BAGHDAD, Iraq—Maha Adel Mehdi's awakening came during her college years. She'd ached to hear a voice—just one—that dared to criticize the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and the policies that stifled the dreams of her generation.
Mehdi found her "light of righteousness" in Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, a Shiite Muslim cleric who openly called for political reform and religious freedom until he was killed in a hail of gunfire, along with two of his sons, in 1999.
"There was something in his voice I couldn't resist. I found myself listening until the very end. His speeches were something different," Mehdi recalled. "At the time, I needed someone to set me on the right path. Sadr did that."
Millions of Shiites sought solace in Sadr's words, but Mehdi's story was different: She was a Sunni Muslim when she first heard Sadr's call. Now a 32-year-old mother of two, Mehdi is still serving Sadr, as one of the 11 female legislators loyal to his son, Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is at the forefront of Iraq's violence.
Mehdi prides herself on the rebellious streak that compelled her to give up her family, her sect and her safety to begin a new life. Her journey helps explain the broad appeal of a militant movement that's able to turn even the unlikeliest of supporters into devotees prepared to face death.
"I read many books until I reached a very clear point that the Shiite way is my way," Mehdi said. "I am ready to sacrifice my life for this path."
Critics accuse the younger Sadr of sullying his father's reputation by sending adolescents to their deaths in two bloody uprisings against U.S. forces, fielding death squads to carry out revenge attacks on Sunnis and turning the family's venerated name into a synonym for thuggery.
Diehard followers such as Mehdi, however, view the younger Sadr's brand of resistance as a natural words-to-deeds progression of his father's defiance. Now, however, the cause isn't toppling a dictator but driving out the American troops who once were hailed as liberators.
"Saddam was a small devil, and now the devil is bigger," Mehdi said. "I either have to get the occupiers out of my country or meet my martyrdom."
Mehdi's father was from the Douris, a powerful Sunni clan that includes Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, the former deputy chairman of Saddam's Revolutionary Command Council and one of the most-wanted men in Iraq. Her mother is Shiite, but Mehdi grew up with limited exposure to the sect because religion is passed on through the father in Islam.
She enrolled in a dentistry college in the mid-1990s and went on to obtain a doctorate in medical microbiology. Her classmates in those years were Sunnis and Shiites, united in their studies and an aversion to the risky business of politics under Saddam. Privately, however, Mehdi seethed at the injustices she witnessed, especially the brutal crushing of a Shiite rebellion just after Saddam's short-lived invasion of Kuwait.
One day in 1996, Mehdi said, she heard a recording of a speech by the Ayatollah Sadr and grew fascinated by a cleric who boldly demanded reforms from a dictator. She drew perplexed, wary looks when she began distributing his pamphlets on campus.
When Mehdi converted from Sunni to Shiite, her father's side of the family disowned her.
"My uncles threatened to kill me," she said.
The circumstances of the ayatollah's death remain cloudy, but the most prominent theory is that Saddam ordered him silenced. After the killing, regime functionaries moved to block the ayatollah from achieving martyr status, cracking down on Iraqis who spread his message or showed hints of revolt.
Mehdi, the once-meek student, suddenly found herself in the crosshairs of Saddam's dreaded security apparatus. Faculty at the college stopped her from distributing literature that supported the ayatollah. To mourn his death, she showed up to class the next day in an outfit associated with the most pious of Shiite women: a head scarf pinned at the tip of her chin and a long, billowing black robe.
It wasn't just rare, but unheard-of, for a Sunni woman to wear such garments. She said intelligence officers and school administrators demanded to know what had gotten into her.
"They called me in to interrogate me: Why did I do that?" Mehdi recalled. "The dean's office started bothering me, putting obstacles in my way. I felt as if I were suffocating. I was expelled from the university and had to flee."
Traveling on fake passports, Mehdi, her husband and their 3-year-old son escaped to Syria. From there, they traveled to Yemen, where she taught at a dental college—and watched with growing anger as U.S. forces remained in her country after toppling Saddam.
The Americans, she said, "brought nothing but destruction so they could divide us."
She felt duty-bound to return from exile in Yemen and dedicate herself to Sadr's cause. Shortly after resettling in Iraq, she gave birth to a daughter, Fatima. She gushed that the little girl's first word was "Muqtada."
Mehdi's unfazed by the danger her children face in Iraq, where violence and chaos have driven hundreds of thousands to flee.
"I saw a woman in Sadr City whose 6-month-old baby was killed in her arms, and there are so many like her," Mehdi said. "I see myself in every one of those mothers. Their loss is my loss."
Her loyalty won her a seat representing Sadr in the legislature. Her husband is her office manager, a rare role reversal in this usually patriarchal society. She said she had no qualms about picking up a gun if her commander so ordered.
So far, Mehdi has used her position to call for calm in the aftermath of a bombing in November that killed more than 200 Shiites in Sadr's militia stronghold in Baghdad. She claims to shun sectarianism but is quick to label Sunni leaders "terrorists."
In her mind, blame for the nonstop sectarian bloodshed goes to enemy No. 1: the United States. She said her overarching goal in parliament was to help pass a resolution calling for a timetable for U.S. forces to withdraw.
"When I was elected, we were happy because we have this aim in our minds to serve Seyyid Muqtada," she said, using an honorific for a Muslim cleric. "But I'll really celebrate only when I get the occupation out of my country."
(McClatchy special correspondent Zaineb Obeid contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.