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Shiite Cleric Inspires Devotion, Doubts

October 14, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Rasha Abdullah considers herself a devout and observant Shiite Muslim. She dresses modestly in full-length black robes, carefully covers her black hair with a hijab, or headscarf, and makes regular pilgrimages to Shiite shrines.

But she recoiled with distaste when asked whether she would support a breakaway government that Muqtader Sadr, a street-smart young Shiite cleric, is trying to launch, using his large following among disadvantaged, disaffected Shiites as a springboard.

"No, no, no," said Abdullah, a 20-year-old student who lives in a middle-class Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad and hopes to become an engineer.

"They want there to be a Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice -- like the Taliban! -- that would beat women who didn't veil themselves," she said, shaking her head. "Things of that nature, wearing a veil, or not, should be our free and personal choice."

Sadr's stature as head of a self-declared alternative government and leader of a shadowy militia has, on the surface at least, caused only a minor ripple of concern in Iraq's interim governing body and the provisional U.S.-led administration, which still makes all the important decisions here.

His burgeoning movement among the poor has caused consternation among moderate, educated and better-off Shiites, who fear it could undermine what until now has been a fairly cordial working relationship between Shiite community leaders and coalition military authorities -- and perhaps deprive Shiites, who make up about 60% of Iraq's population, of some of the newfound political clout they expect to wield in postwar Iraq.

Even critics take Sadr seriously because of his pedigree and his popularity among the growing number of Iraqis unhappy with the U.S. occupation. Six months after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime, the average Iraqi is long past the euphoria of the dictator's fall, but still far from confident that the country will claim a place in the developed world any time soon.

The objections voiced by more mainstream Shiites to Sadr rest largely on his vocal and confrontational stance toward the Americans and Iraq's U.S.-appointed interim authority, the Governing Council.

From mosques in Shiite strongholds like the Baghdad slum of Sadr City and the southern holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, the young cleric has denounced the Americans as clumsy aggressors who have overstayed their welcome, and lambasted the Governing Council as timorous and ineffectual.

Shiite religious eminences, who tend to be elderly and scholarly, can barely contain their distaste at the sight of the brash preacher, about 30 and with an undistinguished record as a seminarian who styles himself as a clerical authority.

But despite such rumblings, Sadr has a respected pedigree, in both religious and political terms: He is the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, a much-revered Shiite religious leader who built social welfare programs in his neighborhood. He was killed four years ago, together with Muqtader's two elder brothers, by assassins believed linked to Hussein's security forces.

For the Shiites, to whom extraordinary suffering was meted out by the deposed Iraqi leader, these circumstances alone merit a degree of respect for the holy man's surviving son. Even Shiite clerics and political leaders who feel threatened by Sadr and his movement are reluctant to denounce him publicly.

"We respect him and his views, but what he's doing is dangerous," said Sheik Hamid Rashid of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shiite political party, which is considered to be at the moderate end of the spectrum and is represented on the Governing Council. "We don't want a civil war between us."

Sadr's power base rests largely among those who have both the least to gain and the least to lose in the new Iraq -- angry, jobless, uneducated young Shiite men, recruited to his ranks primarily in the gritty streets of Sadr City, an enclave that was once called Saddam City but was renamed for Sadr's slain father after Hussein was toppled.

In Sadr City, the militant imam's fundamentalist message squares neatly with highly conservative social mores that are already in place, and an unsophisticated street audience that rarely questions his teachings that Islamic law, or Sharia, should be applied to all Iraqis and that unveiled women and immorality of all kinds should be severely punished.

Outside his flag-bedecked headquarters on a broad, rutted street, big signs advise the faithful not to talk to outsiders without first clearing it with one of the sheiks who serve as Sadr's deputies.

Few disobey.

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