BAGHDAD, Iraq—With his powerful anti-American movement losing its footing amid U.S.-led round-ups and military operations, the Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is trying to recast himself in his one-time image as a national resistance figure for all Iraqis—Shiite and Sunni alike.
In central Baghdad, a large billboard featuring al-Sadr's defiant visage proclaims: "I'm not Shiite/I'm not Sunni/But I am Iraqi."
On Monday, the fourth anniversary of the U.S. conquest of Baghdad, al-Sadr ordered his followers to unite in the holy city of Najaf in a "mammoth demonstration" against the U.S. military presence and to "raise the Iraqi flag above all others."
Iraqi legislators and regional experts see an element of desperation in his attempt to re-position his movement and maintain the power he's garnered in the last year.
In Sunni communities al-Sadr's name has become synonymous with kidnappings and revenge killings. Among Shiites, his reputation has slightly suffered as cracks appear in his vast Mahdi Army militia and in the top leadership of his movement.
Not so long ago, al-Sadr's fiery anti-American rhetoric and appeal for unity garnered him support across the sectarian divide. In 2004 Mahdi Army fighters and Sunni insurgents banded together to fight U.S. troops in Fallujah. Al-Sadr has called for joint prayers between Sunnis and Shiites in the past, and the late leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Sunni, pointedly excluded him and his followers from his list of assassination targets in a 2005 statement.
Al-Sadr disappeared from view following the announcement of the U.S.-Iraqi joint security plan for Baghdad. Al-Sadr aides insist the cleric is still inside Iraq, but the U.S. military asserts he has fled to neighboring Iran. Meanwhile, the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who owes his position to al-Sadr backing, seemed to give its blessing to the U.S.-led crackdown on the al-Sadr militia and arrest of top leaders in his Mahdi Army.
Today, analysts and politicians doubt that a nationalist stance will restore his cross-sectarian appeal. Many think al-Sadr's intention is to repair fractures in his own movement.
Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group think tank, said that al-Sadr's "lie-low" strategy has backfired among his more militant followers.
"Shiites who were targets (of sectarian violence) want to respond, and Muqtada is coming under more pressure to call for some kind of retaliation," Hiltermann said. The mass demonstrations are "one way of allowing people to let off steam."
Legislators say Monday's demonstration is an effort by al-Sadr to appear strong against the crackdown.
"Muqtada is hiding and it has given a very bad picture to his followers and all Iraqis," said Mithal al-Alusi, a secular Sunni legislator. "His people don't believe in him. ... He's using April 9 as a day to clean his name, to come back within his movement."
Still, Iraq braced for a huge turnout that could spill over into the capital, where the government ordered an all-day curfew.
In Mahdi Army-controlled neighborhoods in Baghdad, sales of Iraqi flags soared as homes, stores and concrete blast walls were decked in the national colors of red, white and black. On the road south to Najaf, droves of Shiites waved the flags from truck beds.
In a related development, a statement purportedly from al-Sadr was passed to Najaf residents calling for Iraqi security forces to stop working with coalition forces and band together with all Iraqis against them. The statement came at the end of a three-day battle between U.S. and Iraqi forces and Mahdi Army fighters in Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad.
Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said that al-Sadr's response to the U.S. troop assault against his once government protected militia has put his position of power in jeopardy, and that his statements were meant to distract his followers, including militiamen who are eager to retaliate.
"This tough rhetoric essentially camouflages the decision not to fight," he said.
Al-Sadr's relative inexperience and that of his inner circle reportedly frustrate leaders in his movement. Followers of his late father—Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a top Shiite cleric who was revered by millions of mostly poor Shiites—worry that the younger al-Sadr is the pawn of his handlers.
Sheikh Moayed al-Khazraji, a former high al-Sadr aide, voiced frustration that al-Sadr isn't harder on al-Maliki's government for cooperating with U.S. forces against the Mahdi Army. Al-Khazraji was banned by al-Sadr from conducting sermons at the mosque in Kufa after he criticized al-Maliki in his religious sermon.
"There is a defect in their political ideology," he said. "Resolutions are taken by individuals and sometimes Muqtada Sadr is left in the dark by his inner circle as decisions are taken in his name."
The support he once enjoyed among Sunnis disappeared as his goal of Shiite domination became apparent. After sectarian violence spun out of control following the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, his militia is now blamed for most Sunni killings.
"If he is sincere, in control and does not discriminate between Sunnis and Shiites, why are they out on a crusade to decimate the Sunnis?" said Muhanned Ismaeel, 28, a Sunni engineer who was once captivated by al-Sadr's fiery speeches.
"Why call out for us to support you when you kill our relatives, neighbors and friends? What deep game are you playing?"
Saleh al-Mutlaq, a secular Sunni member of parliament, said al-Sadr has lost his chance to be a national leader and that the split in his movement has diminished his influence.
"He is, in the eyes of most of the Iraqis, in charge of the sectarian killings," al-Mutlaq said. "He was supposed to be a national figure before, but he didn't do it. I don't think the Iraqis believe in him."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.