Top Aide to Sadr Outlines Vision of a U.S.-Free Iraq

By Ellen Knickmeyer and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

NAJAF, Iraq -- In a shabby but spotless living room in the holy city of Najaf, a top deputy of Shiite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr quietly sketched out his vision of the Iraq to come, after the Americans withdraw.

First, "there will be a civil war," said the aide, Mustafa Yaqoubi, as his three young children wandered in and out of the room. The rising violence and rivalries under the American occupation make a shaking-out all but inevitable once foreign forces go, Yaqoubi said. "I expect it."

"No matter the number of people who would lose their lives, it is better than now," he added. "It would be better than the Americans staying."

When the tumult ends, the Sadr aide said, Iraq's Shiite majority will finally be able to claim its due, long resisted by the Americans -- freedom to usher in a Shiite religious government that Yaqoubi said would be moderate and perhaps comparable in some ways to Iran's. The bespectacled, bearded cleric's mild tone buffered his talk of the blood that would have to be spilled to achieve this goal. No matter when the Americans withdraw, "the first year of transition, it will be worse," Yaqoubi warned. "After that, it will gradually improve."

Yaqoubi speaks as one of two or three longtime intimates of Sadr, the young heir of a revered Shiite clerical family. Sadr's rough-edged, strongly anti-American street movement of poor, largely uneducated Shiites has burgeoned into one of the strongest political and armed forces in Iraq.

When Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was shot to death with two of his sons in 1999, in an assassination blamed on Saddam Hussein, Yaqoubi helped Moqtada al-Sadr, then only 25, keep the family's mosque-based network alive, despite unrelenting pressure from Hussein's intelligence services.

Yaqoubi's arrest by U.S.-led coalition troops, on charges in the brutal stabbing death of a Sadr rival, ignited full-scale street battles between Sadr followers and U.S. forces in April 2004.

Freed in August 2005 after 16 months in prison, Yaqoubi helped preside over a remarkable political transformation that culminated with elections last year that put Sadr in charge of the largest individual bloc in parliament.

While Sadr and his aides, including Yaqoubi, stayed in Iraq throughout the darkest years of Hussein's rule, others among Iraq's current leaders went into exile in London, Tehran or Detroit, returning here only after Hussein's overthrow. Leaders of the other main Shiite religious parties were quick to make accommodation with the U.S.-led occupying forces. Overnight, many of them adopted a life of secondhand splendor in the former palaces and villas of Hussein's regime.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, for example, who leads the Shiite religious party that most nearly matches Sadr's movement in strength, moved into the marbled villa of former Hussein foreign minister Tariq Aziz, who is now in U.S. military custody. Sadr and his aides, in contrast, make their homes in the Shiite neighborhoods of the capital and the Shiite holy cities of the south. Sadr lives in a gleaming, whitewashed concrete mansion behind high walls in Najaf. His top aides there have more modest houses, less freshly painted.

Yaqoubi is considered an intellectual, in the vanguard of Sadr's Shiite movement. In an interview over the course of an afternoon, he outlined his views of an organization that is scarcely known to Americans. His children occasionally came in to interrupt, putting a hand on his knee to whisper a message from the women out of sight in the back of the house.

Despite their ascendancy now, Yaqoubi said, Iraq's Shiites owe no gratitude to the Americans. "The Americans are not saving us from Saddam for the sake of the Iraqi people," he said. "They gave Saddam clearance in the 1990s to strike at the Shia people. It was in their own interest to get rid of Saddam."

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