By Jonathan Finer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
BAGHDAD, Feb. 21 -- In Iran last month, Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr told a government at odds with the West over its nuclear ambitions that he would fight alongside it if the United States attacked.
In Jordan this week, he said in a rare televised interview with al-Jazeera that there was "nothing good" in Iraq's new constitution and shared his thoughts on the fate of the northern city of Kirkuk, one of the most divisive questions in Iraqi politics.
And in Lebanon on Tuesday, the young Shiite Muslim leader weighed in on that country's tense relations with its neighbors, pledging to do his part to promote peace. He had come "to improve relations between the Syrian people and the Lebanese people," Sadr told reporters in Beirut. "This will contribute to the stability of the region."
Coupled with his recent turn as Iraqi kingmaker -- he mobilized a bloc of more than 30 lawmakers to secure the nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, a Shiite, to fill the same post in Iraq's next government -- Sadr's tour of Middle Eastern capitals has cemented his status as an emerging political force inside his country and beyond.
But the summits with regional leaders, and the comments made by Sadr along the way, have struck some observers here as inappropriate for an unelected cleric who long eschewed politics for armed resistance and whose militia is widely accused of thuggish tactics, such as kidnappings and political assassinations. Several of his recent appearances have generated headlines that could prove divisive for the Shiite alliance his political wing belongs to, such as his strong criticism of the constitutionally enshrined principle of federalism, or dividing the country into semiautonomous regions.
"The Iraqi government should say that Mr. Sadr represents himself," said Mithal Alusi, a secular politician recently elected to the new parliament. "Some of the things Sadr says are not right, like when he goes to Syria and says they are free of terrorists. Or when he tells Iran that he will fight for them. But nobody says anything because they are afraid of his militia, which has power in the Iraqi streets. This is very dangerous."
Sadr's reputation for nationalism and his defiance of a U.S. presence in Iraq that he terms an unlawful occupation have made him one of the country's most popular and influential figures. In the spring and summer of 2004, his Mahdi Army militia, made up mainly of the poor, urban Shiites who form his political base, fought pitched battles with U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad and across southern Iraq.
Soon afterward, Sadr, a heavyset son of a revered Shiite ayatollah slain in the late 1990s, retreated from the international spotlight.
He reemerged late last year with an apparent interest in pursuing his goals through politics, calling on his followers to vote in the country's October constitutional referendum and December legislative election. His political bloc ran in the legislative race as a member of the alliance of the country's main Shiite religious parties, including Jafari's Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and won roughly 30 spots in the 275-seat parliament.
When Shiite leaders met to choose their nominee for prime minister, Sadr's bloc stayed united behind Jafari, who was opposed by the Supreme Council's Adel Abdul Mahdi. Jafari prevailed by a single vote. In return, Sadr reportedly asked to have his representatives installed as ministers in charge of key government services such as transportation and health.
U.S. Embassy officials declined to comment on the diplomatic debut by Sadr, who is believed to be in his thirties. Some Iraqi leaders said they support his foray abroad, which also included stops in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria, arguing that it will further encourage him to abandon violence.
"I think it's useful," said Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman. "You know, Moqtada, a year ago, was using violence and arms against the government. Now he's in the political process, and the more he is around heads of state, probably he becomes more moderate. It is strange, but he gets more attention in these countries than a real politician might."
It is a tradition among Iraq's Shiite clerics to stay above the political fray. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, considered the country's most influential religious leader, remains largely reticent on political issues. But with a group of loyal lawmakers under his sway and a militia at his disposal, Sadr defies easy classification.
He is "a politician-clergyman who has popularity in Iraq," said Sahib Amiri, a spokesman for Sadr in the southern city of Najaf, when asked in what capacity Sadr was visiting the neighboring countries.
The aim of the trips is "to improve the relations between Iraq and these countries, the same relations which were destroyed by the former regime," Amiri continued, adding that the Iraqi government was not consulted when the travels were scheduled.
The Supreme Council, which maintains its own militia called the Badr Organization, vies with Sadr for influence within Shiite politics. A Supreme Council official, Saad Jawad Qandeel, said Sadr's meetings with foreign leaders "are not authorized by the [Shiite] alliance," but offered no further comment.
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.