Iraq's Rising Power

'Shiite Giant' Extends Its Reach

Mahdi Army militiamen marched in Baghdad in January in honor of Moqtada al-Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, the assassinated religious leader who founded the movement his son took over.
Mahdi Army militiamen marched in Baghdad in January in honor of Moqtada al-Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, the assassinated religious leader who founded the movement his son took over. (By Karim Kadim -- Associated Press)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 24, 2006

KUFA, Iraq -- Pumping their fists in the air, the men and boys inside the colonnaded mosque shouted their loyalty to Shiite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr. "Hasten the coming of the Mahdi!" thousands chanted in the baking sun of the open-air mosque, summoning the central religious figure of Sadr's movement. "And curse his enemies!"

Booming loudspeakers outside the mosque echoed the devotion of Sadr's followers converging for Friday prayers last month in Kufa, the cleric's spiritual base outside the Shiite holy city of Najaf. "Moqtada! Moqtada!" martial male voices intoned over the loudspeakers in rhythmic cadence with the footsteps of the gathering worshipers. "Even the child in the mother's cradle cries: 'Moqtada! Moqtada!' "

Sadr's followers answer as one when his movement calls them, and his organization of social, religious, political and military programs -- as well as the young clerics, politicians and fighters around him -- has become the most pivotal force in Iraq after the United States.

Millions of Sadr's supporters turned out in December elections to give his movement the largest bloc in parliament, which in turn put him in control of four government ministries. Thousands of male followers abandoned their homes and jobs when a bomb destroyed a Shiite shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22, rallying at Sadr headquarters on a night and day of retaliatory bloodletting that plunged Iraq into sectarian war.

While opposition to the U.S. military presence in Iraq remains one of its core tenets, the Sadr movement's militia, called the Mahdi Army, took heavy casualties in two military uprisings against better-armed, better-trained U.S. forces in 2004. Today, according to Sadr leaders and outside analysts, the movement is husbanding its strength and waiting for American troops to go.

Sadr "clearly is the most potent political figure, and the most popular one," in Iraq, said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "Unless directly provoked, Sadrists will lay low, because they know the Americans' time in Iraq is coming to an end," he said. "Why would they risk another major loss of fighters if it's not necessary? Americans in their eyes are already defeated -- they're going to leave."

In the plainly furnished front room of his simple house in Najaf, one of Sadr's top aides agreed.

"The first time the Sadr trend fought them, it was forced on us," said Riyadh al-Nouri, a brother-in-law of Sadr's, reflecting the movement's belief that American military and civilian leaders provoked the confrontations with the cleric's followers in 2004. "We had no choice. Sayyid Moqtada didn't want to fight," Nouri said, using a religious honorific for Sadr. "This time, it might be the people who are mad and upset who would do this again. But as of now, in terms of orders from the Sadr trend, it doesn't call for these things."

"Until now, the Shiite giant has not begun to move. But if things come to a dead end," Nouri added, Shiite religious authorities "could take a decision to move him. It depends on them."

"Until now, they have patience," Nouri said.

Building a Movement

The movement that Sadr now leads took shape in the seminaries of Najaf, a theological center of the Shiite world, as clerics in the second half of the 20th century sought to counter what were then growing secular and nationalist movements in the Arab world. Sadr's own work since the U.S.-led invasion builds upon the social and health programs for Shiite poor begun by his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, in the 1990s. Sadr's father died with two of his sons in 1999, in an assassination believed to have been ordered by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The Sadr movement's ultimate goal is a "united Islamic state," Bahaa al-Araji, a senior lawmaker in the Sadr political bloc, said in an interview. In Baghdad's Sadr City and other areas under Sadr's control, women uniformly cover their hair with scarves in the style of conservative Muslims. Islamic scholars operating with Sadr's office help arbitrate divorces, inheritances and other social matters in accordance with religious law. And fighters claiming to be part of Sadr's Mahdi Army -- named for a figure some Muslims believe will usher in an era of justice and true belief just before the end of time -- enforce a stringent Islamic code that includes the prohibition of alcohol and help enforce the orders of extrajudicial Islamic courts.

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