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BAGHDAD — The anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr is reasserting authority over his movement after disappearing from public view for three months.
A top Sadr aide, Salah al Obaidi, said Monday that since Sadr had reappeared during religious services two weeks ago at a shrine in Kufa, he'd replaced 11 local leaders of his movement, including two in Baghdad.
Obaidi, who speaks to Sadr regularly and is considered his spokesman, also disavowed what appears to be a final push by Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, to seize control of contested neighborhoods in south and west Baghdad, where Shiite forces are pressing a campaign to push out Sunni Muslims. He said local leaders in the Bayaa and Amil neighborhoods had acted without orders from Sadr.
"Sayed Muqtada refuses all kinds of violence and he refuses to answer violence with violence," Obaidi said. "Sayed" is an honorific used for descendents of the prophet Muhammad.
Where Sadr went during the months he dropped from sight is still debated. U.S. officials said that the young cleric — he's thought to be in his early 30s, though his precise age hasn't been publicized — had fled to Iran in February as the U.S. began building up troops to stanch sectarian violence in Baghdad. His supporters say he never left Iraq.
What isn't contested, however, is the impact of his absence. U.S. and Sadr officials say the movement fragmented while he was away.
"We have seen a fracturing of Jaysh al Mahdi in the last few months. We see elements acting on their own," U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Garver said, using the Arabic for Mahdi Army. "He may be trying to prevent that. It could be a positive thing for Iraq, the coalition and the Iraqi people or it could be a negative thing, depending on how these new leaders are going to behave."
Obaidi acknowledged that there'd been "complaints" that some of the replaced leaders had been involved in kidnapping and killing Sunni men and that some of the leaders had "committed mistakes." He denied, however, that that was the reason for the overhaul. He declined to be specific about what mistakes the leaders had made.
Other Sadr loyalists said some local officials had taken actions that Sadr hadn't approved.
"Many of the people in the Sadr trend are not real Sadrists and they don't have a real belonging to the Sadr front," said Sheik Abdul Hadi al Mohammadawi, the head of the Sadr office in Karbala, a major Sadr stronghold. "They corrupted the reputation of the Sadr office."
News of the purge comes amid other signs that Sadr intends not only to assert primacy over Shiite politics but also to claim the leadership of a Sunni-Shiite coalition to oppose a continued U.S. presence in Iraq. The move comes as the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki appears incapable of major action and the parliament is in turmoil.
Parliament has yet to discuss any of the legislation necessary to meet benchmarks that U.S. officials have set. On Monday, the parliament speaker, Mahmoud al Mashhadani, a Sunni, was forced to resign after his guards manhandled a member of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, Fariyad Mohammed.
Last week, Sadr gave a lengthy interview to Iraqi state television in which he blamed all of Iraq's troubles on the U.S. presence and praised Sunnis and Shiites who in recent weeks had battled al Qaida and other Sunni extremists, whom Sadr referred to collectively as "takfir," the Iraqi term for Sunni extremists.
The move was widely seen as an effort by Sadr to recast himself as the only national resistance leader. Sadr is already considered Iraq's most popular Shiite political figure, with a powerful following among poor and disenchanted Shiites, whose support he inherited from his late father and uncle, both prominent clerics who were assassinated during Saddam Hussein's rule. His militia has more than 60,000 members.
Sadr's return also has ushered in a period of more aggressive military action by the Mahdi Army, three months after he supposedly ordered his forces not to interfere with U.S. efforts to increase security.
In the first two days after his Kufa appearance, the Mahdi Army caught British forces in the southern port city of Basra and U.S. forces in Baghdad in battles and ambushes. Five British men were kidnapped May 28 from a government building near Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, a Mahdi Army stronghold. In southwest Baghdad the Mahdi Army came out in force, setting up checkpoints, battling with Sunnis and taking over mosques.
Since then, the number of unidentified corpses dumped on Baghdad's streets has increased. The Mahdi Army long has been blamed for such killings, though Sadr loyalists deny there's any official sanction of such killings.
Obaidi also said there'd been no order from Sadr for the Mahdi Army to try to consolidate its hold in Baghdad's south and west, a move that would isolate remaining Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad's center. He said some of the violence was due to Shiites who'd fled to the neighborhoods from areas that Sunni forces dominated and had decided on their own to force out Sunnis.
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)