Sadr Movement Seeks Its Way As Others Gain Power in Iraq

Hazim al-Araji stands at the center of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's efforts for reform, but Sadrists are facing the biggest challenge to their survival since Saddam Hussein's reign.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 5, 2008

BAGHDAD -- The followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr once were powerful enough to do battle against the U.S. military, play kingmaker in choosing Iraq's prime minister and declare themselves the true defenders of the country's Shiite majority.

But parliament's approval last week of a security agreement that requires U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, a date the Sadrists consider far too distant, has underscored the movement's waning influence. Sadr's loyalists are on the defensive, struggling to remain politically relevant as the U.S. role in Iraq diminishes and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gains stature.

The day after the agreement's passage, anger lined the face of Hazim al-Araji, Sadr's top aide. Inside a gold-domed shrine in Baghdad's Kadhimiyah neighborhood, he railed against Iraq's lawmakers. "They ignored our ideas and thoughts when they signed this agreement," he said from his pulpit. "They paid no attention to all our martyrs who gave their blood fighting the occupation."

Araji, 39, stands at the center of Sadr's efforts to shape his followers into a religious and social movement that can maintain his popularity. In interviews across Baghdad and in the Shiite religious heartland of Najaf, where Shiite groups are vying for their community's leadership, Sadrists insist they still have the power to divide Iraq or keep it together.

Melding Koranic verse with political invective, Araji urged the crowd to resist the pact and their movement's foes. "Iraq has been killed! Iraq has been sold!" he thundered. "America is now the enemy of God."

The congregation of a few thousand was smaller than usual, a sign of the Sadrists' uncertain future.

'I Took All His Power'

On a sweltering day in late July, hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims marched through the streets of Kadhimiyah to mourn one of Shiite Islam's preeminent saints on the anniversary of his death.

Araji's fighters had set up dozens of tents along the roads leading from Iraq's mostly Shiite south to assist pilgrims with food, water, housing and places to pray. In years past, the militiamen alone had provided security. This time, Iraqi security forces stood guard.

Near the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Khadim, the black-turbaned Araji held court in a small mosque. He sat on yellow floor cushions, facing the front door in case Iraqi forces burst in unannounced. He chain-smoked thin cigarettes and rolled green prayer beads around his fingers.

At a sprawling Iraqi base nearby, Maj. Gen. Kareem al-Khazraji, commander of the 2nd Division of the National Police, smiled triumphantly: His forces had arrested several of Araji's men, including his personal bodyguard.

"Now I control Kadhimiyah 100 percent," said Khazraji, who is from Dujail, a bastion of Maliki's Dawa party. "I took all his power from him. Hazim al-Araji cannot do anything right now in Kadhimiyah."

The brash, barrel-chested commander recalled how Araji's fighters had once taken over gas stations and demanded protection money from merchants. They had infiltrated the police; Iraqi army and police commanders had obeyed Araji's command.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company