Maverick Iraqi cleric turns grass roots movement into major political force

Monday, December 12, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Last year, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was a fugitive from justice, his militiamen were fighting U.S. troops and his movement was shunned by the political establishment.

Since then, al-Sadr has done an about-face. The fiery religious leader has become a major player in Iraq and candidates from his movement are expected to fare well in this week's parliamentary elections.

Al-Sadr's journey to political respectability has broadened his movement's support and prompted many to speculate the new government will be more stable and violence will decrease across Iraq. However, some also fear his followers' rise to power could eventually cast aside Iraq's secular traditions and move the country further to the religious right.

Al-Sadr's followers first surfaced amid the chaos and lawlessness that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime in 2003 as they swiftly moved to provide services and protect Shiite areas.

Soon after, fierce opposition to the U.S. occupation became the movement's defining ideology, with al-Sadr using his Friday sermons to call for the withdrawal of American forces and sending tens of thousands to the streets to flex his movement's muscle.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of militiamen were killed in battles with U.S. troops in Baghdad and other cities across central and southern Iraq. The fighting earned al-Sadr and his followers rogue status at home and abroad, prompting a warning from President Bush last April.

"This is one person that is deciding that rather than allowing democracy to flourish, he's going to exercise force," Bush said of al-Sadr. "We just can't let it stand."

It's all very different from today's "al-Sadryieen," or the "Sadrists."

"We had a choice to make," said Abbas al-Robaie, al-Sadr's chief political aide. "Either wait for 10 years, or maybe longer, for the Americans to leave and then join the political process or take our place in the process now and try to influence policy."

Al-Sadr's followers decided to contest a general election in January as part of a Shiite coalition that included some of his political foes. The coalition emerged as parliament's largest bloc, with al-Sadr supporters winning nine seats and taking three Cabinet posts in Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's coalition.

Conscious of their large support base in Baghdad and across the south, al-Sadr's followers insisted that the coalition guarantee them more seats in the next parliament by promoting their candidates in areas where the Shiite bloc is likely to win.

"Having them inside the coalition could cause us problems because they are strong headed and not disciplined, but leaving them out could cause even greater problems," said Redha Jawad Taqi, a senior Shiite official. "Bringing them in achieves a measure of political calm."

The Sadrists also have proven to be good politicians. Their three Cabinet members -- running the health, transport and civil society ministries -- are widely thought to have been among the better Cabinet performers, gaining a reputation for integrity and hard work.

Al-Sadr's movement has broadened its support among Iraq's Sunni-dominated Arab nationalists by opposing the introduction of a federal system of government in Iraq's new constitution that will let provinces cluster in self-rule regions. Nationalists believe that federalism could lead to the breakup of Iraq.

His group also has set itself apart from traditional Shiite parties by advocating against the U.S. occupation, which some Shiite leaders have tolerated. The militia that fought the Americans remains in existence and is perhaps better organized after months of ideological indoctrination and the dismissal of members with suspect loyalty.

Some fear al-Sadr's popularity could lead to a less secular government. Al-Sadr repeatedly has expressed his desire for an Islamic-oriented society in Iraq and has often praised groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, his movement's stronghold, strict Islamic dress code for women has been in force since the fall of Saddam. Liquor stores have been shut and schoolgirls, some as young as 5 or 6 years, wear Muslim headscarves.

Al-Sadr is the son of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a senior cleric gunned down with two of his sons in 1999 by suspected Saddam agents. The late al-Sadr's followers form the circle of close aides surrounding his son, who has on occasion shown subtle irreverence toward Iraq's top clerics, like Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Al-Sadr was the top suspect in the 2003 slaying of a senior Shiite cleric in Najaf. But an arrest warrant issued against him and several of his top aides was withdrawn as part of the deal negotiated by al-Sistani that ended fighting in the city last year.

No longer a fugitive, al-Sadr remains cautious. He has rarely left his Najaf home since last August, given only a handful of media interviews and beefed up his personal security.

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