BAGHDAD, Iraq—Eight months after the U.S. military claimed victory over the militia of firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr, his organization has grown in sophistication, won seats in the Iraqi National Assembly and on provincial councils, and continued to agitate for the expulsion of American forces from Iraq.
The re-emergence of al Sadr, after hundreds if not thousands of his fighters were killed in uprisings last year, points to his continuing ability to harness the widespread discontent of Iraq's millions of poor Shiites.
The Shiite community was grateful to see Saddam Hussein deposed, and it won considerable political power in the Jan. 30 national elections. However, many Shiites remain enraged by the continued American presence, Iraq's decrepit infrastructure, dangerous security conditions and the weak economy, according to interviews with Iraqi analysts and politicians.
Leaders of al Sadr's organization said they'd prefer to negotiate a withdrawal of the more than 140,000 American military personnel in Iraq, but that they're prepared to send their militia to the streets again.
"We must be serious about a timetable for the withdrawal of the U.S. forces," Fatah al Sheikh, a Sadr supporter and a member of the parliament, said during a break this week between meetings with the nation's top Shiite leadership, including Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al Jaafari. "I'm telling you that for every action there is a reaction, and this time the reaction will be organized. We will show the force of Iraq's jihad (holy war). ... We are capable of ending an occupation."
Some Bush administration officials are also eager to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, but are reluctant to do so until more Iraqis are trained and ready to maintain security and battle insurgents.
Al Sadr's image as a populist rebel is strongest in the poor Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City—named for his late father, a grand ayatollah—though he resides in the southern town of Najaf.
The al Sadr official charged with overseeing some 89 mosques in Sadr City, who could call on thousands to storm the streets at the snap of his fingers, lives in a small, bare concrete home with cracked walls and peeling paint in an anonymous alleyway off one of the neighborhood's dusty roads.
"We were all happy about the toppling of Saddam's regime," said Abdul Mohammed al Baderi, stroking his long, black beard. "The occupiers came under the banner of liberation and freedom for the oppressed Iraqi people, but we have discovered that they did not mean it. The Americans are here on a campaign against Islam ... we want to live in peace, but if the occupiers don't listen to us, it's only natural that we turn to the military option."
Al Sadr's organization has developed a political arm while maintaining an armed faction that's able to threaten violence, similar in concept to the Lebanese group Hezbollah or the Irish Republican Army.
Since the end of the August uprising, al Sadr has centralized disparate groups of supporters across the country. Offices in each of Iraq's 18 provinces report to a central group of committees in Baghdad, his representatives said. Those committees control everything from how Quranic classes should be conducted to media outreach.
"The Sadr organization has probably been more organized than many people give them credit for," said a senior U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There have been habitual reports about the Mahdi militia and Sadr rearming."
Al Sadr's men appear intent on enforcing a strict interpretation of Islamic law. His militia beat a group of students because they had a picnic at which men and women danced together at Basra University last month. In a similar incident this week, a group of male and female students at Baghdad's Rafidain College, near the entrance of Sadr City, were accosted by about 10 men wielding AK-47s and sticks.
The men admonished female students for not wearing the hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf. Then, according to witnesses, they looked at a group of women sitting with men and yelled: "Is this an Islamic country, you bitches? Aren't you ashamed of sitting next to a man? If we come again and see you like this we will kill you and hang your bodies."
In January's elections, candidates loyal to al Sadr's group won 24 seats in the new national parliament. In local races, political blocs affiliated with al Sadr gained seats in eight provinces, mostly in the southern Shiite heartland. In Theqar province, home to the city of Nasiriyah, an al Sadr-linked faction got the most votes, as did another in Maysan province. The groups got the second highest tally in three other provinces, including the important port of Basra.
"This movement used a clever mechanism to participate in the political process," said Amer Hassan Fayadh, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "They divided themselves into two groups: one that participated in the political process, received positions and is now making demands within the political arena. And the other is a group that questions those in power."
The most recent edition of the organization's weekly newspaper featured a story titled "Psychological War Against the Americans," accompanied by a picture of a Mahdi fighter holding an AK-47 and looking through a pair of binoculars. It included the observation that "the revolution in Vietnam, for instance, and the liberation war against the American occupation (there) proved that a solid will cannot be defeated."
A recent propaganda DVD made by al Sadr's office in Lebanon and distributed in Baghdad showed scenes from Michael Moore's movie "Fahrenheit 9-11" interspersed with footage of fighting from the August uprising.
It's unclear how willing al Sadr's followers would be to throw themselves against the U.S. military again.
But he's maintained a sizable following.
At a demonstration this week, tens of thousands showed up to chant for his cause and against America. And in his stronghold of Sadr City, where population estimates range from 2 million to 3 million, al Sadr posters and stickers are as ubiquitous as kebab stands.
Al Sadr's movement is careful to cast him as both Shiite cleric and Iraqi nationalist fighter. His father was the top Shiite cleric in Iraq before he was assassinated by Saddam's security forces, and the two al Sadrs' pictures often appear together on posters with thousands of worshippers bowing in the background.
During trips to Sadr City this week, a Knight Ridder reporter saw no U.S. military patrols. The only Iraqi army checkpoints were outside the area. Minivans with al Sadr placards on the windshield, filled with young men, patrolled the streets.
Although the American military has poured millions of dollars into improving infrastructure—and trash and sewage are less prevalent than before—residents in Sadr City still complain of electricity shortages, unclean drinking water and a shortage of jobs.
Zaidan al Zuhairi, the head of the Baghdad office for the Shiite Islamic Action Bureau, said the reason for al Sadr's continued ability to rally the masses was simple.
"There is a saying: `Give me something and I will join you.' Oppressed people look for someone who will defend them, and there are many who think this movement will do that," he said. "The other movements have offered them nothing."
Hassan al Nuaime, a senior member of the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association, agreed. "The popularity of this (group) is due to several reasons," he said, "including their hard work to put an end to the occupation."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Yasser Salihee contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): al Sadr