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'Shiite Giant' Extends Its Reach
Sadr's Armed Movement Becomes Pivotal Force in Fractured Country

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.

The movement is highly structured, largely along the lines of the Lebanese Hezbollah organization, building for its followers a state within a state while also acquiring a share of power in Iraq's formal government. Sadr, like Hezbollah, built popularity in part by providing social services such as health care. Because he controls the Health Ministry, and with it the hospitals and clinics of Iraq, his followers bear their children in public hospitals decorated with posters of the young cleric. They go to their graves washed by workers of a Sadr charity at a sprawling Shiite cemetery in Najaf, at a cost of 5,000 dinars, about $3.40, one-fifteenth of what grieving families outside Sadr's network pay. Sadr also sponsors the God's Martyr Foundation, which supports veterans and the families of fighters who are killed.

Under a tithing system followed by Sadr's movement and many other mainstream Shiite groups, those who are financially capable give one-fifth of their income, capital investments or both to their religious leaders.

At Sadr's busy headquarters in Najaf last month, a steady stream of men poured in to sign up for a Sadr recruitment drive in the name of rebuilding the Samarra shrine. Younger men offered their labor. Other followers offered cash, including a proud grandfather who prodded forward a toddling grandson clutching two crisp U.S. $5 bills.

Describing the method of building Sadr's organization, Araji said, "We now see resistance should be political, and not military."

Avoiding Confrontation

Sadr's relationship with the occupying U.S. forces has been hostile, and at times violent. In early 2004, L. Paul Bremer, then the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, declared Sadr an "outlaw." Bremer's spokesmen announced a murder warrant accusing Sadr in the stabbing death of a fellow Shiite cleric. Sadr's forces battled against the U.S. military in Sadr City, Najaf and across the south that year. But in elections in 2005, Sadr's movement participated in the political process and, along with other Shiite parties, claimed power and became part of the government.

Today, Sadr's movement remains wary of the U.S. forces now trying to impose order on chaotic Baghdad. Mahdi Army fighters openly operate checkpoints in Sadr City and elsewhere, standing at intersections and positioning themselves between two lanes of traffic on Sadr turf, scanning each car for strangers. They have sometimes taken Sunni Arab men away for detention or execution, according to Sunni witnesses. But they hide their weapons from American eyes, tucking pistols in waistbands under their shirts or hiding automatic rifles behind doorways.

When U.S. patrols roll into Sadr City, Mahdi Army patrols melt away. Last month, as Capt. Troy Wayman, one of the commanders of the tiny U.S. force overseeing training of the Iraqi army unit in Sadr City, led one of the small daily U.S. convoys through the district's streets, Mahdi Army fighters faded from view.

A Mahdi Army member in civilian clothes, standing in Sadr City 's main road at an informal checkpoint, caught sight of Wayman's approaching Humvees and scuttled out of sight, disappearing into the crowds of men watching the Americans.

As Wayman visited what were supposed to be Iraqi army checkpoints in Sadr City that morning, the first stop showed not a single soldier of Iraq's regular army at his post monitoring passing cars for bombs, kidnappers and the like.

Tensions have risen in recent weeks, but both Sadr and U.S. commanders have so far avoided the kind of open challenge that could lead to another confrontation. As sectarian violence intensified last month, U.S. forces again began moving against specific targets in Sadr City and elsewhere. U.S. commanders were careful to say they were targeting only "criminals" behind suspected death squads, not renewing a fight against the Mahdi Army.

An official of Sadr's movement who identified himself as Abu Hassan al-Thahabi said last month that leaders of the organization had generally ordered restraint. He spoke to a reporter after a bombing that killed at least 66 people on a crowded street in Sadr City. His hands still black with soot and grease from pulling out dead and wounded after the bombing, Thahabi said: "If the leadership says fight, we will fight. If they say no, we will not fight."

Rivals and Allies

At the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Sadr's militia did not exist. Today, his army numbers tens of thousands. In 2004, Bremer issued a vague order aimed at the Mahdi Army stipulating that militias should be disbanded at some unspecified date. The order set rules under which militias could keep working in the meantime.

The militias rapidly infiltrated key government agencies. Sadr's movement was not alone; it worked in parallel with another Shiite movement, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, headed by Abdul Aziz Hakim.

