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Al-Sadr’s revolt re-energized

Shiite militiamen take up a position in the center of Karbala on Sunday.Shiite militiamen take up a position in the center of Karbala on Sunday.
 (Associated PressAssociated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Shiite militiamen take up a position in the center of Karbala on Sunday.Shiite militiamen take up a position in the center of Karbala on Sunday. (Associated PressAssociated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Hamza Hendawi Associated Press

NAJAF, Iraq – Not long ago, U.S. officials and senior Shiite clergy viewed radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as a fringe figure with a narrow base of support. Times have changed.

In the six weeks since al-Sadr launched an anti-coalition uprising in Baghdad and across central and southern Iraq, the young cleric has been elevated to heroic status, his movement re-energized. His militiamen now control Najaf, Kufa and Karbala.

The uprising has raised fears of eroding support for the U.S.-led coalition among the mainstream of Iraq’s Shiite majority, a community emerging from decades of oppression and hoping for political domination when elections are held next year.

Al-Sadr, whose savvy street politics compensate for his lack of scholarly pedigree and oratorical skills, has bolstered his position by bringing the fight to the three holy cities – giving his al-Mahdi Army the image of defenders of the faith against an army of “nonbelievers.”

His aides quickly blamed the Americans for the slight damage caused to the dome of Imam Ali shrine during fighting Friday in Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad. The U.S. military suggested that al-Sadr’s militia may have been responsible.

The prominence acquired by al-Sadr and his movement in recent weeks has tapped into growing Iraqi frustration with the U.S.-led occupation at the expense of older, more established clerics, whose cooperation with the Americans is seen by many Shiites as giving too much to an enemy.

Many of Iraq’s 25 million people are frustrated with the American occupiers amid an Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, civilian deaths from fighting between insurgents and U.S. forces and long-standing complaints by Iraqis — including house raids, perceived cultural insensitivity and heavy handedness of U.S. troops.

Some Shiites see Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, as powerless to stop the Americans from fighting around shrines and mosques or even to persuade al-Sadr to withdraw his militia.

“Where is al-Marjaiyah?” lamented Najaf firefighter Turki Hameed after Friday’s fighting, using an Arabic word that refers to the collective Shiite religious leadership. Popularly, al-Marjaiyah refers to al-Sistani alone. “How can they be silent at a time like this?”

Al-Sadr is flexing his muscle in Najaf. Though he was not especially popular here before, the recorded call for prayers from the Imam Ali mosque now ends with a prayer calling for the divine protection of al-Sadr and his militiamen stage noisy parades late at night.

The young cleric also has expanded the scope of his Islamic court to try cases besides the traditional family and inheritance feuds. Men with hands tied behind their backs can be seen led by militiamen to the court to face charges such as cooperation with the Americans, theft or espionage.

Those close to Najaf’s top clerics dispute the notion that they have lost power. But they acknowledge that things may not be going their way.

“We are in an unenviable situation,” said Mohammed Hussein al-Hakim, who speaks for his father, Mohammed Said al-Hakim, one of the four most senior clerics in Najaf.

“We cannot allow the loss of one drop of blood when we can obtain what we want without any bloodshed,” he said in an interview at his Najaf home.

“Martyrdom and killings are not an objective,” he said, implicitly criticizing al-Mahdi’s decision to fight occupation forces.

Al-Sistani’s old age and ailing health — he is thought to be 73 or 75 and has a heart condition — together with fears for his life prevent him from leaving his Najaf home. The Iranian-born cleric gives no media interviews and answers religious questions from his followers on his Web site or through written edicts.

Najaf’s three other top clerics — al-Hakim, Afghan-born Mohammed Ishaq al-Fayad and Pakistani-born Basheer al-Najafi — enjoy limited popular support and treat al-Sistani as senior among equals. Like al-Sistani, the three rarely make public appearances for security concerns.

Unfortunately for the four ayatollahs, al-Sadr’s revolt is winning a measure of support because it comes at a time when anti-U.S. sentiment is at its highest level since Saddam Hussein’s ouster 13 months ago.

Some remain confident the senior clerics will prevail at the end. One person with close links to al-Sistani’s office said the ayatollah has concluded that speaking out now would only turn Shiite against Shiite.

“Powerful tribal leaders and supporters come to his office daily asking him to permit action against Muqtada, but he is refusing,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Al-Sadr also pays lip service to the senior clerics.

“The al-Mahdi Army belongs to the `al-Marjaiyah,”’ he told reporters Wednesday. “If they decide to disband it, then so be it … My late father is my spiritual guide but I also follow any marjaiyah who’s honorable.”

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