Iraqi militants try political tack

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq -- A Shiite group whose militia fought U.S. troops for two months is quietly working to transform itself into a behind-the-scenes political power.

Since the guns fell silent in June, the group led by Muqtada al-Sadr has sought to distance itself from violence and rebuild ties with top clerics. And it is considering throwing its weight behind candidates in elections scheduled for January.

"We are undergoing a transitional phase," said Abbas al-Robai, a close al-Sadr aide. "We are taking a very close look at ourselves and our work."

The change of strategy could bring significant political influence to a group that has been a source of worry to U.S. authorities since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. If it can convert its street popularity into votes, Iraq's first democratically elected parliament could have a distinct Islamist slant.

In interviews in Baghdad and the holy city of Najaf, 100 miles to the south, some of al-Sadr's lieutenants depicted a movement pausing to take stock of its record and trying to chart the way ahead.

Hundreds of militiamen loyal to al-Sadr were killed by American troops in the fighting in Baghdad and across central and southern Iraq. The fighting shattered the perception that Iraq's Shiite majority tolerated the U.S. occupation -- waiting for political gains in the wake of the overthrow of Saddam, a Sunni -- and gave a major boost to al-Sadr, transforming him into a national hero.

It also embarrassed more senior Shiite clerics, like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, whose advocacy of peaceful resistance to the occupation appeared out of tune with the mood of many Iraqis.

"We had been marginalized, but even George Bush now knows us and knows Muqtada al-Sadr," said Ahmed al-Shibani, a spokesman for al-Sadr in Najaf.

The "Sadrist" movement has its roots in the 1990s, when al-Sadr's father -- senior cleric Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr -- defied Saddam, energizing the long-oppressed sect through Friday prayers and the reactivation of Shiite seminaries. The older al-Sadr was killed by suspected Saddam agents in 1999, and the movement went underground.

It resurfaced after Saddam's ouster, taking over basic services in poor Shiite areas in Baghdad and other cities and earning the respect of a community smarting from decades of tyranny. The movement's leaders say they have now built up valuable political capital.

"We may indirectly enter the political arena by giving our support to some candidates or throw our weight behind a political party whose thinking is close to ours," Qays al-Khaz'ali, a close al-Sadr aide, said Monday.

He, however, added: "We remain convinced, however, that resistance, not political parties, is the means to end the occupation." He named a faction of the Shiite al-Dawa party led by Abdel-Kareem al-Anzi as the most likely recipient of the movement's support.

The group, meanwhile, plans to publicly dissociate itself from acts of armed resistance by al-Mahdi Army, its militia, by not mentioning them in any of its official statements.

"The legitimacy of jihad (holy struggle) is beyond doubt in Iraq and those who want to wage jihad no longer need to come to us for permission," said one of al-Sadr's top aides in Najaf who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said the aim of the new policy was to protect the group's leadership from criminal responsibility and to restore its image as an organization primarily concerned with the building of an Islamic society.

The movement also has closed down a controversial jail it had run along with a court that had applied Islamic Sharia law. The court had for months punished convicted thieves and alcohol users with floggings.

Both the court and prison had operated in Najaf, home to the Imam Ali shrine, one of Shiism's holiest sites.

The Sadrist group has been showing signs of flexibility in the aftermath of the fighting.

Late last month, it announced a truce in Sadr City, a Shiite district in Baghdad that was the scene of almost daily skirmishes between U.S. troops and al-Sadr militiamen. It said the cease-fire was meant to create a suitable climate for the restoration of Iraq's sovereignty, which took place June 28.

The group has branded Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim government "illegitimate," but has said it will adopt a wait-and-see policy toward the new administration. Allawi's government is to remain in office until the January elections.

Al-Sadr, who will be 31 next month, had long been dismissed by Najaf's older clerics and most other Shiites as a political novice, a loose canon with no academic pedigree whose ideology is a work in progress.

His first face-to-face meeting with al-Sistani in May, however, was a turning point. The Iranian-born al-Sistani, who is in his 70s, had repeatedly turned down al-Sadr's requests for an audience.

"It amounts a recognition of the al-Sadr movement," al-Robai said of the meeting. "In reality, it means that two Shiite powers have decided to peacefully coexist."

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