Hakim's militia is known as the Badr Brigade. Its members largely took control of the Interior Ministry after the 2005 elections, building commando and other police forces. They are better organized and better armed than the Mahdi Army, thanks to decades of Iranian backing when it opposed Hussein. The Mahdi Army tended to supply the rank and file among Iraq's new police forces, rather than commanders. Together, the two Shiite militias infiltrated into Iraq's security forces thousands of people whose loyalty is to the religious parties rather than the national unity government.

In addition, Sadr's four ministries control 70,000 uniformed, armed men who are part of a government agency known as the Facilities Protection Service, according to the Interior Ministry. U.S. military commanders acknowledge that the agency has mushroomed to more than 140,000, largely outside American notice. A top former U.S. military commander has said militia fighters under the Facilities Protection Service are tied to kidnappings, execution-style killings and other crimes.

Both movements can also field thousands of armed civilian men in a matter of hours. Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council, boasted to his followers in December that he could muster 200,000 militia fighters.

The Sadr movement claims more. "All Iraq is Mahdi Army," said Thamara al-Fetlawi, a civilian leader of the God's Martyrs Foundation, which cares for the families of slain and wounded Sadr militiamen as well as offering broader social services to followers of Sadr.

Fetlawi, like some other Sadr officials, rejected the definition of the Mahdi Army as a militia, apparently as a tactical move against any future efforts to disband the militias. Instead, he called it "the people's army," suggesting ordinary men who spontaneously grab their own weapons and respond when need and Shiite clerics call. The weapons seen by Washington Post reporters in Sadr City on the night of the Feb. 22 Samarra bombing included grenade launchers and heavy machine guns.

Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Supreme Council's Badr Brigade -- rivals that fought deadly battles in power struggles in the predominantly Shiite south last year -- cooperate when their interests overlap. In the turbulent days after the Samarra bombing, Sadr and Badr militiamen marched openly in a Shiite neighborhood of central Baghdad, each carrying banners declaring their battalion and brigade designations within their militias.

American officials have called the Shiite militias a danger to the Iraqi state. But the United States has yet to tackle what it and the Iraqi government say is their goal of dismantling the militias. In a congressionally mandated report last month, the State Department said that "a plan is being developed to assist Iraqi leaders" in breaking up the militias of the governing Shiite religious parties.

A more ominous warning came recently from the departing British ambassador to Iraq, William Patey, in a cable that was leaked. "If we are to avoid a descent into civil war and anarchy, then preventing the Jaish al-Mahdi from developing into a state within a state, as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon, will be a priority," Patey wrote, using the Arabic term for Mahdi Army.

'Claiming to Be the Mahdi Army'

Top U.S. officials and leaders of the Sadr movement both say many of the gunmen claiming to be in the Mahdi Army are increasingly operating outside Sadr's control. Nouri, Sadr's brother-in-law, and others blamed rogue elements and impostors for escalating killings and kidnappings since the Samarra bombing. Many of the attacks since July have focused on driving Sunnis from predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad.

"I will say that evil exists in every sect and every place," Nouri said in the interview at his home in Najaf. "And also good exists. Just like with the Jews and the Christians, it is so in Islam.

"They might be gangs claiming to be the Mahdi Army and doing these bad things. But they don't believe in the doctrine, they only do what they want and wear clothes of the Mahdi Army. They do not follow the guidance of the leaders," Nouri said. "They are exposed when there are orders from the high command to sit and do nothing and still they do their acts. Anyone who is not following such orders from the Sadr office is not a member of the Mahdi Army."

"After the Samarra bombing, it seems there were major reprisals organized for large part in Sadr circles," said Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group. "Moqtada himself was very clear no revenge should be taken. It's not clear whether he was simply not listened to, or was giving a double message -- one to the outside world, one to followers."

Unable to figure out Sadr's militia or approach him on political terms, Americans have been frustrated in their hopes of reining in the Mahdi Army, as well as the Badr Brigade.

"It would be a whole lot easier if these armed illegal groups had a coordinated structure with a clear headquarters," a Western diplomat in Baghdad said last month in response to questions about why no progress had been made on U.S. and Iraqi pledges to disband the militias. Ultimately, Hiltermann said, the Mahdi Army, as well as the Supreme Council and both groups' Sunni rivals, need only bide their time, until growing opposition to the war among the American public brings U.S. troops home.

"Then, the real struggle begins," Hiltermann said.

Correspondent Jonathan Finer in Najaf contributed to this report.

Tomorrow: The Mahdi Army's role in escalating sectarian violence.

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