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Shiite Firebrand Seeks to Sway Iraqi Masses Against U.S.

Muqtader Sadr, son of a famed ayatollah, may calm or roil reaction to a recent Army shooting. He views the Governing Council as a puppet.

August 15, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

KUFA, Iraq — Muqtader Sadr, a plump-faced young sheik, often rouses more than 10,000 angry young men at Friday prayers with rounds of anti-American chants, exhortations to join his army and promises to end the U.S.-led occupation.

He has appeared on the Arabic satellite television channel Al Jazeera and recently gave his first interview to a popular Baghdad newspaper, accusing the recently formed Iraqi Governing Council of being a U.S. puppet.

"The Governing Council is the best agent for the Americans," said Sadr, who is believed to be in his mid-20s.

Sadr's confrontational stands tap a vein of virulent opposition to the occupation that is prevalent in Baghdad's Shiite Muslim ghettos and the sect's other impoverished enclaves in southern and central Iraq.

He is a pivotal figure in the standoff this week between U.S. troops and Shiites in the poor Thawra neighborhood of northeast Baghdad, which since the war this spring has become popularly known as Sadr City in honor of his father, an eminent ayatollah who was murdered by Saddam Hussein's forces in 1999.

On Wednesday, troops fired on Shiite protesters, killing one person and injuring four, after gunmen shot at a U.S. helicopter that the crowd believed was trying to tear down a religious banner perched on a defunct communications tower. Clerics who follow Sadr have warned that, unless the American military withdraws from the neighborhood, they will not restrain their followers who might want to attack soldiers.

Because he is almost a cult figure in the neighborhood, Sadr could calm the situation with a few words, or inflame it. Authorities will be watching Friday prayers today in Baghdad and Sadr's base here in the central Iraq city of Kufa for signs of which tack he might take.

Some dismiss Sadr as a foolish upstart. Lt. Col. Christopher Conlin, the U.S. Marine commander in the city of Najaf, near Kufa, calls him "an immature kid" and "a bit player."

But Sadr has the advantage of a famous name among long-repressed Shiites, who make up 60% of the nation's population.

Posters of his father, with his pure white beard and quiet expression, decorate shop walls and car windows throughout the Shiite south, where they are for sale in thousands of religious bookstands. His uncle, also a distinguished ayatollah, was ambushed and killed in 1980. Although Sadr is young and far less educated than the older generation of Shiite leaders, he can trade on the family legacy.

For more than a month, Sadr has used his pulpit in Kufa, about 10 miles from Najaf, to invite young Iraqis to join what he calls his Al Mahdi army and denounce the American-led coalition along with the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council.

The name Al Mahdi refers to the so-called hidden imam, an apocalyptic figure who disappeared in 874 and whose return, it is believed, will herald the arrival of a just world.

Sadr recently insisted that his army will not be armed, although aides have said that its members will be prepared to take up weapons if necessary.

Sadr has ties to fundamentalist clergy in Iran, who wield some influence among Iraqi Shiites, and recently returned from a visit to the Islamic Republic.

Perhaps realizing that he would attract only a limited following among Iraq's middle-class Shiites, many of whom are moderate, Sadr has used anti-American rhetoric to reach beyond the sect to other disenfranchised groups, including militias that the Americans have pledged to disarm and even former Baath Party members.

"I invite peshmerga [Kurdish fighters] and [Iranian-trained] Badr Brigade members to join our army and not the occupation army," he said recently to hundreds thronging his mosque courtyard.

He even invited "our brothers the Sunnis" to join him in setting up religious courts to mete out "justice according to Islamic laws." He also said he planned to form a new governing council made up of all the groups that "did not participate in the current council."

His call has not fallen on deaf ears. According to Conlin, many of the 10,000 to 15,000 supporters who were bused in to Kufa to hear Sadr speak a couple of weeks ago came from Fallouja and Mosul, two Sunni Muslim strongholds where there is still significant support for Hussein. Others, toting guns, arrived by car, Conlin said.

"If you want to foment an insurrection, you hook up with the guys who are the most disenfranchised, and those are the guys who were hooked up with Saddam," he said.

Sadr's suggestion to raise an army has been rejected by the more mainstream clerics of Najaf, a center of Shiite learning.

"The Iraqi army is the national army, which Iraqis lead. Its mission is to defend Iraq's territory, people and sanctuaries; there is no place for another army besides this army," said Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the foremost Shiite cleric in Iraq, in response to a written question from The Times.

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