NAJAF, Iraq—After months of losing hundreds, if not thousands, of men in battles with the U.S. military, firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr appears to be more popular than ever in Iraq.
American coalition leaders were optimistic that last week's truce calling for al-Sadr to move his men out of the holy cities of Najaf and Kufa was a sign of a weakened leader.
But many Iraqi religious and political leaders say al-Sadr's public appeal is higher than ever and that he and his followers seem poised to gain ground in Iraq's political arena, threatening America's plans for the country.
If elections were held today, polls and interviews on the street suggest, the virulently anti-American al-Sadr would command a big percentage of the vote.
In a recent poll of 1,640 Iraqis across the country, by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, the numbers for those who either somewhat or strongly supported al-Sadr were higher than those of the new prime minister and a long list of other high-ranking Iraqi government officials. More striking was that support for al-Sadr was just 2.8 percentage points behind the 70 percent polled by the established Shiite Muslim leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani.
And that, some in Iraq say, was al-Sadr's goal, and America's miscalculation, all along.
U.S. military and civilian officials misread al-Sadr's intentions: In the long term, he was interested in grabbing a leadership position, not cities, said Redha Jawad Taki, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the seminal Islamic groups in the country.
"Absolutely, he was trying to take more power in Najaf to get political position," Taki said.
Any doubts about al-Sadr's success were erased Saturday, when he was invited to meet with al Sistani, who in the past had sought to distance himself from the young cleric. Many saw the meeting as a stamp of legitimacy for al-Sadr, who's long been on the fringes of the political process.
During the past year, his name has been linked to the killings and attempted murder of several rival clerics who espoused a more conciliatory stance than his own. He faces an arrest warrant for alleged involvement in the murder of moderate cleric Abdul Majid al Khoei, who was stabbed to death in April 2003 at the Najaf shrine.
But al-Sadr has become a folk hero of sorts to many in Iraq.
"He was behaving in a way that the majority of Iraqis sympathize with," said Hamid Fadhel Hassan, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "His leadership is not from appointment by the Americans, it is from the people."
When the new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, announced Monday that every major militia but al-Sadr's would be dissolved, an al-Sadr spokesman said they wouldn't put down their guns until the Americans left.
Al-Sadr's popular backing started because of his father, a grand ayatollah who was murdered by Saddam Hussein, but his stature has grown into something much bigger, Hassan said. Al-Sadr, Hassan said, has become the man willing to stand up to the Americans while, in a lot of Iraqis' eyes, other leaders have been co-opted as puppets.
While some in Najaf's religious establishment reportedly were privately upset with al-Sadr, the sight of hundreds of his militiamen swarming the street made it clear that he should be brought into the fold, said Walid al Shahib Hilli, a spokesman for the al Da'waa Party, one of Iraq's main Islamic organizations.
During the fighting in the south by al-Sadr's Mahdi Army—named for a Shiite imam who promised to return and lead Muslims to victory one day—Sistani was quiet about whether he supported the militiamen with their AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
Many observers suspected that while Sistani disapproved of the rabble-rousing cleric, he couldn't speak against him openly, for fear of looking as though he were aiding the Americans.
When the Americans shut down al-Sadr's newspaper, accusing it of inciting violence, then arrested a key aide, his militia began taking over towns.
Hilli, the Da'waa Party spokesman, said American officials already had set the stage for al-Sadr's rebellion when they left him off the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, though there were some reports that al-Sadr had refused to participate.
They erred again last week by excluding him from the newly formed interim government, Hilli said.
"When you are strong like Muqtada al-Sadr, and he is ignored, of course he will show he is strong," Hilli said. "If the American administration had given him a place, he would not have had to do this."
On the same day that last Friday's truce was announced, al-Sadr supporters stormed the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf—one of the holiest sites in all of Shiite Islam—during Friday prayers and heckled the prayer leader, al-Sadr al din Kubanchi. They also made thinly veiled insults toward Sistani.
One man in the crowd, to the approval of those around him, yelled that "Kubanchi is an agent of Israel," an incendiary accusation in Iraq.
A pro-Sistani cleric in the crowd looked at the jeering Mahdi Army members and supporters.
"You know the Nazis," he said, "this is exactly how they acted."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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