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Sadr the agitator: like father, like son

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 27, 2004


Sadr enters the mosque at Kufa where he's led Friday prayers for nearly a year denouncing the authorities and warning of an "imperialist" conspiracy against Iraq's majority Shiites.

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The thousands fill the vast open courtyard, chanting the name of their hero when he strides through the gate, and they take up his call during the sermon. "No, no to America! No, no to Israel! No, no to imperialism!" In Baghdad, the authorities worry about how to handle this militant cleric, his rising profile and his willingness to flex the street muscle he's built up in Iraq's slums.

But the Sadr in question is not Moqtada, the young cleric whose gunmen now occupy Kufa and the neighboring shrine city of Najaf. Instead, the year is 1998 and the man leading the prayers is Ayatollah Mohammed Sadek Al-Sadr, Moqtada's father.

While Moqtada's religious credentials are weak, his family's political standing is as deep as the modern history of Iraq. His grandfather was the prime minister in 1948. And this young, militant cleric didn't spontaneously emerge after the fall of Saddam Hussein. US forces now entering the city of Najaf, are up against a man who has donned the well-cultivated mantle of his father, the leading Shiite thorn in the side of the Hussein regime in the 1990s. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the year Sadr's grandfather was prime minister.]

Today, the younger Sadr has built on his father's popularity and created a militant Shiite movement that has eclipsed many in the more moderate Shiite majority, who have remained largely silent.

For the moment, his movement is stalled. The uprising he sparked across southern Iraq in early April has failed. But the ability of a fairly junior cleric to defy the US-led coalition is a sign of how difficult Iraq's political transition is about to become.

In his sermon last Friday, Moqtada threatened to use suicide attackers against US forces if they try to root him out of Najaf. Monday, 200 US troops took over positions from 200 Spanish forces who withdrew from a base in Najaf three miles from the city center's holy sites. The move was seen as a way to keep a foothold in the city, controlled by Sadr's forces. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly identified the number of Spanish troops withdrawing from Najaf.]

For his supporters, the stand-off with the Americans is evidence that he's on the right path. "The tyrants always fear the ones who are most just, must good,'' says Ali Yassawi, sitting in the movement's main office in Sadr City, the sprawling Baghdad public housing quarter that is a hot-bed of Saddriyun, or Sadr supporters. "At first I wasn't sure about Moqtada, but just like the father, our enemies are fighting against him. This proves he's on the right path."

Reverence for martyrdom

Fighting and dying for near hopeless causes inspires almost mystical reverence within the Shiite community, going back to the beginnings of the Sunni- Shiite split in the 7th century. When Imam Ali was assassinated after leaving the mosque in Kufa where he had set up a rival caliphate, his son Hussein later led 72 men into battle against an army of 4,000 opponents. Hussein's defeat at Karbala cemented the schism.

Moqtada refers to the US as "Yazid," the name of the Ummayid Caliph whose men killed Imam Hussein, and talks about the martyrdom of both his own father and his uncle, the prominent Ayatollah and philosopher Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, killed by the Hussein regime in 1980. His framing of the conflict in these terms has made it difficult for the US to deal with Sadr, a man US officials have charged with murder.

"The idea of martyrdom and persecution does resonate throughout the Shiite world,'' says David Patel, a PhD candidate at Stanford University in California who's studying Shiite political movements in modern Iraq. "The average Shiite is unlikely to empathize with Moqtada's plight, probably thinking he brought it on himself." But Patel says that if US forces move on Najaf, Sadr's support could blossom.