Iraq awaits a fiery Shiite cleric's next move

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 9, 2007 

BAGHDAD — After Friday prayers in Sadr City, 300 women in black shuffled slowly, quietly down a narrow street toward a billboard-sized photo of Muqtada al Sadr, the fiery young leader of their Shiite Muslim movement. Holding banners and flags, the women protested the U.S. presence in Iraq and the detentions of hundreds of the radical cleric's followers.

"Anything that comes from Sayed Muqtada is good for us," said Hannah al Rubaye, using the honorific title for descendents of the prophet Mohammed. "After this step, we expect other orders from Sayed Muqtada. Patience has limits."

Sadr issued a heated anti-American statement last week, but he instructed his increasingly restless followers not to act. Their demonstration was organized without his orders, and their silence quickly gave way to agitated shouts.

Sadr himself has remained mostly silent since his 60,000-member Mahdi Army militia began a ceasefire three months ago. Sectarian violence and attacks on U.S. forces have dropped as a result, buttressing the case for the withdrawal of some U.S. troops from Iraq and encouraging some to believe that Iraq has had enough of killing.

Now Iraqis and Americans alike are awaiting Sadr's next move, which could alter both his hold on his own followers and his relations with rival Iraqi leaders and, above all, help to determine whether Iraq is seeing the ebbing of a violent storm or merely the eye of it.

With the U.S. recruiting and arming opposing Sunni volunteer groups, Sadr's passivity risks alienating his restive followers, the poor and underserved Shiites whose loyalty he inherited from his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq al Sadr.

Nevertheless, said Hazem al Araji, an aide to Sadr, the Mahdi Army ceasefire is likely to extend beyond the planned six months. While this would please U.S. commanders and many Iraqis, it would bolster Sadr only if his followers agree that they're likely to gain more by keeping their weapons in their closets than they are by pulling them out again.

"There is an entity in the Sadr trend that doesn't want the freeze," said Sheik Naza al Timini, a Sadr cleric in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad. "They said, 'We have the right to use violence and force.' We always hope for good, and we hope that the decision of Sayed Muqtada will be for the best of Iraq, but after he gives his final decision about the future of the Mahdi Army, many, I believe, will change their ideology and choose to leave the Sadr trend."

"What he did was basically pull the rug out — 'You can continue acting as the mafia, as the mob, but not in my name,' " said Peter Harling, a Sadr expert at the International Crisis Group. "It worked remarkably well, but I don't know how sustainable this can be. (His followers) appear extremely frustrated, willing to comply with Muqtada's decision, but not for very long."

A breakdown of the ceasefire, either on Sadr's orders or by rebellious commanders, would likely bring a return to sectarian warfare and make it harder for the U.S. to reverse the surge of additional troops to Iraq, especially if it were accompanied by renewed attacks on American forces.

For now, Sadr is railing against the U.S. but advocating no action beyond praying in a mosque for two hours after sunset. "Get out of our land," he wrote on Friday. "We don't need you or your armies, the armies of darkness; not your airplanes, tanks, policies, meddling, democracy, fake freedom."

"I hope he will go on like this, not fighting, but trying to use political means against Americans or against the government," said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman.

U.S. military commanders have consciously changed their rhetoric since the Mahdi Army ceasefire began, using the title "Sayed" before Sadr's name, calling the ceasefire a "pledge of honor" and mentioning talks with top Sadr officials.

"Since we don't have a direct dialogue with him, this is our way of reaching out," said a U.S. military intelligence official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to speak publicly, adding that American officials aren't sure how much sway Sadr officials have over the militias.

Iraqi and U.S. forces have detained hundreds of Mahdi Army members, saying they're enforcing the cleric's desires by holding only the corrupt and disloyal, the intelligence official said,

Sadr's relationship with the U.S. hasn't changed, said Hazem al Araji, the Sadr aide, and the U.S. claims about detentions are bogus. "Lies, he said. "All lies."

A senior U.S. military intelligence officer attributed Sadr's public outcry about the detentions to pressure from within his movement.

Even if Sadr chooses to return to battle, however, some Iraqi legislators said, Iraqis wouldn't be willing to give up the sense of normalcy they've enjoyed since the ceasefire began.

"If the security situation improved and some political improvements happen, the Mahdi Army, Sadr trend and Sayed Muqtada cannot go against the general current," said Abbas al Bayati, a prominent Shiite parliament member.

While they await the young cleric's next move, Iraqi politicians are pushing their own agendas, U.S. forces continue to focus on al Qaida in Iraq and Sadr's own restless followers are tentatively maintaining their allegiance.

"This is like a volcano," Bayati said of the Sadrist movement's turmoil and its struggle with America, rival Shiites and Sunnis. "We need to find a passage for it so the lava can fall to the sea. If there's too much pressure, it will lead to an explosion."

Gumbrecht reports for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. McClatchy Baghdad Bureau Chief Leila Fadel and special correspondents Jenan Hussein, Qassim Zein and Yasar Ghani contributed.

ABOUT MUQTADA AL SADR

In 1999, Muqtada al Sadr was a rumored video game addict with little religious training when his father's assassination made him a leader. He formed the Mahdi Army in 2003 to protect Shiites from Sunni insurgent attacks and fight the U.S. occupation.

Following the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra, Sadr's militia killed hundreds of Sunnis. In Karbala on Aug. 28, the Mahdi Army clashed with forces staffed largely with the militia members of a rival Shiite movement, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. At least 52 pilgrims were killed and 206 were injured as they visited holy shrines. Sadr froze his militia, and has hardly been heard from since, and many Iraqi leaders suggest that the cleric has lost control of his movement and his militia.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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