A political spectator, for now

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

NAJAF, Iraq -- Scores of supplicants filed slowly past Muqtada al-Sadr, kissing his hands in a show of loyalty to this fiery young anti-American cleric who has created one of the most dynamic religious and political movements in Iraq.

But despite the support he enjoys, al-Sadr said in a rare interview he would steer clear of Iraqi politics as long as U.S. troops remain in the country, and warned the current government legitimizes the occupation instead of preparing for its end.

"As long as the occupier is here, I will not interfere in the political process," he said, adjusting himself on a brown cushion lying on the floor of a long hallway. "I would like to condemn and denounce the last Iraqi government's decision to legalize the occupation. Legalizing the occupation is rejected from any angle."

Holed up for nearly a year in his maroon-colored home in one of this Shiite holy city's upscale neighborhoods, the 32-year-old seminary student has used diplomacy and backstage maneuvering to quietly, methodically build a power base across the country.

Speaking of the desecration of the Quran by U.S. troops and interrogators in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, al-Sadr said, "God willing, whenever the tyranny's blows increase in frequency, our own courage and strength increase too." It was his only direct reference to the U.S. military his followers battled last year.

Al-Sadr vanished from public view after deadly streets battles between his militia -- the Imam al-Mahdi Army -- and U.S. forces in Baghdad, Najaf and a string of towns across central and southern Iraq. In Najaf during August alone, at least 12 U.S. troops were killed in those battles.

He also has an outstanding arrest warrant over his alleged role in the murder of a rival cleric in Najaf two years ago.

His movement has its roots in the 1990s when his father Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a powerful Shiite cleric, defied Saddam Hussein. The senior al-Sadr was killed by suspected Saddam agents in a 1999 spray of gunfire.

The son inherited a network of schools and charities built by his father, and his supporters, mostly seminary students, resurfaced after Saddam's fall, organizing local charities and vigilante groups in Shiite areas.

He also has managed to transform himself into a respectable political figure, with the loyalty of some key lawmakers and Cabinet ministers.

His supporters ran in the January elections as independents or members of electoral alliances. At least 20 "Sadrist" deputies are thought to be in the 275-member parliament. Some, though, are seen as owing allegiance to his father's memory and not to him.

Washington insider Ahmad Chalabi is among politicians thought to be courting al-Sadr because of the strength of his political machine. A deputy prime minister, Chalabi is lobbying both for the release of hundreds of al-Sadr followers in U.S. detention and for rescinding the arrest warrant al-Sadr faces.

Al-Sadr has even gained limited and conditional approval from the Americans he so loudly denounces.

"Muqtada al-Sadr has publicly made the move to join the political process (and) there are ministers in the Cabinet from the al-Sadr movement. As long as they eschew violence, we have no objection to their involvement in the democratic process," a senior U.S. diplomat said recently on condition he not be identified for security reasons.

"It would be very good for Mr. al-Sadr to stay in the political process ... (and) urge his followers to stay away from violence," the official added.

During the rambling interview, al-Sadr indirectly criticized Iraq's Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for promoting the process that led to formation of the Shiite-led government.

"In reality, the electoral process was designed to legitimize the occupation, rather than ridding the country of the occupation," al-Sadr said.

The United States formally ended its occupation of Iraq last June, but it maintains nearly 140,000 troops in the country.

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