Sadr, a Question Mark Etched in Black
Response to Shiite Cleric's Evolving Role Has Become a Core Challenge for U.S. in Iraq

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.

"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.

Asked whether Khalilzad has ever spoken with Sadr, Yaqoubi replied: "He doesn't need to make the effort. He needs not to be an occupier. If he's not an occupier, we can talk to him."

He added that Sadr had turned down diplomatic overtures made by U.S. officials through the United Nations and other third parties.

At the same time, the Sadrists are concerned about the impact the Mahdi Army's reprisal killings and clashes with Iraqi soldiers are having on their image and on their ability to be taken seriously on the political stage. And U.S. officials and Iraq experts are increasingly questioning how much control Sadr actually has over his militiamen.

"I've always believed that he is far less in control of his organization than he would have us believe, and that you've got sort of franchised lieutenants out there who are taking broad guidance but applying it differently," the senior coalition official said. "You can see, on occasion, him trying to change the dynamic."

That happened after intense clashes last week between Mahdi Army militiamen and Iraqi forces in the southern city of Diwaniyah. The attacks unsettled even some of Sadr's own followers. Afterward, Sadr indicated to the governor of Diwaniyah that he would investigate the actions of his militiamen. In recent days, he also ordered all photos of him to be taken down from ministries and government offices to prevent any abuse of his name or image.

"It can affect the reputation of Moqtada Sadr," Yaqoubi said.

Yet Sadr has proved unpredictable and surpassingly able to mobilize his followers. Casting a shadow over Yaqoubi's words was his willingness to employ violence, in case Sadr's political experiment fails to achieve its objectives.

"If we leave the decision to them, they will not leave. They'll stay," Yaqoubi said of the Americans. "To get the occupiers to leave, they need some sacrifice. The people need to sacrifice their souls for the Americans to leave."

Pressure to Respond

At Najaf's gold-domed Imam Ali Shrine, the burial site of Shiite Islam's most beloved saint, Mahdi Army militiamen in their trademark black uniforms hover around the entrances, watching all who enter. Less than a hundred yards away, young men gravitate toward a stall playing videos of Mahdi Army propaganda films.

Many observers argue that at a time when the Bush administration and Sadr aren't talking, one political option is to try and wean poor and lower-middle-class men such as these from the streets.

"The best way to do it is to give them jobs, not in the security system, but where they could be active in the economy," said Dabbagh, the government spokesman, referring to the Mahdi Army militiamen. "Once they get an income, I don't think they will follow an ideology or become fundamentalist and extremist."

Other observers say the Iraqi government and its U.S. benefactors need to undercut Sadr's social services network by providing health, education and other services, as well as establishing the rule of law.

"Only if moderate Shia leaders deliver on security and governance can they challenge Sadr," Nasr said. "It will be a mistake to confront him directly. He will become martyred, and his movement will become stronger. Also, breaking Sadrists can create much more militant and multifarious militias."

Sadr needs to be gradually integrated into the political mainstream, Marr said, "keeping him above ground, where he can be watched and pressured. . . . We should be clipping his wings militarily, undercutting his support by providing government services, jobs, and publicly discrediting his extremism."

Special correspondent Naseer Mehdawi contributed to this report.

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