Iraq's Sadr Overhauls His Tactics

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 20, 2007

NAJAF, Iraq -- The movement of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has embarked on one of its most dramatic tactical shifts since the beginning of the war.

The 33-year-old populist is reaching out to a broad array of Sunni leaders, from politicians to insurgents, and purging extremist members of his Mahdi Army militia who target Sunnis. Sadr's political followers are distancing themselves from the fragile Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is widely criticized as corrupt, inefficient and biased in favor of Iraq's majority Shiites. And moderates are taking up key roles in Sadr's movement, professing to be less anti-American and more nationalist as they seek to improve Sadr's image and position him in the middle of Iraq's ideological spectrum.

"We want to aim the guns against the occupation and al-Qaeda, not between Iraqis," Ahmed Shaibani, 37, a cleric who leads Sadr's newly formed reconciliation committee, said as he sat inside Sadr's heavily guarded compound here.

Sadr controls the second-biggest armed force in Iraq, after the U.S. military, and 30 parliamentary seats -- enough power to influence political decision-making and dash U.S. hopes for stability. The cleric withdrew his six ministers from Iraq's cabinet last month, leaving the movement more free to challenge the government.

"Our retreating from the government is one way to show we are trying to work for the welfare of Iraq and not only for the welfare of Shiites," said Salah al-Obaidi, a senior aide to Sadr. He said the time was "not mature yet" to form a bloc that could challenge Maliki, who came to power largely because of Sadr's support.

In recasting himself, the cleric is responding to popular frustration, a widening Sunni-Shiite rift and political inertia, conditions he helped create. The shift is as much a reaction to U.S. efforts to rein him in as it is an admission of unfulfilled visions. His strategy exposes the strengths and weaknesses of his movement as it pushes for U.S. troops to leave and competes with its Shiite rivals in the contest to shape a new Iraq.

Since Sadr emerged with force after the U.S.-led invasion, he has sought to create a Shiite-led state guided by Islamic law with a strong central government. In 2004, his militia battled U.S. forces in Najaf, bolstering his authority and appeal across sects. But his credibility as a would-be unifier of Iraq suffered after his militiamen engaged in widespread revenge killings of Sunnis following the February 2006 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra. His movement remains in flux, at times in turmoil, over the approach toward Sunnis, the proper timing of a U.S. withdrawal and Sadr's political involvement.

"The Sadrists believe they have political problems, and they are trying new tactics to serve their own interests," said Mithal al-Alusi, an independent Sunni legislator. "But anyway, we welcome any political group who wants to talk instead of kill."

Sadr has vanished from sight in recent months, raising concerns about his leadership, although his close aides insist he's in hiding for security and strategic reasons.

Sunnis continue to accuse the Mahdi Army of committing atrocities, and fissures are growing in the loosely knit militia as fighters break off on their own. A three-month-old U.S. and Iraqi security offensive in Baghdad, which Sadr has tacitly backed, has not reduced attacks on Shiites, prompting fears that his militiamen may again spark cycles of reprisal killings. And while Sadr has ordered his fighters to lie low, U.S. arrests of militiamen are mounting, creating discontent.

"The main questions are: How seriously can we take these new tactics? And do they have real control over the Jaish al-Mahdi?" Alusi said, using the Arabic term for the militia.

'We Are Not Anti-American'

As black-clad militiamen stood guard, Obaidi, his white turban glinting in the buttery sunlight, walked into the gold-domed mosque of Kufa. The senior aide to Sadr, tall and gaunt with a black beard, stepped up to a wooden lectern and stared out at the courtyard where the faithful waited. Hundreds of men, young and old, had come to hear Sadr, whom they had not seen in months. This was his mosque. Obaidi, on this day, was his voice.

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