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In an Old Mosque, The Blunt Rhetoric Of the New Iraq

Preacher Turned Politician Embodies Shiite Ambitions

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page A01

BAGHDAD -- The world according to Jalaledin Saghir, a preacher turned politician, is an uncomplicated place.

There is good and evil. There are martyrs and terrorists. The righteous (those who agree with him) are pitted against the iniquitous (those who don't). The past incarnated in Saddam Hussein is gone. In its place is a promising future in which Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims take their place as the country's deserving rulers.

A man kisses Saghir at the Baratha mosque after his 2003 return. How he fares in politics could help clarify the Shiite clergy's still-ambiguous role. (AP Television News Photo)

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"Qata'an," Saghir says often, urgent and clipped. Absolutely, it means.

Saghir, the 47-year-old scion of a clerical family, with a generous gray beard and piercing dark eyes under a white turban, is a new kind of politician in an unsure country, and his dramatic ascent illustrates the direction Iraqi politics are increasingly taking.

To his supporters, he is a symbol of Shiite empowerment, a message he delivers weekly in sermons to overflow crowds at the Baratha mosque, one of Baghdad's most revered. He is blunt and, just as important in Iraqi politics, apparently fearless. A defender of Shiite interests, he exercises his influence not only in the mosque but in Iraq's new parliament, as a representative of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition that captured a majority of the body's 275 seats in the Jan. 30 elections.

To his critics, he is less a symbol of empowerment and more an emblem of rhetorical excess. Even some of his clerical colleagues describe him as overly ambitious and unrelentingly provocative. Some see demagoguery in his bluntness; and in his bravery they see incitement that is further fraying the already tattered relations between Iraq's Shiites and a disempowered Sunni Arab minority.

He is perhaps best described as a product of the tumult that has colored Iraq since the fall of Hussein in April 2003 and of the dramatic changes that have accompanied it. His success or failure in the months ahead could help delineate the still-ambiguous role of the Shiite clergy in the nation's political affairs.

In the quest for legitimacy in Iraqi politics, Saghir has much to draw on: his alliance with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's preeminent religious leader; the authority of his family's name; the resonant language of religion that can intertwine seamlessly with the agenda of a politician; and a grass-roots network provided by his mosque and the hundreds of loyal followers who propelled him into power.

"My concern is solely to be in the service of the people," Saghir said in an interview. His people, he meant.

A Mosque Transformed

The Baratha mosque that serves as Saghir's headquarters is perched behind rows of barbed wire, concrete barricades and white and yellow steel barriers. Its walls are draped in the iconography of religious activism: banners celebrating martyred Shiite saints, portraits of Sistani, slogans on black banners that serve as a Shiite version of agitprop.

In a land full of sacred shrines, Baratha is among the most venerated. By tradition, Imam Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, visited the site in the 7th century, digging a well that still delivers water today. Pilgrims from as far away as Afghanistan visit the fount, filling bottles with water believed to have curative powers.

With the consent of powerful allies, Saghir treats the mosque as his family's fiefdom.

For years, it was led by his father, Sheik Ali Saghir, a beloved cleric and lieutenant of one of the country's most prominent ayatollahs, Sayyid Muhsin Hakim. Saghir's father died in 1975, and the young activist cleric fled into exile in 1979, spending time in Syria, Iran and Lebanon. He returned to Baghdad -- and Baratha -- the week after Hussein was driven from power.

"We left when Baghdad was very beautiful," he said. "When we returned, it was destroyed."

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