BAGHDAD, Iraq—Firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is working behind the scenes to maintain his armed militant wing and portray it as a social movement, a step that would make him one of Iraq's most powerful figures if it succeeds, U.S. officials and Iraqi politicians say.
American officials think that al-Sadr, who already controls the largest bloc of votes in the National Assembly, is modeling himself after Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim movement born during that country's civil war in the 1980s. Although it began largely as an armed group, it eventually became a powerful political force with a large social-service component.
Some U.S. and Iraq officials think that al-Sadr's shift is a symptom of a growing rift within the powerful Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, which has dominated Iraq's two parliamentary elections. That split pits al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia against members of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq to be the voice of all Iraqi Shiites.
"It's a struggle for power," said Adnan Pachachi, a secularist and member of parliament.
A successful move by al-Sadr would be a major transformation for the 30-something scion of a clan of revered Shiite religious figures. Once derided as ill educated and undisciplined, al-Sadr has been on the verge of defeat twice at the hands of the American military and once was charged by an Iraqi court with murdering two prominent Shiite clerics.
But he's maintained his role in Iraq, joining the United Iraqi Alliance while maintaining his Mahdi Army, which controls Sadr City, Baghdad's largest Shiite neighborhood, named for al-Sadr's father.
Now al-Sadr is working to expand his influence, building regional offices in major Shiite communities to help widows, workers, children and the sick with services the Iraqi government can't yet provide, such as health care and potable water.
Al-Sadr also is insisting in talks to form a new government that his followers, who hold 32 of the assembly's 275 seats, lead key service ministries such as education and health.
At the same time, U.S. officials think al-Sadr is trying to better organize and train the Mahdi Army, expanding his reach by placing fighters in Shiite communities beyond Sadr City.
"I think he is now trying to work a parallel program and make (the Mahdi Army) more professional while also developing these organizations throughout the districts that ensure religious outreach, education, social advantage and opportunity," said a top U.S. intelligence official who agreed to speak only if granted anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject. "All the things that the government doesn't fill in, he will."
Sheik Yousif al-Nasseri, an al-Sadr supporter and the head of al-Shaheedin, an al-Sadr-oriented research center, embraced the comparison between al-Sadr's movement and Lebanon's Hezbollah, particularly if it means that the populace sees al-Sadr as representing the people.
"If this is their vision, that we resemble Hezbollah, then God willing we are going to be stronger than Hezbollah and move the people and the nation," al-Nasseri said.
Hezbollah began as a militant group that opposed the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon, but it began to provide services such as clinics and clean water with the help of financial backing from Iran. In the most recent Lebanese elections, Hezbollah won 23 of the 128 seats in the Lebanese Parliament, and it holds two ministerial posts.
The State Department lists Hezbollah as among the Middle East's "active extremist and terrorist groups."
American officials also take a dim view of al-Sadr, whom they hold chiefly responsible for attacks on Sunni Muslim mosques after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya shrine, a Shiite holy site, in the mostly Sunni city of Samarra. In the aftermath of those attacks, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said militias were a greater threat to Iraq than the country's Sunni insurgency.
Al-Sadr publicly says his Mahdi Army isn't a militia but an unorganized group of street fighters who take up arms only when needed. "There is no party organization, no salaries paid out, no bases and they use only their personal weapons," Sadr said at a rare news conference last week.
Officials say al-Sadr's effort to establish the Mahdi Army as a provider of essential services also highlights his disagreement with other key members of the United Iraqi Alliance, particularly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Al-Sadr views the Supreme Council's militia, the Badr Organization, as too close to Iran, which gave shelter to many Supreme Council leaders during Saddam Hussein's rule.
Al-Sadr also rejects calls for allowing Iraqi regions a great deal of autonomy, which is known here as federalism. The Supreme Council supports the idea.
U.S. officials think al-Sadr is trying to broaden his base of support so that he can challenge the Supreme Council for prominence.
Not everyone thinks he'll be successful. They note that in contrast to Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasralla, who's considered one of the most charismatic figures in the Middle East, al-Sadr often appears awkward and indecisive in his public appearances.
In addition, they argue, he can't win over the majority of Shiites, particularly since most are loyal first to Iraq's No. 1 Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
"He is trying, but I don't think he can," said Saad al-Janabi, a former Sunni negotiator who joined the National Assembly as a secularist. "There is no one voice of the Shiites."
Pachachi noted Hezbollah's close ties to Iran, an important element in its survival and something that al-Sadr could be lacking.
But they agree that there's a vacuum for someone to fill, because the government remains weak and residents are frustrated by the religious and ethnic discord and the lack of services.
"In a strange way, he has emerged as a nationalist leader," said James Denselow, an Iraq specialist at the London-based Chatham House, an international research center. "Whether he can do it or not is something else."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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