For Prominent Iraqi Cleric, a Test of Influence

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 31, 2009

BAGHDAD, Jan. 30 -- Over the past 18 months, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has long fought for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, has tried to improve his movement's image and reform his Mahdi Army militia. Saturday's provincial elections will in part be a referendum on his influence over the country's majority Shiites and his professed transformation from guerrilla chieftain to religious leader.

Bassam Abdul Sadiq is the new face of Sadr's ambitions. On Friday, he sat in Sadr's headquarters in his Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, smiling with confidence: An hour earlier, a Sadrist cleric had ordered more than 20,000 followers to vote for two independent political parties, including Sadiq's, the Free List.

Sadiq, a former insurance company employee in Bahrain and current graduate student in Baghdad, is no independent.

"Everyone knows the direction of the Free List," said Sadiq, 36, who grew up in Sadr City. "Every one of us has a relationship with the Sadr office."

Instead of participating in the elections, Sadr has ordered his followers to vote for independent candidates. It is a tactic he employed successfully to gain political clout in the 2005 elections, wielding street power to back independent candidates while striving to preserve his image as a cleric standing above politics.

Today, top Sadrist officials concede that the strategy is largely one of survival. Since a government offensive against the Mahdi Army in Basra and Sadr City last year, Sadr's political influence has waned as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's stature has grown. With more than 2 million Shiites in Sadr City, the Sadrists hope to shift the balance of power again, starting from the enclave where Sadr derives his greatest legitimacy.

"We are optimistic," intoned Sadiq, a thin man with a wispy beard. "The movement of Sayed Moqtada Sadr will never become an absentee movement. This is a part of re-energizing their activity."

The quest for votes in Sadr City illuminates how fractured Shiites have become since the 2005 elections, which ushered Shiite religious parties into political power after centuries of Sunni dominance. The outcome of Saturday's elections, in the days and weeks ahead, will provide a look into potential alliances among Shiite parties.

On the walls and storefronts of Sadr City, images of nearly every Shiite candidate are present, scores more than in the previous elections. Over there is cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Sadr's main rival. Over here is Jawad al-Bolani, Iraq's interior minister, who launched his own party. There are secular Shiites, Shiite Kurds and female candidates in black abayas.

On a white banner next to a building shattered in an American airstrike, Maliki is depicted next to Sadr's white-bearded father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, who was assassinated along with two sons during Saddam Hussein's rule. Between their portraits is a promise from the government, that it will provide Sadr City with solar-powered streetlights.

But most of the posters belong to the Free List and the Integrity and Rebuild List, the two parties Sadr supports. The Free List's poster depicts a cane wrapped in an Iraqi flag breaking ropes slipped around two fists. A large number 284 is painted in blue: the party's number on the voting cards. Underneath are words uttered by the elder Sadr: "I liberated you, so don't let anybody enslave you after me."

"All these other posters are bought with money," declared Ahmed Chalub, a Mahdi Army commander who attended Friday prayers outside the Sadr office. "They give money to hang their posters. But 284, our list? We hang the posters up with our souls and with our blood."

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