Shiite Clerics' Rivalry Deepens In Fragile Iraq

Ali Hussein, owner of a sidewalk restaurant in Baghdad, has allied himself with Moqtada al-Sadr, shown on the poster.
Ali Hussein, owner of a sidewalk restaurant in Baghdad, has allied himself with Moqtada al-Sadr, shown on the poster. (By Sudarsan Raghavan -- The Washington Post)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 21, 2006

BAGHDAD -- In the quest to create a new Iraq, two powerful clerics compete for domination, one from within the government, the other from its shadows.

Both wear the black turban signifying their descent from the prophet Muhammad. They have fought each other since the days their fathers vied to lead Iraq's majority Shiites. They hold no official positions, but their parties each control 30 seats in the parliament. And they both lead militias that are widely alleged to run death squads.

But in the view of the Bush administration, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is a moderate and Moqtada al-Sadr is an extremist. As the U.S. president faces mounting pressure to reshape his Iraq policy, administration officials say they are pursuing a Hakim-led moderate coalition of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurdish parties in order to isolate extremists, in particular Sadr.

Hakim, who once verbally attacked U.S. policy, now senses a political opportunity and is softening his stance toward the Americans. Sadr's position is hardening. Young and aggressive, he has suspended his participation in Iraq's government and is intensifying his demands for U.S. troops to leave the country.

Their rivalry is rising as the moderating influence of Iraq's most revered Shiite figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is fading on the streets of Baghdad and is being replaced by allegiance to militant clerics such as Sadr, according to Iraqi officials and analysts.

They question whether Hakim can counter Sadr's growing street power without worsening the chaos. As President Bush ponders limited alternatives in forging a new approach in Iraq, some wonder whether the United States is overestimating Hakim's ability.

The U.S. embrace of Hakim "will deepen their rivalry," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator. "And it will deepen the rifts between the United States and the Sadrists."

Across Baghdad, as the fourth year of war nears an end, many Iraqis are asking one question: Can their prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite politician backed by Sadr, balance U.S. demands to distance himself from the cleric and move their country forward?

Competing Strategies

In Karrada, a mostly Shiite Baghdad neighborhood of large, tan houses owned by educated professionals and bureaucrats, the trim-bearded Hakim smiles from a large billboard in front of his headquarters.

The son of an ayatollah, Hakim wears the long, black robes of an Islamic scholar. He spent years in exile in Iran, where his political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was founded as an armed opposition group to President Saddam Hussein, who brutally oppressed Shiites.

Less than a mile away in a bustling, working-class section of Karrada, in a poster hanging in a grimy sidewalk restaurant, the thick-bearded Sadr weeps.

The son of Iraq's most respected populist cleric, who was assassinated by Hussein's government in 1999, Sadr remained in Iraq during the repression. He has stayed faithful to his father's vision, deriving his power from the seminary and the followers he has mobilized from Iraq's streets.

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