Sadr Pursues Image to Match His Power

Hundreds gather for Friday prayers in Sadr City, the Baghdad enclave that is Sadr's base of power. Last week, he let Iraqi troops enter to quiet clashes between militiamen and U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Hundreds gather for Friday prayers in Sadr City, the Baghdad enclave that is Sadr's base of power. Last week, he let Iraqi troops enter to quiet clashes between militiamen and U.S. and Iraqi forces. (By Andrea Bruce/Post)
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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

NAJAF, Iraq -- When the revered head of Iraq's largest Shiite opposition group was assassinated in 1999, the mantle of leadership passed to an unexpected heir: Moqtada al-Sadr, then a 25-year-old video game aficionado who oversaw the movement's security forces.

Sadr, now 34, has since emerged as an ardent nationalist who commands the support of hundreds of thousands of devotees and the scorn of those who see him as a thuggish militia leader of limited intellect. He has lately sought to reposition himself as a more mainstream figure, even in the face of increasing pressure from Iraq's Shiite-led government.

His decision last week to allow the Iraqi army to enter the capital's Sadr City district, his base of power, was the latest in a series of calming edicts that began last summer. In August 2007, he ordered his militia, which had been responsible for some of the most horrific sectarian violence in the country, to lay down its weapons. The freeze prompted senior U.S. military officials to begin praising the young cleric, despite his steady opposition to the American presence in Iraq.

Sadr has spent the past year studying in Iran under a politically influential cleric who runs the country's judicial system, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, according to several top-ranking Sadr aides. Sadr's effort to burnish his theological credentials may offer some insight into his ambitions, since he is descended from a line of clerics who endorse "wilayat al-faqih," the theory that high-ranking Shiite clerics should oversee affairs of state.

Interviews in Najaf with more than a dozen of the cleric's top aides, friends and family members provide a rare glimpse into his attempt to convert himself from a maligned, overshadowed son into a religious and political icon as potent as his martyred father.

"I think now that the big bad ideas about Sayyid Moqtada Sadr -- that he is filled with violence and is a shallow man -- have changed so much, even in the West," said Salah al-Obaidi, one of his top advisers, using the honorific signifying Sadr's descent from the prophet Muhammad. "We want people to know who Sayyid Moqtada really is."

For many Iraqis, Sadr's image remains negative. "Most people do not approve of what Moqtada is doing," said Dhirgham, 20, a clerk in a women's clothing shop in Najaf who feared he would be killed if his last name were used. "He destroyed Iraq. He put us one century backwards."

The escalating battle between Sadr and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has provided the sharpest test yet of what type of leader Sadr will become. Many of his younger aides are urging him to end the cease-fire and open a broad front against government troops, whom they see as loyal to his Shiite rivals, while older clerics endorse continued restraint.

Friends say Sadr, a notorious practical joker who was unexpectedly thrust into the leadership of the movement, struggles with what he sees as his responsibility to help define his country's future.

"He feels that he does not own himself anymore," said Ahmed al-Shaibani, another top aide and close friend. "As Sayyid Moqtada always says: My lot in life is that I found the burdens of the world lying right in front of me and then decided to carry them."

'Moqtada Is My Bravery'

Sadr, the third of four sons, was born in Najaf into one of the most revered clerical families in Shiite Islam. His father's cousin, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, was an adored religious figure who founded a school of thought that became the Sadrist movement, which argued that the clergy should actively engage in politics to aid the downtrodden Shiite masses. When he was tortured and killed in 1980 by Saddam Hussein's government, Moqtada's father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, also a grand ayatollah, took his place as the head of the movement and became a chief opponent of Hussein's rule.

Moqtada at first attended public schools, but around ninth grade he switched to the hawza, the seminary in Najaf that is the center of Shiite learning, in part because he struggled with his studies, neighbors said. He earned the nickname Moqtada Atari because of his love of video games.

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