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Hassan Nasrallah and Muqtada al-Sadr

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the United States found itself battling a tough and stubborn Shiite insurgency. This resistance was led by a young militant named Muqtada al-Sadr, and before long, Middle East analysts and scholars began drawing comparisons to another Shiite resistance leader, Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah.

Before the US-led invasion of 2003,  the Shia of Iraq were what the Shia of Lebanon were 25 years ago: the poor and disenfranchised underclass. The Shia had always made up a significant portion of the population in Lebanon, but the country was dominated by Sunnis and Christians, and the Shia were politically and economically marginalized  as a result.

Under Saddam Hussein, the Shia of Iraq had it much worse. There, they made up the majority of the population, and were feared by the Sunni Baathist minority who rule Iraq with an iron fist. As a result, the Shia were marginalized and oppressed, and any hint of rebellion was met with swift and brutal violence.

As a side note, this is how the Shia have historically existed: marginalized and oppressed under Sunni regimes that mostly viewed them as heretics, or at least as  threats to their power. The only country where the Shia were the dominant majority was (and still is) Persia . Only recently have the Shia began to climb out of the social-economic pit that they were buried in for so long.

During the Civil War in Lebanon, the Shia there began to assert themselves more and more. (This equality-seeking attitude dates back to the 1960’s when Sayyed Musa Sadr returned from religious study in Najaf, Iraq and began preaching a Shiite resurgence.) After the invasion of Israel in 1982, Hizballah was formed with the assistance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). During the war with Israel, a charismatic and intelligent young man named Hassan Nasrallah quickly proved his skills fighting on the battlefield, and organizing in the villages. Nasrallah became Secretary General of the organization in 1992 after his mentor, Abbas Mussawi, was killed by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

Muqtada al-Sadr took a different path to get where he is today, as head of the Mehdi Army in Iraq. He came from a highly prominent Shiite family, but was reportedly not originally considered to be much of a warrior. After the  Iran-Iraq War, Muqtada’s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a hero amongst Iraqi Shia, continued to lead the political development of his people. When he was killed in 1999, a 26 year-old Muqtada took over as leader of the movement. Outside of Iraq, Muqtada remained an unknown until 2003, when he led the Mehdi Army against the invading Western nations. Today, Muqtada al-Sadr is a respected hero in his own right, amongst his people.

With Nasrallah and Sadr both rising from obscurity to give Western (US) or Western-backed (Israel) fighting forces of superior resources and firepower massive headaches, it is natural to compare the two. This is useful because by studying the evolution of Hizballah and its leader, perhaps we can extrapolate what the Mehdi Army might look like and be capable of in the coming years, and this could give analysts a better picture of what to expect from Iraq over that same time period.

Starting at the beginning, Hassan Nasrallah was born in 1960 and is about 50 years old today. Muqtada al-Sadr was born in 1973, which makes him about 37.  Nasrallah is 13 years older than Sadr. They both have the title of Sayyed which means that they are recognized as descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

Nasrallah came from a family uninvolved in politics, religion, and war. His father was a vegetable vendor with no influence or connections, and everything  that Nasrallah has he had to earn himself. He wanted to study religion from a young age. His potential was quickly recognized, and he was sent to Najaf to continue his studies under Abbas Mussawi, one of the founders of Hizballah. As mentioned, after Mussawi’s death in1992, Nasrallah was chosen by his peers to lead Hizballah.

Muqtada had a more direct path to power. His father was a Grand Ayatollah and a hero to the Iraqi Shia. His father-in-law also held the rank of Grand Ayatollah and is highly respected in Iraq. Muqtada’s father and two brothers were killed in 1999 by Saddam’s security forces, who left Muqtada alone at the time because he was thought to be somewhat dim-witted. But Muqtada had been underestimated, and he would eventually go on to lead the Mehdi Army.

Both the Mehdi Army and Hizballah receive considerable patronage from Iran. Iran helped form Hizballah in the early 1980’s during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. Along with Syria, Iran directs large amounts of weapons and cash to Hizballah in an effort to blunt Israeli aggression. Iran uses a similar strategy in Iraq, where the Islamic Republic assists Sadr and his militia in order to give the US-led coalition forces a significant amount of resistance so that the United States doesn’t  train its sights on Iran next.

Iran actually backed two horses in this race: the Sadrists, and also the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). The SIIC is led by Sayyed Ammar Hakim, of the powerful Hakim clan. The leaders of the SIIC fled to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, and plotted their return with the help of the Islamic Republic. Iran supported this group, but it also hedged its bets and backed the Sadrists as well, presumably because they were worried that those leaders, who had fled during what was a time of incredible suffering for most Iraqi Shia, might be resented upon their return*. It proved to be a shrewd move by Iran. The SIIC did face some resentment by their brothers that stayed behind, but they also came back to strong support as well. As a result of Iran betting on both horses so-to-speak, they now wield considerable influence in the new Iraqi government that is dominated by the Shia.

*During the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, many Iraqi Shia with the means to do so, fled to Iran.

