Sadr's Disciples Rise Again To Play Pivotal Role in Iraq

Iraqis carry the coffins of Moqtada Sadr followers who were killed last week in clashes with rival Shiites. After the confrontations, supporters of the radical cleric poured into Baghdad and at least six other cities.
Iraqis carry the coffins of Moqtada Sadr followers who were killed last week in clashes with rival Shiites. After the confrontations, supporters of the radical cleric poured into Baghdad and at least six other cities. (By Akram Saleh -- Getty Images)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

NAJAF, Iraq -- Hazem Araji's résumé reads like a story of Iraq's recent past -- and perhaps its near future.

In the tumult that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003, he hit the streets with a clique of fellow Shiite Muslim clerics to organize what became Iraq's first postwar popular movement. Their symbol was Moqtada Sadr, a young, radical clergyman and son of a revered ayatollah. The next year, Araji emerged as the group's public face, as it twice fought U.S. troops. He and others were arrested, and for nine months he languished in U.S. custody in Abu Ghraib prison, then at Camp Bucca.

Now, as the country enters a time as politically uncertain as any since the fall of President Saddam Hussein, Araji is a free man. So are a handful of Sadr's other closest, most dynamic aides, men in their thirties who have helped shape the organization's combustible mix of Iraqi and Arab nationalism, millenarian religious ideology, grass-roots protest and gun culture. With customary bravado, Araji and the others today are sending a message: They are ready to make up for lost time.

"It's a new dawn," said the turbaned cleric, with a hint of a smile. He leaned against a wall plastered with Iraqi flags and portraits of the Sadrs and those killed in last year's battles. "People have been released, and they're working harder than before."

Long the bane of the U.S. project in Iraq, Sadr's movement returned to center stage last week, with what his aides describe as a new confidence following the release of Araji and other leaders, along with the experience of their sometimes quiet activism. In dramatic fashion over three days, the movement embodied virtually every aspect of power in today's Iraq: support in the street, an easily mobilized militia, and loyalists within the government that it often denounces.

After a clash Wednesday night in Najaf that they blamed on a rival Shiite militia, Sadr's armed followers poured into Baghdad and at least six other cities. Twenty-one members of parliament and three cabinet ministers loyal to him suspended their work in protest. Two days later, Sadr's followers organized some of the biggest demonstrations in recent years; ostensibly protests over government services, they were effectively shows of strength.

The newly freed aides say even they are surprised at the growing level of organization they have found within the group: clearer lines of communication, a more structured hierarchy and a sprawling social services network. In the Baghdad slum named after Sadr's father, the ramshackle headquarters that was wrecked repeatedly by U.S. troops last year only to be rebuilt sits next to the movement's newly completed, two-story stucco building with floodlights, air conditioners and seven agitprop-style megaphones clustered on the roof. A few miles away is a new office, trimmed in red and black, for the movement's social work, run by Araji. Across the street is an information center.

In a country whose sectarian and ethnic divides have relentlessly deepened, Sadr stands as a rare figure with support among both Sunnis and Shiites. At a protest Monday against Iraq's new constitution in Tikrit, near Hussein's home town, Sunnis held aloft pictures of the cleric. "Yes, yes to Sadr!" some of the 1,500 protesters shouted.

Ahead are difficult questions, namely about Sadr's still-undeclared stance on the proposed constitution: Support could anger Sunni allies, but opposition might endanger his Shiite support. One aide hinted that Sadr may leave his position ambiguous. But for the moment, Sadr officials say they are reaping the benefits of their position as a protest movement in a country with plenty to protest about.

"As for energy, we have energy. As for followers, we have followers. As for ability, we have the ability," said Mustafa Yaqoubi, a senior Sadr leader in Najaf who was released from prison on Aug. 14. "We still remain."

A Revitalization

A few hours before dawn on April 3, 2004, U.S. forces arrested Yaqoubi, a quiet, lisping cleric, on charges stemming from the killing of a Shiite cleric in Najaf a year earlier, in the days after Hussein's fall. The detention sparked the battle between Sadr's militia and U.S. forces that dragged into that May, quieted, then flared again that August, wrecking parts of Sadr City and the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Nearly two months after Yaqoubi's arrest, on May 23, Riyadh Nouri, another young cleric and Sadr's brother-in-law, was arrested.

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