NAJAF, Iraq—Moqtada al Sadr is a young Shiite cleric of low rank who was virtually unknown a month ago, but his name now evokes fear in this holy city.
His followers have been blamed for the brutal slaying last month of a pro-Western Shiite cleric in a violent confrontation that drove Iraq's top Shiite spiritual leaders into seclusion and brought Sadr to the attention of both Iraqis and the United States.
The son of a grand ayatollah who was assassinated under Saddam Hussein, Sadr is now the only religious voice speaking out in this city at the epicenter of the Shiite faith. With the United States pressing Iraq's Shiite majority to support a democratic government, Sadr has emerged as an unchallenged advocate for what he calls "righteous Islamic rule."
In an interview with a Knight Ridder reporter, Sadr claimed to have no political aspirations. "Ambition is degrading," the brooding man with piercing eyes insisted, loudly clicking black prayer beads between chubby fingers as if to emphasize his point.
Sadr's aims are hard to pin down. He calls repeatedly for his followers to rise up but says that he doesn't want to lead them and doesn't say who should.
When he preached last Friday at a local mosque, more than 20,000 Shiites, mostly laborers and farmers, gathered to hear him. His words echoed passionately over the loudspeakers at the Kufa mosque, a site where Noah and Abraham are said to have worshipped. Invoking the name of the prophet Mohammed, Sadr challenged the faithful to embrace Islamic rule and turn away from four ayatollahs in Najaf who are the present Shiite spiritual leaders.
"We are the true believers, not the others," Sadr said.
Sadr delivers his weekly message at the same mosque where his father, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al Sadr, did before he was killed by Saddam's government three years ago.
"It's my duty," Sadr said of his new role as a religious leader, "although I'm glad I get to fulfill the task that he was passionate about."
The senior Sadr, a marjah or religious authority, had presided with the tacit approval of the government, which hoped to use him to gain more control over the country's Shiite majority. But Saddam's plan backfired as Sadr gradually acquired a mass following and began openly criticizing the Iraqi government.
Sadr's growing power rattled the regime's nerves. In his last public appearances, Sadr seemed to foresee his fate, urging his followers to continue their prayers even if he were killed.
Shiites now revere the elder Sadr as a martyr, as they do Moqtada al Sadr's two older brothers, who were slain with their father in an ambush near Najaf. The only other surviving son is disabled by illness, leaving Moqtada, the youngest, to minister to his father's followers.
Until Saddam was toppled last month, Iraqi agents had him under surveillance day and night, said his spokesman, Sheikh Abbas Abdul Sada.
When asked whether he plans to avenge the murders, Sadr snapped, "It's my business whether I'll seek revenge." But he flashed a rare smile when asked whether he'd ever thought he'd be free of Saddam's reign. "We hoped for this, but not from America," he said. Sadr, like most of the Iraqi Shiite clergy, resents the U.S. presence: "We wanted our own people to rise up."
Sadr's age is a mystery. Detractors say he is 22 and supporters say 29. One former bodyguard said the extra years were added to make him seem more mature. He is married, with no children, although he is raising the three sons and three daughters of his slain brothers.
Sadr gained notoriety when his followers were implicated in the murder of the pro-Western cleric, Abdul Majid Al Khoei, inside the Grand Imam Ali Shrine on April 10. Khoei, who is also the son of a former grand ayatollah, was a moderate whom the United States had counted on to help unite the Shiites behind a democratic government and head off the threat of an Iranian-style Islamic republic, which might turn against the United States.
Like his father before him, Sadr seems to be gaining support despite the widespread popularity of the religious authorities he seeks to replace. But there are limits to how high Sadr can climb on the Shiite spiritual ladder.
He's not a learned religious scholar and lacks the religious studies to be a marjah like the ayatollahs he criticizes. And that is the Achilles' heel that Iraqi Shiite spiritual rulers use to justify their refusal to respond, even in writing, to Sadr's verbal assaults.
A senior aide to Iraq's current grand ayatollah, Ali al Sistani, offered an Arabic parable to explain why his boss ignores Sadr's taunts. "A fly sitting on a date palm tree says, `Be careful, I'm about to take off!' and the date palm tree replies, `I didn't even notice you were there.' "
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The aide and other opponents predict that Moqtada al Sadr will fade from the scene as soon a caretaker government is installed in Iraq and law and order are restored to its cities.
Another senior cleric, who asked not to be identified, suggested that the return of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al Hakim from exile in Iran in the coming days may also curb Sadr's power. Hakim heads the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading group in the fight for a Saddam-free Iraq, and has thousands of armed guerilla fighters at his disposal.
For now, Shiite leaders in Najaf are not taking their chances.
"The situation is very delicate, we can't speak about him," explained Sheikh Hadi al Khasraji, a local political leader for the Shiite group, Hezbe al Dawa.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Moqtada al Sadr