At Heart of Iraqi Impasse, a Family Feud

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

NAJAF, Iraq -- On one side of the grinding political deadlock over who should lead Iraq's next government is a plain-spoken cleric with the puffed cheeks and patchy beard of youth, a fiery icon of the downtrodden with an exalted family name: al-Sadr.

On the other is a wizened mullah from the clerical old guard, whose al-Hakim clan founded Iraq's largest political party and whose scholarly air belies a reputation for ruthlessness.

Moqtada al-Sadr and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim head the two leading dynasties of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, whose spiritual home is this ancient southern city. They operate the country's two largest Shiite militias -- the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, respectively -- each with more than 10,000 men under arms. And they are heirs to rival movements that for generations have competed, sometimes violently, for supremacy in the hearts and minds of their long-persecuted people.

The two men are now on opposing sides of the dispute over whether Ibrahim al-Jafari should retain his post as prime minister. The impasse remains unresolved despite months of negotiation and intense U.S. pressure, and hinges not only on myriad political factors but on the two clerics' family feud.

"Iraqi clerical Shiism tends to run in families and has for a long time," said Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor and expert on Shiite Islam. "Throughout the 20th century the Sadr and Hakim families have been maybe the most prominent examples and have vied for influence. Here they are again."

Their divergent politics mean the dispute over the prime minister's post has wide-ranging and complex implications for the future of Iraq, and for the U.S. presence here.

The coalition of Shiite parties that won the most votes in Iraq's Dec. 15 elections has nearly fractured over its choice of Jafari as nominee for prime minister. Sadr, whose political allies control about 30 seats in the new legislature, has lined up behind Jafari, believing him more likely to push the Americans to depart Iraq soon. Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which also holds about 30 seats, has been working to install its own candidate, Adel Abdul Mahdi.

Despite being groomed for decades by the government of Iran, Hakim has largely embraced the United States since the 2003 invasion and has profited from it. His Supreme Council party works closely with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and controls several ministries in Iraq's lame-duck transitional government.

Sadr, meanwhile, has battled the U.S. presence. In 2003, an Iraqi judge issued a murder warrant for Sadr in connection with the killing in Najaf of a rival cleric with ties to the United States. Two years ago, his Mahdi Army militiamen fought U.S. forces here and in Baghdad. U.S. diplomats and commanders say they number Sadr and his militia among the gravest threats to Iraq's security, and none has met with him directly.

"We will never negotiate under occupation," said Sayyid Riyadh Nouri, who heads Sadr's political committee and is married to the cleric's sister. "We do not participate with people who violate our democracy."

Sadr and his followers paint the Supreme Council as a foreign movement; its founders were exiled in Iran when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq. In a rare interview with a Washington Post reporter soon after Baghdad fell three years ago, Sadr said Iraq should be governed by those who did not flee Hussein's rule. He also has been critical of clerics who remained in Iraq but suffered Hussein's oppression silently.

"The difference is simple: The Hakim family decided to get out of Iraq to fight the former regime, while the Sadr family stayed inside and openly defied Saddam," said Sahib al-Amiry, head of the Sadr-run God's Martyr Foundation. He denied frequent reports that Sadr also receives substantial support from Iran. "Our only relationship with Iran is as a neighbor," he said.

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