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Shiite cleric emerging as a highly influential political leader

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric who just a year ago encouraged his followers to kill U.S. soldiers, has successfully transformed his ragtag followers into a political force that could dramatically reshape the next parliament.

Preliminary results show al-Sadr supporters holding as many as 31 seats in the 275-seat parliament, a number, if it holds, that would make Sadrists the single-largest group in Iraq's first democratically elected permanent parliament. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq will release official election results as early as this week.

Al-Sadr's emergence as a potent political figure has prompted worries that the capricious leader could bring a hard-line Islamic slant to Iraq's new parliament, thwarting any remaining hopes that Iraqis can form a centrist, stabilizing government.

"He is a real spoiler," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst and Iraq specialist at the National Defense University in Washington.

Some fear that al-Sadr will employ both violence and the political process, keeping his Mahdi Army militia while other supporters participate in parliament. Others hope that his supporters' rise to parliament will wean him off violence as he gains clout over the government.

Some even think that he could provide a bridge to the disaffected Sunni minority, with whom he shares a strong anti-American sentiment. Many Sunnis, however, think of Shiites such as al-Sadr as apostates.

Al-Sadr sent his supporters to run for parliament, but did not run himself.

"The Sadrists used to hold weapons and fight their now future parliament members," said Ali Abdul Jaleel, a 42-year-old Shiite Muslim from Baghdad. "I think they will be the opposition leaders in the new parliament. They are going to make a lot of noise."

The Sadrists' put together their winning bloc in the Dec. 15 election by joining the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance slate for the election and also running on a separate slate, the Messengers. Through the United Iraqi Alliance, they won 30 seats. The separate Messengers slate won an additional one, according to various political parties tracking those numbers.

On the strength of those numbers, Sadrists are demanding a say in who should be prime minister and leadership positions in a number of ministries. They're also demanding that their militia, which fought U.S. and Iraqi forces last year, should become part of the government's security forces.

Already, they are suggesting that if they don't get what they want, they'd be willing to break with the United Iraqi Alliance, which would eliminate any hope of a unified government.

"We don't have a permanent alliance. We have a permanent goal, which is to serve Iraq," said Salam al Maliki, the Minister of Transport and a high-ranking Sadrist in the current government.

Al-Sadr has presented himself as a voice for downtrodden, Shiite Iraqis who suffered some of the worst oppression during the Saddam Hussein's regime. In the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, he has a following of nearly 2.5 million people, nearly half the capital's population. In addition, he has millions of supporters in mostly Shiite southern Iraq.

Last year, he rejected the political process and encouraged his followers to take up arms against U.S. soldiers. The Mahdi Army fought against the U.S. military for control of four Iraqi cities, killing scores of American soldiers. Some have accused him of encouraging his followers to assassinate those who support coalition forces.

Sadrists are now saying that they're keen for the military and police to employ members of their Mahdi Army, pointing out that members of other militias, such as the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Shiite Badr Brigade, have already joined the security forces. They said that their followers need jobs to walk away from violence. Other parties in the United Iraqi Alliance slate said they support that idea.

"The Peshmerga and the Badr are there now. Why not Mahdi?" asked al Maliki.

But others say there're important differences between the Badr and Peshmerga militias and the Mahdi Army. The Peshmerga and Badr forces haven't fought U.S. forces. The Mahdi Army is also less well organized and volatile than those militias.

"Perhaps it will be difficult to control them," said Mahmoud al Mashadani, a member of the Iraqi Accord, a top Sunni slate.

Although al-Sadr didn't support the process in January, when Iraqis elected a temporary National Assembly, Sadrists won 17 seats and lead two ministries, Transport and Health.

This year, Sadrist candidates promised to improve Iraq's infrastructure, and many Sadrists said they are vying to lead ministries that provide services to keep that campaign promise. Because of their strong showing, they could lead up to six ministries.

"That's how you pay out money to your supporters," Yaphe said.

Sadrist officials say they hope their followers will get jobs in those ministries.

"We want the Mahdi Army to be a part of civil affairs so that they can take care of themselves, do something and avoid unemployment, " said Sheik Salah al Obeidi, a Sadrist spokesman.

In addition, Sadrists are pushing for Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari to remain in his post. He and Adil Abdel Mahdi, one of the country's two vice presidents, are the top two candidates. Both are members of the United Iraqi Alliance.

Sadrists said they feel Jaafari is more of an Islamist than Mahdi. Their vote could break the tie within the alliance, members of the slate said. U.S. officials had hoped that a more secular government would emerge, one that could bridge the country's pervasive sectarian divisions.

Despite fears of radicalism and instability, Sadrists could be a force for unity. They appeal to Sunni Muslims because, like them, they oppose U.S. forces. Both support a more Islamic slate, although their interpretations of Islam are very different and there's a long history of hostility between them.

Those shared interests could allow Sadrists to build a bridge between Sunnis and other Shiites in the parliament.

"They are the original Iraqi Arab movement. They are against the American presence so they can open the door for cooperation with the Sunnis more than any other faction," said al Mashadani.

Hassan Bazzaz, a professor of political science and international affairs at Baghdad University, said that al-Sadr can't straddle the line between supporting the militia and accepting the U.S.-backed political process much longer.

"I think he will reach a point when he will have to choose his position on all these things. He will have to come up with his own way," Bazzaz said.

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(Knight Ridder special correspondents Zaineb Obeid and Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)

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

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Muqtada al Sadr

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040813 USIRAQ Sadr

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