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It Takes a Following to Make an Ayatollah

Ayatollah Kadhim Haeri, a dark horse, fled to Iran around 1980 to escape Saddam's persecution but might return from his home in Qom. He was a leader of the Shiite Dawa Party in the 1970s and was close to Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. Haeri was originally Sadr's mentor, but the two broke over Sadr's military moves.

Earlier, Iraqi Shiites were less oriented to the scholastic, clerical version of the religion popular in Iran. Most were rural and practiced Shiism as a tribal folk religion. During the past 17 years, however, the Shiite majority in Iraq has largely turned to religion in reaction against persecution by the secular Baath Party. This process was hastened by the fall of Saddam, and religious parties and movements have spread rapidly.

Authority figure: Posters of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani attest to his popularity. Saddam Hussein decimated the religious structure in Najaf. It is unclear who among three other grand ayatollahs might eventually succeed Sistani. (Brennan Linsley -- AP)

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Because they had to fight Saddam's army and secret police, all major Shiite political movements in Iraq developed paramilitaries. Moqtada Sadr's father formed his in the 1990s. From summer of 2003, Moqtada Sadr formalized the Sadrist militia, calling it the Mahdi Army, and it quickly gained recruits.

Many Sadrists believe they are living in the last days, and that the advent of the Muslim messiah, or Mahdi, is around the corner.

Although Sadr's Mahdi Army, entrenched in East Baghdad, had little local support in the holy city of Najaf, it took over the city in April after the Americans attempted to arrest or kill Sadr. The American onslaught apparently was so unpopular that other paramilitary and Iraqi police forces in the city yielded to them. Sadr militants streamed into the city from elsewhere, and most local Iraqi police defected to them.

The scenes of battle in Najaf have become a huge public relations disaster for the United States. Even skirmishes in the vicinity of the shrine last spring made the U.S. Army look like a blasphemer to many Shiites, and not just in Iraq. Shiites held angry demonstrations in Lebanon, Bahrain, Pakistan and India. By May, the favorability rating in Iraq polls for the U.S. military was only about 10 percent, down enormously from the previous year.

The grand ayatollahs, including Sistani, were drawn into mediating between Sadr and the Americans, even though Sistani condemns Sadr's ideas. Sistani believes that the Shiites made a strategic error in 1920 when they revolted against British colonial rule after World War I. The British turned to the minority Sunnis for support, ensconcing them in power for the rest of the century. Sistani believes that by showing patience, the Shiite majority can come to power in Iraq through the ballot box if it avoids alienating the Americans.

Although Sadr complains about Iranian dominance of Iraqi Shiism, the religious leadership has long been multinational, and few doubt Sistani -- who was born in Iran but has lived in Najaf since 1952 -- has Iraq's best interests at heart. The hard-line clerics in Iran generally support Sistani, whom they see as one of their own and whose vision of an Iraq ruled by a Shiite-dominated parliament is acceptable to them. Sistani is also a favorite with many of Iran's reformers, but he has asked Iran to keep out of Iraqi domestic affairs.

The Marines' campaign in Najaf against the Mahdi Army will succeed militarily, since the latter more resemble American ghetto gangs like the Crips and the Bloods than they do a genuine military force. But in the course of destroying Sadr and his followers, the Americans will inevitably create a host of martyrs, and the blood of martyrs has been the seed of more than one church. The American desecration of sacred Najaf and its cemetery makes the blood boil among Shiites throughout the world. There is likely to be a violent reaction from them at some point down the road.

All the Mahdi Army clansmen have cousins who will step forward to avenge them. The Sadr movement itself survived Saddam, despite his assassination of Sadr's father. The movement will throw up new leaders, as long as the vast Shiite slums of the south offer no more attractive political or cultural opportunities.

In the meantime, the Allawi government is discrediting itself with the religious Shiites by calling on the Marines to do a job that should have been undertaken by Iraqis. Even the cautious and long-suffering Sistani will eventually lose his patience if the holy sites are too brutally trampled and if the Americans overstay their welcome. Several potential successors to the ailing Sistani will likely be less patient with the Americans than he has been.

As for Sadr, he desperately wants the Iraqi people to toss the United States out of their country, as the Iranians did in 1978-79. He seems to think that if his life cannot convince them to do so, his death might. Long-time expatriate secularist politicians in Iraq -- and U.S. Defense Department officials who know almost nothing about Iraqi culture and society -- are gambling that he is wrong.

Author's e-mail: jricole@yahoo.com

Juan Cole is professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. He maintains a Web log on Iraq, "Informed Comment" (www.juancole.com).

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