Page 2 of 4   <       >

Iraq's Sadr Overhauls His Tactics

He read aloud Sadr's two-page sermon, which condemned U.S. military forces building a wall in Baghdad's mostly Sunni Adhamiyah neighborhood; residents complained the wall would divide Sunnis and Shiites.

"Didn't we see and hear of our beloveds in Adhamiyah while they were chanting, 'No, no, to sectarianism'?" Obaidi thundered at the crowd. "We will stand, as one hand, to demonstrate with them and defend our sacred lands everywhere."

The day after the sermon, Obaidi sat inside Sadr's compound in Najaf, where a green Islamic flag fluttered between two Iraqi national flags.

Three months ago, Obaidi was released from Camp Cropper, a U.S. military detention center, where he had been held for five months. In near-perfect English, he said the American military officers set him free because they view him as a moderate who could help neutralize the radicals in Sadr's fold.

"I can give him good advice," Obaidi added with a smile.

Shaibani, the cleric, was released in March after U.S. military officials determined that he "could play a potentially important role in helping to moderate extremism and foster reconciliation in Iraq," the military said in a statement at the time.

U.S. generals are now differentiating between "irreconcilable" rogue members of the Mahdi Army and "reconcilable" ones they can engage.

Still, U.S. policy toward Sadr often appears contradictory. American soldiers are more cautious in conducting raids, understanding the movement's social dimensions and popular roots. U.S. military leaders no longer cite Shiite militias as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability, emphasizing the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq instead.

At the same time, the military is attempting to contain Sadr. U.S. military leaders say they are preparing to increase the number of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers patrolling the streets of Sadr City, the cleric's stronghold in Baghdad.

"Sadr clearly has some influence," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands U.S. forces south of Baghdad and in southern Iraq. "But it's simplistic to say this guy is in charge of all Jaish al-Mahdi, that when he says, 'Go left,' they all go left. We're not seeing that."

But Sadr's aides say the fact that the Mahdi Army has not risen up yet is proof that the cleric is in control.

U.S. officials have publicly claimed the cleric is in Iran, which undermines Sadr's homegrown credentials and his hopes to woo Sunnis, who are wary of Iran's growing influence. The officials have also alleged that groups in Iran are training and funneling weapons to Shiite militants.

<       2           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company