sadr says on the one hand that the Koran is the
constitution, and on the other that no real constitution can come under
the occupation (bottom-line correct, of course). The Shia protests
organized by Sadr supporters have not centered on opposing the
constitution but the failure of the government to make substantial
headway around water, electricity, and other services, he says. This is
consistent with other things I have read about Sadr's campaigning in
Shia southern Iraq. 
Fred Feldman

Dear Juan
I was surprised to read today the following comment on your blog:
100,000 Sadrists March Against Constitution 

Reuters reports that Muqtada al-Sadr's supporters rallied in 8 cities on
Friday, totaling a hundred thousand demonstrators in all. They chanted
against the new constitution, which they characterized as an
American-authored document. They also complained about lack of
electricity and other services. Al-Sadr's followers rallied in Kufa,
Najaf,Baghdad (Sadr City), Nasiriyah, Amarah, Basra and elsewhere. 

I saw the demonstrations on al-Jazeera and they were in fact just
enormous. I have all along said that I think Muqtada al-Sadr is
formidable, that that those who underestimate him are making a mistake.
But these demonstrations are evidence of a quantum leap in Muqtada's
organizational capability. He has never been able to bring out more than
5,000 to 10,000 demonstrators before. It is obvious his group has
continued to do underground recruiting and networking while he has been
relatively quiet and his Mahdi Army mostly put their guns in the closet.

The title you put and your writing that the pro-Sadr demonstrators
"chanted against the new constitution" seem to me inaccurate, in light
of my own research and the pictures I have seen. I wonder therefore if
you have any real serious source for what you wrote, aside from the
Reuters report by Michael Georgy, the title of which is totally
misleading (and not confirmed actually in the main text). This title, by
the way, has been reproduced in various publications, including on the
front-page article in Al-Hayat (article written by the editors in
London), even though the report by their correspondent in Baghdad, Heba
Hani, elsewhere in the newspaper, doesn't lend it any credit. It seems
there is some deal of wishful thinking on the part of some
anti-federalist pro-Sunni Arab sources, the most prominent of which is
Al-Jazeera, attempting to portray Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers as
staunch opponents of federalism in Iraq. The reality is different. First
of all, no report that I have seen by observers on the ground says that
the pro-Sadr demonstrators were marching against the constitution. I am
not speaking, of course, of the demonstration by Sunni members of the
Arab tribes in Kirkuk, who raised portraits of al-Sadr among others (it
could be that you've seen that on Al-Jazeera and mistaken it for the
Sadrist demos), along with banners and chants against federalism and in
support of the Baathists -- according to the report in Al-Hayat. What I
am commenting on are the demonstrations organised by the Sadrists and
held in various Shia cities and in al-Sadr City in Baghdad, which
grouped together "tens of thousands" according to some reports up to
"100 000" according to the Reuters report. No report from observers on
the ground, whether in Al-Hayat, the NYT, the Washington Post, etc. says
that the Sadrist demonstrations were about the Constitution. All of them
say more or less what the Washington Post reporters wrote: 
About 20,000 followers of Sadr marched in their stronghold of Sadr City,
a sprawling slum in eastern Baghdad. The protest was a show of force by
the movement, whose militiamen briefly battled rival Shiite fighters
this week in a simmering rivalry over influence, ideology and power
among the country's Shiite majority. The movement convened other
demonstrations in several cities in southern Iraq, protesting a dearth
of social services that remains the overwhelming complaint of most
Iraqis."We demand the addressing of the sharp lack in daily services,"
one banner read. unquote The truth of the matter is that the Friday 8/26
demonstrations were planned long before by al-Sadr's followers and meant
to protest against the dire state of public services, especially
electricity and water supply. The inter-Shia clashes that erupted on
Wednesday between Sadrists and SCIRI followers gave the Friday demos an
additional meaning of a show of strength in the rivalry between the two
forces. But they were at no time called for against the constitution.
Actually in his communique to his followers on 8/25, Muqtada al-Sadr
wrote the following instructions about the Friday demos: 
My brothers in marching for the return of the public services must blame
the responsibility of the lack of services on the occupation [implying
that the government should not be the one to blame] and ask the Iraqi
government silently [he means: with banners, not chants] to give the
services back. This will be a silent demonstration, don't be aggressive;
better be victims of injustice than perpetrators. unquote In his press
conference in al-Najaf on the same day (8/25), al-Sadr said the
following about the constitution: "There is no problem with federalism
as such, it is an Islamic idea, but its timing now is not good." 
Also: "I have heard that they will remove the purging of Baath
(de-Baathification) from the constitution. We refuse that
categorically." This last statement, not surprising from al-Sadr, shows
the distance between him and those Sunni opponents of federalism who are
pro-Baathists. Of course, on the issue of the constitution, Muqtada
al-Sadr has made quite ambiguous or even contradictory statements. One
of them is the interview that he gave to the BBC on 7/18, which I
watched myself, and where he said (from the report posted on the BBC
website): quote "I personally shall not interfere. I say that our
constitution is the Koran and the Sunnah and I refuse any political role
while the occupation is present." he said, although adding that he would
not stop any others participating. unquote As you know, he vowed in the
same way not to take part in the political process as long as the
occupation remains, while his followers actually took part in the 1/30
elections and are represented not only in the Parliament, but even in
the government itself. The pro-Sadr ministers said, after the 8/25
clashes, that they suspended their activities in solidarity with
al-Sadr, but he called on them in his communique to resume them,
My brothers in the Iraqi government who have suspended their ministerial
activities must resume their activities at the service of the people.
The interest of Islam and the interest of Iraq are more important and
more venerable. unquote Finally, whatever figure one takes for the
Friday Sadrist demonstrations -- tens of thousands or one hundred
thousand -- no observer said, like you did, that it was the largest the
Sadrists ever organized. The April 9 demonstration in Baghdad against
the occupation, which involved hundreds of thousands of people
(millions, according to Al-Sharq al-Awsat!) and burned puppets of Bush,
Blair and Saddam Hussein, was much more important, and remains to this
day the largest ever organized by the Sadrist Current.
Best regards,

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