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Rebel cleric on the rise again, this time in political arena

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whom U.S.-led coalition forces wanted captured or killed a year ago, could become Iraq's political kingmaker, a behind-the-scenes force shaping the outcome of the country's December elections.

"Sadr's movement is powerful in Iraq," said Hazim Ali, a political analyst at Baghdad University's International Studies Center. "I would expect him to be able to bring in at least 2 million votes." Ten million Iraqis voted in the recent constitutional referendum.

Ali said al-Sadr is capitalizing on his unbending rebel image to mobilize a substantial following. The result could put him in a commanding position to build a coalition to assemble the next government.

That's why Iraq's major political parties recently have been courting al-Sadr and why the decision to align his followers with the United Iraqi Alliance, the ruling Shiite Muslim coalition, is important to helping them maintain control of the government.

It's unclear precisely how al-Sadr's political rise would affect government policy. He's far more anti-American than Iraq's current leaders, and his supporters are primarily poor Shiite Muslims.

Outsiders labeled al-Sadr a thug and murderer, but he began Iraq's postwar era as the famed son and nephew of revered ayatollahs who stood up to Saddam Hussein and were executed for their efforts. His stature grew as he stood up to the United States.

"He is an Iraqi and an Arab, and just like his father and uncle sacrificed themselves for the Iraqi people by standing up to Saddam, he stands up to the Americans," said Khubayb Safa, 22, an Al Turath College student in Baghdad. "We will follow him when he needs us, and if he needs us to vote, we will show up in great numbers."

Just over a year ago, followers of the 31-year-old cleric fought coalition forces for control of four cities and were accused of opening courts that ordered the executions of Iraqis working with the coalition. Al-Sadr also was suspected of organizing the killing of pro-American Shiite cleric Abdul Majid al Khoei.

Al-Sadr plays a clever hand. Last week, he tried to distance himself from the upcoming elections. His people put forth a list of candidates for the elections, but al-Sadr said he wasn't supporting them. Instead he urged all people to vote their consciences.

But Ali Abed Madhloum, 31, a doctor from Baqouba and al-Sadr supporter, said the cleric isn't fooling anyone. Al-Sadr supporters will be loyal to their man, he said, and they won't desert the religious revolution he began with force and pursues politically.

"He stands against the oppression of Iraq, against the occupiers," Madhloum said. "But he is not like other religious leaders, who feel everything must be done in a peaceful way. He understands that doesn't work all the time. For now, he is pursuing as many seats as possible in the National Assembly. People will feel the weight of his followers in the coming election."

Hassan Al Bazzaz, head of the al Bazzaz Center for Culture and Opinion in Baghdad, said al-Sadr appears to be trying to play both roles of insider and outsider.

In distancing himself from his candidates, he's following the lead of Iraq's other primary religious men, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, who have all told Iraqis that it's their duty to vote, but that they must make up their own minds on the candidates.

"Muqtada is moving in a couple different directions," Bazzaz said. "Followers who want him to stay outside, looking in, can believe he is. But those who see the wisdom in getting involved will go to the polls for him."

Bazzaz noted that al-Sadr's stance on the December elections is different from last January's elections and the October referendum, when he stayed on the sidelines.

"Nobody can predict the election at this stage, but it's clear that he's a clever man in this," he said. "The last elections only mattered for a matter of months. This time, they determine power for four years. He's wise to get involved this time."

The base of al-Sadr's power is a group of millions in Iraq known as Sadrists, a movement named after his father and uncle. The Sadrists have shown signs of splitting in the coming elections, with a southern branch potentially opposing al-Sadr.

The Ishraqat al Sadr newspaper last week warned Iraqis not to listen to mainstream politicians, such as the ones al-Sadr signed on with, but to elect honest people who oppose the occupation. Al-Sadr's reputation is based on opposing the occupation, and he could lose support if he's seen as going soft on coalition forces.

But while the southern Sadrists are pulling away from al-Sadr, noting instead their allegiance to his father and uncle, he remains highly influential. Other newspapers aimed at Sadrists have urged all followers to vote for his lists of candidates.

Rosemary Hollis, an Iraq expert with the London research center Chatham House, said al-Sadr's emergence as a political power would be a good thing for coalition forces.

"Maybe he's not the man they'd choose, but better kingmaker than military enemy," she said. "True, he's not in the least afraid of using violence. But he's not nearly the problem right now that he's been in the past."

Officially, the United States will say only that it will work with any legally elected leader in Iraq.

Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that any crimes allegedly tied to al-Sadr are an Iraqi affair now. If the nation chooses not to pursue prosecution, they said, the West has no business objecting.

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(Knight Ridder special correspondents Mohammad Alawsy and Zaineb Obeid contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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