BAGHDAD, Iraq—Coalition officials say a radical young cleric named Muqtada al Sadr is behind a recent spate of suicide bombings and political assassinations that he's using to try to gain power over Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority. But they haven't yet decided how to deal with him for fear of touching off even worse violence.
Coalition officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say they now think that a car bombing Sunday at the Baghdad Hotel was a Sadr-inspired assassination attempt against Moffowak al Rubaie, a moderate Shiite physician who sits on Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council. Al Rubaie, who was in the hotel, was slightly wounded. Six Iraqis, mostly paramilitary police, were killed and at least 36 were injured.
Coalition officials think that attack was coordinated with a roadside bomb that struck the car of Sheik Saed Hussain al Shiami, Iraq's newly appointed deputy secretary of religious affairs, as he was on his way to work. Shiami, another prominent Shiite moderate, also was slightly wounded.
The allegations about Sadr come as the struggle for primacy among Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population, intensifies.
Overnight Tuesday, about 40 to 50 armed Sadr gunmen battled with about 200 gunmen claiming allegiance to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite leader, after Sadr's men took control of two mosques in the sacred city of Karbala, about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad. At least six people were killed and an unknown number were wounded, said 1st Lt. Hashim Adami, a Karbala police officer.
The incident, the first major clash between Shiite groups since the U.S.-British invasion last spring, reflects the deep divisions between Sistani, who is said to favor strict separation between religion and politics, and Sadr, who favors a theocracy like Iran's.
Coalition authorities said it wasn't the first time that Sadr and his followers had used violence to promote their cause. Other attacks, the authorities say, include:
_Last Thursday's suicide bombing at a police station in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum named for Sadr's father. The intent, officials say, was to galvanize public outrage further against the U.S.-led occupation and to strike against forces that cooperate with it. Residents changed the name from Saddam City to Sadr City after American troops reached Baghdad in April. Saddam's intelligence services murdered Sadr's father, a highly respected Shiite cleric, in 1999.
_A massive car bomb Aug. 29 in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, which killed Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al Hakim, a rival cleric, and 78 other people.
_The killing of Abdul Majid al Khoei, a pro-Western cleric who was stabbed to death April 10 at the Grand Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Shiism's holiest shrine. Khoei had just returned to Iraq. At the time, his murder was described as the worst blow that American policy had suffered in Iraq.
The revelations come as Sadr, who is believed to be about 30, has declared the Governing Council illegitimate and announced government ministers of his own. They follow a two-week period in which gunmen from Sadr's self-styled "Medhi Army" have clashed several times with U.S. soldiers, mostly in Baghdad, where he has a significant following.
In the worst incident, two American soldiers were killed and three were wounded last Thursday night in what military officials said was an ambush in Sadr City.
Shiite cooperation is essential to the coalition's reconstruction efforts. Shiites generally welcomed the U.S.-led invasion, having suffered years of repression under Saddam's mostly Sunni Muslim regime, and are reveling in new political and religious freedoms.
Senior coalition officials and leading Shiite politicians maintain that Sadr doesn't represent a majority of Shiites. But he has grown steadily bolder. Last week, armed followers took over several municipal offices in Sadr City, an act that was condemned publicly by Baghdad's city council.
Members of the Governing Council have sought to downplay Sadr's influence and have said his calls for a shadow government are an insignificant, and allowable, step in any democracy.
Interviewed Monday, al Rubaie, his right arm in a cast, called Sadr a "recognizable force," but said he didn't think Sadr would resort to extremism.
"I don't think he's a threat to stability. I think he's a responsible guy. He will not do anything to disrupt the security and the stability of the country," especially since he knows that the Shiites have the most to gain from the change in government, al Rubaie said.
Publicly, coalition officials have been delicate in their statements regarding Sadr. Privately, they admit they don't have enough evidence to move against him.
But they also say he and his followers are becoming a security concern. Arresting a prominent cleric is a serious matter in Iraq; previous instances in which clerics have been detained have led to massive demonstrations. Taking the wrong step at this stage could inflame the situation further, they say.
"It's just difficult for us to make sure we react in the right way," said a senior coalition official, who asked not to be named. "(But) something has to be done about this guy. He's driving people to extremes."
After the gun battle in Karbala overnight Tuesday, American tanks sealed off streets in Sadr City to prevent gangs of armed men from flocking to Karbala.
The fighting in Karbala began around 7 p.m. Monday when Sadr's men appeared at a coalition-funded radio station and demanded that the manager rename it a "holy Islamic station," according to coalition officials. Sadr's gunmen also kidnapped eight members of the city's government and took over the al Qaas and al Mukhaym mosques, several blocks from the Shrine of Imam Hussein, one of the holiest sites in Islam.
After about 200 gunmen claiming allegiance to Sistani arrived, a gun battle ensued, which included exchanges of AK-47 fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The battle continued until morning, and the streets remained tense by mid-afternoon Tuesday, as U.S., Polish and Bulgarian troops sealed off the city and local mediators tried to negotiate an end to the standoff.
A mob of angry men near al Mukhaym mosque threatened a Knight Ridder reporter and photographer, who managed to get near the site before the city was sealed.
"Go away! There is nothing to see here!" shouted one young man, shaking a fist in the air. "We are all brothers in Islam."
Several blocks away, another man explained the hostility.
"They're all Sadr's people," said Raad Mohammed, 35. "So they don't want you to see the bad things they've done."
"We don't like them here, and we don't want them here," he said. "But we don't feel safe, either, because as soon as the fighting started last night, the Americans and the Bulgarians and the Poles pulled out."
Other residents said the sectarian violence had nothing to do with religion or politics. Both sides were fighting, they said, because the mosques pulled in millions of Iraqi dinars each month from the donations of Shiite pilgrims.
"We are caught in the middle of a quarrel between these two sides without any safety," said Hassan Sabir, 35, a moneychanger, as he stood in a street strewn with garbage and rotting vegetables outside the Imam Hussein shrine. "We don't know which one of them is right or which one of them is good. We just know we are the ones who are dying."
In Najaf, about 40 miles farther south, Sadr gave a rare news conference Tuesday in which he said the shootout didn't happen.
Addressing the world's media on the sweltering rooftop of an elementary school flanked by portraits of his father and grandfather, he called on Iraqis to demonstrate continuously to illustrate his political legitimacy. If only 1 percent of Iraqis demonstrate in his support, Sadr said, his government would be more representative of the Iraqi people than the 24-member Governing Council.
"The Iraqi people can make clear their decision by a demonstration to either refuse or accept us," he said. "If they agree, they will go out and demonstrate. If they refuse, they will stay at home."
Sadr also said he hadn't "turned his guns on the Americans" and the Americans hadn't "turned their guns" on him.
(Brown reported from Baghdad and Karbala. Jeff Wilkinson in Najaf and Maureen Fan in Baghdad contributed to this article.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SHIITES
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Muqtada al Sadr