At Heart of Iraqi Impasse, a Family Feud
Militia-Backed Shiite Factions Vie for Political Dominance

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.

Both Sadr and Hakim owe their strength to a mix of religious legitimacy and impeccable bloodlines. Both wear the black turban that signifies their status as putative descendants of the prophet Muhammad.

Sadr lost brothers, an uncle and his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, at the hands of Hussein's Sunni-dominated security forces. Hakim says more than 60 family members were killed in recent decades -- including his brother, former Supreme Council leader Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, who was obliterated by a car bomb outside Najaf's Imam Ali shrine in 2003. In the past half-century, members of both families have held the revered rank of grand ayatollah, the top position in Najaf's Shiite religious hierarchy.

"There is a great role for these families in the history of Shiite Iraq because of the stands they have taken for the people and the price they have paid," Amar al-Hakim, 36, said in an interview in an office across the street from a large shrine commemorating the killing of his uncle, Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim.

Leaders in both camps are quick to point out that stereotypes of the two Shiite factions have not always held true. While Sadr and his father were heroes to Iraq's working class, Sadr's grandfather was known for his religious scholarship. The two families are also intertwined by marriage: Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim's wife is a cousin of Moqtada al-Sadr.

The dispute over Jafari "is not really about families. It is about different ideas for Iraq," said Amar Hakim, citing the Supreme Council's push to form an autonomous state in mostly Shiite southern Iraq. Sadr's followers fear such a move would split the country apart.

While his bloodlines are unquestioned, Sadr, in his early thirties, lacks the seminary training and polish of a top cleric. He draws followers from the Shiite underclass, whose speech patterns are echoed in his own. His base is concentrated in the teeming Baghdad slum of Sadr City, named for his father, where up to 10 percent of Iraq's population lives. His main mosque is in Kufa, a poorer city adjoining Najaf.

Following the model of the Lebanese party and guerrilla movement Hezbollah, Sadr has won support by catering to the needy and maintaining a force of men with guns. His satellite offices across the country have become first stops for Shiites evicted from their neighborhoods in mounting sectarian violence.

In Kufa last week, members of his God's Martyr Foundation were operating a squalid halfway house for displaced Shiites in an abandoned hotel, providing protection and doling out food to 51 families.

"We are all here under his protection," said Iptihal Abbas, who arrived with four children of male family members who were killed by gunmen in the Shiite town of Latifiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. "Everyone else ignored us, including the government and the Americans."

While also operating charitable organizations, the Supreme Council is a more modern political movement, with a satellite television channel and an unmatched grass-roots organization and cultural programs overseen by Amar Hakim, who made a widely publicized visit to the United States last year.

"We have 80 offices from Basra to Sulaymaniyah," he said. "We have 1,000 mosques in Iraq and 5,000 clergymen linked to us. We have 1,500 women activists. We have educational foundations, schools and charities."

The marjiya , a council of senior Shiite clerics based in Najaf, has urged the two sides to mend the rift that has dominated Iraqi politics since the U.S. invasion. And on Tuesday, a senior aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential cleric in Iraq, said patience with Shiite politicians was wearing thin.

"The ones harmed by this delay are the Iraqi people. . . . The Green Zone is soothing, and the Iraqi street is another thing," said the aide, Ahmed al-Safi, referring to the fortified section of Baghdad that houses the Iraqi and American military leaderships. "When the marjiya order or give signals, you should understand it. The marjiya might be forced to be involved more. The marjiya have made it clear on several occasions the importance of speeding up the formation of a government."

But concern is mounting across southern Iraq that if Jafari is pushed aside, the Mahdi Army will occupy the streets. Last August, after Sadr's Najaf office was burned by a mob, his followers blamed the Supreme Council's Badr Brigade. The next day, the Mahdi Army attacked Badr offices across the south before Sadr and Hakim called for calm. Both sides have in recent days asked supporters to maintain order regardless of who is named prime minister, but aides have said they would not rule out armed unrest.

"It is not our official policy," said Amiry, of the Sadr foundation. "But maybe some people will express their stance that way."

Special correspondents Saad Sarhan and Saad al-Izzi in Najaf contributed to this report.

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