BAGHDAD -- Around the corner from a five-mile line stretching toward a gas station, past election posters calling voting a religious duty, hundreds of bleary-eyed protesters threw down what goes for prayer carpets among followers of the Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr. They put down black-checkered kaffiyehs, the sweaters they wore, sacks of flour distributed as government rations and, most commonly, scraps of cardboard.
It was noon, the time for Muslims to pray. It was time, too, for them to make their demands heard at the Iraqi Oil Ministry as part of a four-day protest last week over Iraq's months-long fuel crisis.
Iraqis rallied outside the Oil Ministry in Baghdad Jan. 16 as about 300 followers of the radical Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr began a four-day protest against fuel shortages.
(Mohammed Khodor -- AP)
"They must hear that the Iraqi people will always demand their rights, even if we give our lives!" the preacher declared. Behind him, slogans put up on a concrete blast wall echoed the protesters' pleas. "We don't want elections," one read. "We want electricity."
The protest in Baghdad and others in towns across southern Iraq, including Kut, Amarah and Karbala, marked the latest campaign by Sadr's group, a grass-roots movement led by Shiite clergy that claims to speak on behalf of the Shiite downtrodden. Through protests, sermons and declarations by the reclusive Sadr, the movement is signaling its doubts about the Iraqi election, ending months of ambiguity over whether Sadr had surrendered his arms for a place in the political process.
Sadr's militia fought U.S. forces twice last year, in Baghdad and southern Iraq, and the movement has emerged as a persistent wild card in the U.S. plan for a durable political system that will leave Iraq with a modicum of stability and permit an American military withdrawal. The decisive moment may come Sunday, when Iraqis go to the polls to choose a national assembly, the country's first real election in half a century.
Sadr's men have stopped short of calling for a boycott but insist they are not supporting the election. In coded language, they have ridiculed Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most influential religious leader, whose perceived backing of the top Shiite coalition has made it the favorite in the vote. Loath to provoke the U.S. military, which killed hundreds of its followers in last year's fighting, the Sadr movement has relegated its militia to a lower profile while keeping up its strident rhetoric.
The movement is gambling that the deep disenchantment in the capital over epidemic kidnappings, shortfalls in food rations, the threat of insurgent attacks and, most visibly, the fuel crisis will persist under a new government.
On the outside looking in, unsullied by a role in that government, Sadr's men say they will capitalize on the disenchantment, turning their numbers "from hundreds of thousands into millions," as one official put it. They are fashioning themselves as a street-level protest movement, as nationalist as it is religious, with the threat of force to back its demands.
"The government has given nothing to the Iraqi people, and all the political parties say yes to the Americans. The elections are useless. They will do nothing for us," said Nizar Khanjar, 27, a participant in last week's protest, where hardly any of the men had gray hair and some were too young to shave. "Only the Sadr office is defending the rights of the people."
Through the first year of the occupation, U.S. officials were almost reflexively dismissive of Sadr, at one point calling him "a two-bit thug." They now acknowledge the extent of his popular support, although since the fighting ended conclusively in October he has receded from the forefront of their worries. Now, U.S. officials are willing to wait and see what the group's next move will be.
"He's purposely laying low," a Western diplomat in Baghdad said.
As recently as this month, U.S. officials were saying they thought Sadr would take part in the elections, but they are reconsidering. At the same time, many say they don't believe a renewal of fighting with his militia, the Mahdi Army, is imminent, even if suspicions were raised by the killing this month of a police chief and local council member in the Baghdad slum where he enjoys his most strident support.
"Today, he seems to be choosing neither" political participation nor armed revolt, the diplomat said.
For their part, officials with Sadr's movement say they see little room for engagement with the Americans, perceiving provocation in almost every action by the U.S. military. One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, complained that 345 Sadr followers had been arrested since a truce brokered by Sistani ended fighting in the Shiite holy city of Najaf in August, although he acknowledged the Americans' "excellent intelligence." They have been rebuffed in attempts to win the release of senior leaders who guided the movement after Sadr's revered father was assassinated by agents of former president Saddam Hussein's government in 1999.