The rivalry between Amal and Hizballah is similar to the rivalry between the Sadrists and the SIIC. Amal was founded in 1975 by the forefather of the historic Shia resurgence, Imam Musa Sadr (a distant cousin of Muqtada). Syria, Lebanon’s neighbor, supported Amal as a way to gain leverage against Israel after it lost the Golan Heights in the 1967 War. In 1982, Hizballah was founded by Amal members (with the help of IRGC advisers) who wished to take a less secular and more Islamist approach. The two militias experienced a violent sibling rivalry as they fought for control of Beirut, but eventually the two made peace and today they cooperate regularly.

Whether it be Lebanon or Iraq, all four groups (Hizballah, Amal, the Sadrists, SIIC) preach nationalism and all are backed or assisted by foreign entities, and it’s unclear just how much influence those governments have over their so-called proxies. Hizballah often claims publicly that it’s guided by Iran, but it is questionable whether it would sacrifice itself for the sake of Iran.  It’s conceivable that Iran has significant influence with the SIIC, as Iran gave the group refuge during the latter Saddam years and helped it prepare the group for its return to power.

The Sadrist are the biggest question mark. Muqtada Sadr is reportedly currently living in the Shiite holy city of Qom,  Iran, studying to increase his religious rank, and therefore his leadership credentials. He may or may not be actively meeting with the IRGC during this time. Another thing to consider is that even though their fellow Shia were suffering terribly under Saddam, Iran did relatively little to aid them during these years after the Iran-Iraq War and before the US invasion. This must have been frustrating to the Sadrists and it’s doubtful they would have forgotten it.

In summation, Hassan Nasrallah has no real rival in Lebanon amongst his fellow Shia, and Muqtada Sadr has a capable and powerful rival in Ammar Hokim. The battle between Amal and Hizballah has run its course and Hizballah has come out on top. But the rivalry between Hakim and Sadr is still very much in play, and the outcome is not so clear. The SIIC tends to represent the more influential and wealthy Iraqi Shia, but the Sadrists represent the poor and hungry, who are far stronger in number.

In his article on this very topic, Syrian Middle East political analyst Sami Moubayed itemizes the differences and similarities between the two men. He states that, while Nasrallah and Sadr come from very different backgrounds, their main difference is in their charisma and projection of influence.

Moubayed writes that Sadr may be respected in Iraq, but he and his personality are virtually unknown outside the country, whereas Nasrallah, through Hizballah’s far reaching Al-Manar television station, is broadcast all over the world. At least weekly, Nasrallah’s fiery speeches are televised throughout the Arab world and beyond as he lays into Israel and the United States and gives the Arabs, who have become so disillusioned with defeat and  incompetent leadership, a powerful, energetic, and capable champion who espouses their values and vents their frustration for them. Muqtada Sadr has none of that, and whether this is by strategy or by circumstance, his influence is that much less because of it.

While Nasrallah operates on the world stage and Sadr operates underground in the shadows, something that the two have in common is that they are both highly respected Shia leaders that are irreplaceable to their movements. In Moubayed’s article, he grades the two men, giving Nasrallah an “A+” and Sadr a “D-“. This may be an accurate assessment in the absolute terms of the present day, but let’s not forget that Nasrallah is 13 years older than Sadr. If we look at where Hizballah was as an organization 13 years ago, it’s probably not all that different to where the Sadrists are today. This is impressive considering the difference in political climate that the two were operating in, with Lebanon being far more open to Shiite political development than Iraq, where everything had to be organized in secret using only whispers.

Also, many have criticized Sadr’s Mehdi Army as being a bunch of uneducated thugs who only joined the militia for personal gain. While this may have  been true at first, the Mehdi Army is believed to be currently undergoing a  process of purging those who are not pious, religious, and dedicated to the party. If this is the case, we could see a far more refined and disciplined fighting force  and political party in a few years once they have weeded out the unscrupulous bad seeds.

Hizballah may be the more mature of the two organizations, but the Sadrists have time to catch up and are in a good position to do so vis-a-vis the Shiite dominance of Iraq going forward. Today, Sadr is believed to be polishing his religious credentials, and while he won’t make the rank of Ayatollah, he might learn just enough to be a respected military, political, and religious leader in Iraq. Hassan Nasrallah may be very powerful in Lebanon, but the position of the Shia in the sectarian demographic breakdown of the population inherently limits his power there. Muqtada Sadr faces no such challenge in Iraq, where the Shia dominate the Sunni and the Kurds, so his power ceiling is higher than that of Nasrallah.

In Lebanon and Iraq, Hassan Nasrallah and Muqtada Sadr are heavyweights, and it’s interesting to study them both to see what we can learn from their similarities and differences. The Shia revolution that started under Musa Sadr in 1960 and exploded in Iran in 1979 continues to this day, and these two men are right in the middle of it, at the forefront of history.



Patrick Vibert

Patrick Vibert works as a geopolitical consultant focusing on the Middle East. He has a BA in Finance and an MA in International Relations. He has traveled extensively throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He lives in Washington DC and attends lectures at the Middle East Institute whenever he can.

Area of Focus
Geopolitics; International Relations; Middle East