In Sadr City
Dying Devotion to Young Cleric Springs From Poverty, Patriotism
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 3, 2004; Page A01
BAGHDAD -- Haidar Abbas was peddling produce amid the flies and dust of Sadr City, Baghdad's vast Shiite Muslim slum, and discussing Moqtada Sadr, the firebrand cleric whose family name the neighborhood bears. As Abbas spoke, his son Bilal, 16, began to dance a little jig.
"Moqtada, Moqtada," the boy chanted as a crowd of other ragged youths approached to join in. "Moqtada is right. We follow Moqtada. We die for Moqtada."
Branded by the Bush administration as a criminal and a thug who has minimal support among Iraq's Shiite majority, Sadr is viewed very differently from the garbage-carpeted streets of Sadr City. Here, the brash leader of an eight-week-old Shiite revolt is seen as a leading voice of the poor, a patriot fighting foreign occupation and the heir to a tradition of speaking out against injustice and tyranny. His tactics may be foolhardy, his militia might get crushed, but the message he carries reverberates deeply in Iraqi society and will not easily go away, Iraqi observers and common citizens argue.
"I don't like Moqtada personally. Look at what he's done -- gotten a lot of people killed by sending them out against American tanks," Abbas said. "But of course what he says, it's true. What have the Americans brought us? We are worse off than ever. Moqtada wants them out, and who can argue with that?"
For nearly a year, Iraqi Shiites largely welcomed the U.S. invasion and tolerated the occupation. But Sadr, his followers and his clandestine militia were an exception. As early as last June, Sadr was denouncing delays in elections and abuses by occupation forces -- protests that more popular mainstream Shiite clerics did not raise until last fall. As Shiites became increasingly disillusioned with U.S. rule in Iraq, Sadr's isolated complaints became mainstream opinion.
In April, when Sadr resisted U.S. demands that he turn himself over to an Iraqi court on charges related to the murder of a moderate cleric last year, he and his Mahdi Army militia staged a revolt that drew thousands of U.S. troops to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf, Kufa and Karbala.
American officials say U.S. forces have killed about 1,500 Sadr militiamen in eight weeks of fighting and that his militia is near collapse. Though the Mahdi Army, with its assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, has been outgunned by U.S. soldiers in Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Sadr has survived and his stature has grown.
"This offensive against Sadr has made him bigger than ever before," said Adnan Ali, a top official of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross.
"Sadr emerges from this as a national political figure who will have to be dealt with," said retired Gen. Ali Shukri, a top adviser to the late King Hussein of Jordan with long involvement in Iraqi affairs.
U.S. officials have become aware of Sadr's growing appeal. According to a U.S. official who has seen the figures, an opinion poll sponsored by the Coalition Provisional Authority that came out in mid-May found that Sadr was the second most popular figure in the country after Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Iraqi Shiites' supreme religious leader.
Ibrahim Jafari, who heads the large Shiite Dawa party and has no sympathy for Sadr's stand or tactics, nonetheless said in an interview: "He is seen as a son of Iraq who represents feelings of injustice. It was a mistake to try to push him out."
Last week, Shiite mediators brokered a cease-fire between Sadr and the occupation forces. But there has been no sign that he has moved to fulfill his promise to pull his militiamen off the streets, and heavy fighting Wednesday in Kufa signaled the collapse of the deal.
The gap between American and Shiite perceptions of Sadr reflects a lack of understanding of the complexities of Shiite religious, political and economic life, Iraqis say. Sadr benefits from the deep reverence that Iraqi Shiites still feel toward his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, who was slain in an ambush along with two of his sons in 1999. Shiites suspect that Saddam Hussein, then Iraq's president, ordered the murders. A cousin, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Sadr, regarded by many as the foremost Shiite thinker of his generation, was killed by Hussein's security forces in 1980.
Sadr's father had a style of preaching that set him apart from traditional religious figures. He directly addressed social and economic needs. When he spoke to students and followers, he used the Arabic term of endearment, habibi. He took risks by criticizing practices of the Hussein government. Once, he made a speech calling for the release of prisoners. Another time, he called on government officials to come to his office in Najaf to apologize to Iraqis for the cruel treatment of the population.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Sewage flows in the streets of Sadr City, Baghdad's large Shiite slum, where cleric Moqtada Sadr has wide support.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
Sadr's Base Support: Branded by the Bush administration as a criminal, Sadr is viewed very differently from the streets of Sadr City.