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III. The al-Sadr Intifada of 1999

The list bearing Mustafa Jawad’s name10 proclaimed that he, and dozens of other young men, were killed after they supposedly confessed to taking part in the widespread uprising of Iraqi Shi`a Muslims protesting the assassination of one of their most prominent religious leaders, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.  The ayatollah was assassinated on February 19, 1999, in the holy city of al-Najaf while driving home along with his two sons, Mustafa and Mu`ammal, who served as his chief assistants, and their driver.

The assassination shocked Iraq’s Shi`a Muslim communities, an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's population. During the late 1970s and especially after Saddam Hussein assumed power as Iraqi head of state in 1979, the Iraqi government targeted for harassment and persecution Shi`a clerics whom they considered sympathetic to Iran’s revolutionary government. In fact over time, this policy, aimed at strengthening Saddam Hussein’s grip on power, led to the emergence of a more potent Shi`a Islamic movement in Iraq.11

Ayatollah Sadr succeeded Ayatollah Abu al-Qassim al-Kho’i as Grand Ayatollah in 1992, following al-Khoi’s death.12 The Iraqi government recognized Ayatollah al-Sadr as grand ayatollah, apparently in the belief that it could manipulate him. Ayatollah al-Sadr had initially advocated keeping the clergy out of politics.  But he later began distancing himself from government policies in Friday sermons and urging people, against government wishes, to attend mass prayer gatherings. In early December 1998, he reportedly called off a march to the shrine of Imam Hussain in Karbala after the government placed security forces around the city to enforce its ban on the march. On March 5, 1999, The Independent (London) published an account of what allegedly was Ayatollah al-Sadr’s last sermon, delivered on February 12, 1999, and recorded on a tape smuggled out of Iraq.  According to this account, Ayatollah al-Sadr demanded the release of more than one hundred Shi`a clergy, who had been detained following the March 1991 uprising, and whose fate or whereabouts had not been accounted for.

The murder of Ayatollah al-Sadr and his sons prompted several days of heavy clashes between protesters and security forces in heavily Shi`a neighborhoods of Baghdad13 and in majority Shi`a cities such as Karbala, al-Nasiriyya, al-Kufa, al-Najaf, and Basra. Scores were killed and hundreds arrested.14

In Basra on March 17, 1999, at about 11:30 p.m., groups of armed demonstrators attacked governmental buildings, intelligence service headquarters, and Ba`th Party offices. Press reports at the time indicated heavy clashes between protesters and government forces, even involving heavy armored units and artillery.15 Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that protesters attacked and killed at least forty Ba`th Party members.  The exact number remains unknown because Iraq’s government never acknowledged the extent of the uprising. Several eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that in some Basra neighborhoods, shootings continued for more than an hour. In other parts, automatic gunfire was heard throughout the night.

[10]  Jawad Kadhim `Ali requested that Human Rights Watch use his and his family members’ real names.

[11] See Faleh A. Jabbar, The Shi`a Movement in Iraq (London, Al-Saqi, 2003).

[12] The title of Ayatollah (“Sign of God”) denotes that the bearer has achieved the highest degree of scholastic learnedness in matters of theology in Shi`a Islam.

[13] For instance, in the densely populated neighborhood built after the 1958 revolution, initially known as Madinat al-Thawra (City of the Revolution), renamed Madinat Saddam by the government in 1982, and known since the fall of the government as Madinat al-Sadr.

[14] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2000, p. 359.

[15] “Iraqi Forces Clash with Shiites,” Associated Press, March 20, 1999.

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