Muqtada al-Sadr claimed in an interview with Knight Ridder last April that he had no political aspirations. "Ambition is degrading," he insisted, loudly clicking prayer beads between chubby fingers.
Now al-Sadr, with the backing of his Mahdi's Army militia, has become a political player in a fragile Iraq less than three months before Iraqis are to take control of the government.
The interview last April was a rare one with a Western journalist. Since then, he has primarily communicated his opinions through sermons or in pronouncements circulated by followers.
A brooding man with piercing black eyes, al-Sadr was virtually unknown before the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He was a young Shiite of low clerical standing. But his name evokes fear in the holy city of Najaf, the epicenter of the Shiite faith.
His followers are blamed for killing a pro-Western Shiite cleric last April in a violent confrontation that drove Iraq's Shiite spiritual leaders into seclusion and that first brought al-Sadr to the attention of Iraqis and Americans.
Despite his lack of religious credentials, he was the first Iraqi cleric to take to the sermon circuit following Saddam's ouster, speaking out from the mosque at Kufa, less than a mile from the holiest Shiite shrine. While the United States pressed Iraq's Shiites to support a democratic government, al-Sadr emerged as an unchallenged advocate for what he called "righteous Islamic rule."
He advocates a hard-line interpretation of Islam, calling for strict separation of the sexes, as well as a ban on alcohol and most forms of entertainment.
During his first month of sermons at the mosque where Noah and Abraham are said to have worshipped, more than 20,000 Shiites, mostly laborers and farmers, gathered to hear him each Friday. His words echoed passionately over the loudspeakers, challenging the faithful to embrace Islamic rule and turn away from four Najaf ayatollahs who are the current Shiite leaders.
"We are the true believers, not the others," he has said more than once.
Al-Sadr's father, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was assassinated by Saddam in late February 1999. The senior al-Sadr, a marjah or religious authority, had presided with Saddam's approval. But Saddam soured on the cleric as his following grew and he began criticizing Saddam's rule. In his last public appearances, he seemed to foresee his fate and urged followers to continue their prayers even if he were killed.
Shiites now revere the elder al-Sadr as a martyr, as they do Muqtada al-Sadr's two older brothers, who were slain with their father in an ambush near Najaf. The other surviving son is mentally ill, leaving Muqtada, the youngest, to minister to his father's followers.
As for whether he plans to avenge the murders, al-Sadr snapped in last April's interview, "It's my business whether I'll seek revenge."
But he flashed a rare smile when discussing whether he had ever thought he would be free of Saddam. "We hoped for this, but not from America," he said. Like most Shiite clergy, he resents the U.S. military's presence: "We wanted our own people to rise up."
Al-Sadr's age is a mystery. Detractors said he was 22 last spring, but supporters insisted he was seven years older, making him 30 or perhaps 31 now. A former bodyguard said the extra years were added to make him seem mature. Married, he has no children but is raising the six children of his slain brothers.
al-Sadr gained notoriety when his followers were implicated in the April 10, 2003, murder of a pro-Western cleric, Abdel-Majid al Khoei, in Najaf's Grand Imam Ali Shrine. Khoei, 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 republic.
Khoei had returned to Iraq with $13 million from the U.S. government. On the night he was killed, he had gone to the mosque with 24 other Iraqi Shiite leaders to discuss the country's future. His death dashed American hopes that Khoei would help unite Iraq's long-repressed Shiites behind a democratic government.
Al-Sadr's supporters want American troops out of Iraq and want Shiite leaders to take a forceful role in running the country without outsiders determining their agenda. Shiites make up more than 60 percent of Iraq's population.
Like his father, al-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 he can climb.
He is handicapped because he isn't a scholar and lacks the background of religious studies to be a marjah like the ayatollahs he criticizes. In the Knight Ridder interview last spring, he insisted he was only two courses shy of becoming a marjah. His studies were interrupted because of the U.S.-led invasion, he added.
Iraqi Shiite spiritual rulers, meanwhile, generally avoid criticizing al-Sadr. They said they're taking no chances.
Last year, one senior cleric confided to Knight Ridder that the return of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al Hakim from exile in Iran would curb al-Sadr's power. But Hakim, who headed the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and has thousands of armed fighters at his disposal, was killed in a bombing in August outside the same holy site where Khoei was murdered.
Al-Sadr is a suspect in Hakim's slaying.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Moqtada al Sadr
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040406 USIRAQ Sadr