NAJAF, Iraq—Muqtada al-Sadr's days of running this holiest of cities in the Shiite branch of Islam appear numbered. U.S. troops are closing in and residents are stepping up pressure on the radical Shiite cleric's gunmen to leave. They're still hanging on, though less visibly so and in reduced numbers.
But even with al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia likely to retreat, al-Sadr's influence on Shiite affairs in this epicenter of the faith can't easily be erased, clerics and experts in Najaf say.
Bolstered by his pedigree and mounting Iraqi anger toward American occupation, al-Sadr has successfully bucked a 1,300-year-old system in which religious authority over Iraq's majority Shiite population is wielded by elderly ayatollahs seasoned by decades of scholarly pursuit. Al-Sadr has fast-tracked his ascent by playing politics, using violence to subdue opponents and invoking the names of his father and uncle, famous ayatollahs who were killed by Saddam Hussein's agents.
"Even if he compromises and ends this peacefully, he will gain more power," said Adel al Bosaisi, the editor in chief of Faidh al Kawther, a monthly Islamic magazine based in Najaf. "People will believe he accomplished something in that he stood up to the foreign occupiers."
That's unnerving to the more accepted Shiite religious authorities here called marja'iya, who, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, usually limit themselves to guiding the faithful on religious, social and cultural matters.
"Everything that emerges from this is a loss for the people," said Mohammed Hossein al Hakim, a 44-year-old cleric and son of a marja. "It's only about battling for position. It's a political fight and has nothing to do with what the Iraqi people really want, which is freedom, security and peace."
The American strategy for turning Iraq into a democracy friendly to the United States assumed that Iraq's oppressed Shiite majority would welcome the end of Saddam's rule and support American transformation efforts. Al-Sadr's rise threatens that strategy.
The marja'iya appear helpless to do anything about al-Sadr. They fear the brooding cleric, whom an Iraqi judge has charged in connection with the slaying of a pro-U.S. cleric at the Najaf shrine in April 2003. They worry that speaking out against al-Sadr could lead to civil war between his followers and their own. They're shielding him from American troops who seek to arrest or kill him to protect holy Shiite places, some of which he now controls.
Where the marja'iya once dismissed al-Sadr as being "insignificant as a fly," as one al Sistani aide put it a year ago, they now are forced to deal with him and his entourage.
That was obvious three weeks ago, when the sons of three top marja'iya and other holy men went to al-Sadr to ask him to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff with U.S. forces. One participant, Ali al Najafi, the 25-year-old son of a marja, said the hour-long meeting was aimed at persuading al-Sadr to focus on compromise, not combat.
"We are not with him, we are not against him," said al Najafi, answering as most holy men do when speaking about al-Sadr. "What he does is his opinion, his affair. Anyone can say what he wants, it makes no difference."
Al-Sadr saw it differently.
His representatives said the meeting established a united front of the Shiite religion's powerbrokers against the occupation. At Friday prayers recently, al-Sadr spoke of entering the negotiations as a concession to the ayatollahs.
By the following week, al-Sadr realized the marja'iya wouldn't follow him into his "holy war" against the American-led coalition and he went back to criticizing them as weak and ineffective.
"It appears they are afraid for their lives, for their station in life, that they might live in hunger or lose something" by joining him, al Sadr complained.
It's a message he's delivered repeatedly in the year he's preached at the Kufa Mosque near Najaf, in a bid to sway believers away from the multi-authority approach in Iraqi Shiism to a more dictatorial system used by the Islamic republic of Iran.
Al-Sadr insists he isn't looking to head such an empire. Experts say he aims to ensure the al-Sadr name retains its prestige and a say in Shiite affairs.
The young cleric is also careful not to identify himself as a marja, invoking instead the name of his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and, less frequently, that of his great-uncle, Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr, when issuing orders to his followers. Both grand ayatollahs, along with two of Muqtada al-Sadr's brothers, were slain by Saddam's regime.
Al-Sadr lacks the academic prowess of his predecessors, especially his great-uncle, who Islamic scholars say breezed through his studies to become an ayatollah at age 17. Clerics say the younger al-Sadr, who is thought to be in his early 20s but who claims to be 30 to command more respect, studied only a year with one grand ayatollah before abandoning the pursuit. Al-Sadr, on the other hand, told Knight Ridder last year he was only two courses shy of achieving ayatollah status.
Nevertheless, he's arguably the most influential Shiite cleric in Najaf at the moment. His supporters control parts, if not all, of at least nine towns and cities in southern Iraq. His image, as well as those of his relatives, adorns lampposts, shop windows and hotel lobbies. His slogans and posters hang in the holiest of Shiite places, the Grand Imam Ali Shrine, which he took over in early April after, his advisers say, it was found "abandoned" by its nonpartisan caretakers.
The conquest, which has left the shrine and hotels virtually empty of pilgrims, who are fearful of violence, leaves al-Sadr in charge of the vast sums of money that the faithful deposited into Ali's glass-encased tomb. Many here suspect the money feeds his armed rebellion, a claim his representatives deny.
Al-Sadr speaks out where the marja'iya stay silent, helping him reel in more supporters, especially among the poor and uneducated, said Naima Ibrahim, an Islamic philosophy professor at Kufa University. They latch on to his message of blaming the Americans for the economic hardship and insecurity that plague much of Iraq.
Al-Sadr frames his fight against the Americans in religious terms. His militia is named after the imam who Shiites believe will return as their messiah. Al-Sadr often compares the United States to "Yazid," the caliph who slew Imam Hussein, the successor to Islam's Prophet Muhammad, according to Shiites.
For al-Sadr's followers, long oppressed by Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, the call to fight the enemy of Shiism is intoxicating.
"The marja'iya think peaceful opposition, while (al-Sadr) thinks revolutionary," said Bosaisi, the magazine editor. "That appeals to people now and probably will for a long time to come."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): shiite Muqtada conference
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Muqtada al-Sadr biographical