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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)

"We've got to be careful that we don't demonize Jaish al-Mahdi, because look at the polls," the senior coalition official said, using the Arabic name for the Mahdi Army. "Moqtada al-Sadr himself is an enormously popular figure. Why? Because he's thumbing his nose at the coalition. So we do have to be careful that we don't demonize him."

Today, Sadr controls 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament and four ministries. All of Sadr's portfolios revolve around providing key services, such as health and transportation. They give him the ability to funnel resources to supportive constituents and boost his popular base. During the protracted negotiations over who would become prime minister after elections in January, Sadr reluctantly supported Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shiite, to head the government.

"Sadr presents a complex problem," said Vali Nasr, an expert on political Islam with the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is difficult dealing with him politically and militarily without undermining Maliki's government that relies on him."

That predicament was underscored last month when Iraqi soldiers and American military advisers raided Sadr City, the vast slum that is Sadr's Baghdad stronghold, and engaged in a two-hour gun battle. Maliki went on local television the next day to denounce the operation as hindering efforts at national reconciliation, promising Iraqis, "This won't happen again."

The U.S. military, too, has shied away from publicly declaring Sadr and his Mahdi Army a threat to Iraq's stability. But American diplomats have identified Sadr as a threat to the country and have made no overtures to him. In March, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in an interview that the United States has had no face-to-face dealings with the cleric.

But Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, said the Bush administration and the U.S. military need to engage Sadr and treat him as a political leader at a time when many Iraqis fear a civil war is on the horizon.

"They have not done anything, taken any steps in this direction," Dabbagh said. "They should do their best to have a dialogue with Moqtada. It's not a wise step to exclude Moqtada. It could mean a push in the other direction.

"Nobody should ignore Moqtada."

Switching Strategies

Seated on a chocolate-brown sofa, Yaqoubi, Sadr's aide, spoke with a confidence born of the power his movement now wields. When asked why he thought U.S. officials were not publicly attacking Sadr, Yaqoubi replied with a smile, "They are trying not to inflame the situation."

Soft-voiced, with a thick, neatly kept black beard, Yaqoubi acknowledges that guerrilla warfare has not been effective in ending the U.S. occupation. Now, Sadr and his followers have switched strategies and are focusing on the political arena, in the belief that domestic pressure in the United States will inevitably force U.S. troops to leave Iraq.

"Everyone thought the Sadrists cared only about fighting, like the Taliban," Yaqoubi said. "We'd like to prove that we have the ability to take part in the political process."

The Sadrists refuse to deal with U.S. officials. Yaqoubi expressed some bitterness over the lack of U.S. support for a Shiite uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War that Saddam Hussein brutally suppressed.

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