Sadr, a Question Mark Etched in Black

Black-clad members of Moqtada al-Sadr's militia marched over a U.S. flag in Baghdad last month. Sadr loyalists participate in politics but remain outsiders.
Black-clad members of Moqtada al-Sadr's militia marched over a U.S. flag in Baghdad last month. Sadr loyalists participate in politics but remain outsiders. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
By Sudarsan Raghavan and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 11, 2006

NAJAF, Iraq -- A mother's sad wail pierced the stillness of the Cemetery of the Martyrs, where green and black resistance flags fluttered over the graves of hundreds of Shiite Muslim militiamen. Kneeling on the hot, chalk-like dirt, Abbas Sabah, 17, didn't stir. His mind was focused on his brother Anwar, 29, killed in a clash with U.S. troops, like many of the dead here. He poured water on Anwar's gravestone and gently wiped it clean.

"We want vengeance," said Sabah, who was dressed in the black uniform of the Mahdi Army, the militia of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "I want to fight or die for the cause."

In another neighborhood, Mustafa Yaqoubi, a top Sadr deputy who also lost a brother in a battle with U.S. soldiers, was waging a different kind of war.

"We have entered a political game," said Yaqoubi, who wore a black turban signifying his descent from the prophet Muhammad. "We entered this government to use it as a weapon to make pressure on the occupiers."

Sabah and Yaqoubi embody the dilemma Sadr poses for the Bush administration and Iraq's fragile government. Though Sadr and his followers hold more seats in Iraq's parliament than any other faction, their attitude toward the U.S.-led occupation remains belligerent. They participate in government, but they remain outsiders, keenly aware that their authority is derived from their independence and their opposition to the occupation.

The ongoing evolution of Sadr from populist cleric to guerrilla leader to political kingmaker is emerging as a core challenge to U.S. visions of stability in Iraq. He's a question mark that many analysts say needs to be dealt with immediately and delicately.

"Sadr is a work in progress," said Phebe Marr, a leading expert on Iraqi politics. "He is volatile, an opportunist and dangerous. But he is also popular and has grass-roots support among an important slice of the population. He and his movement need to be dealt with carefully and skillfully before he can take permanent root.

"He is too powerful now to take him on frontally."

Senior U.S. military officials are starting to share this view. Once dismissed by Bush administration officials and U.S. generals as irrelevant to Iraq's future, Sadr is increasingly seen as a man who has the power to either implode Iraq or keep it together, even as his militia continues to defy the authority of the Iraqi government and its U.S. backers. As sectarian violence ravages Baghdad and other parts of the country, Sunni Muslims accuse Sadr's Mahdi Army of operating death squads under the mantle of Islam.

"There's not a military solution in my view to Moqtada al-Sadr," a senior coalition official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We may be a bit uncomfortable with his position as a legitimate political figure, but he is a legitimate player."

It's a remarkable shift for two enemies whose forces are the most powerful in Iraq and fought some of the deadliest battles since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But in the fourth year of the occupation, the nature of the Iraqi resistance has changed as politics, religion and war have melded. The guerrilla fighters now control key ministries and derive legitimacy as much from the polls as they do from the battlefield.

Publicly, U.S. officials have declared the Mahdi Army and other militias the biggest threat to Iraq's stability. Privately, their views are now more nuanced.

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