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Sadr the agitator: like father, like son

(Page 3 of 3)

According to a 1999 book on Sadek al-Sadr by Adil Rauf and cited in a paper by Juan Cole, a US expert on Iraq's Shiites, Sadr senior issued a fatwa saying it was acceptable to kill Baathist "persecutors."

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This all proved too much for the regime. On Feb.18, 1999, the car carrying Sadek al-Sadr home to Najaf was riddled with bullets in an ambush, and he was killed along with two of his four sons. Most of his supporters believe Sadr survived the initial attack and was later finished off at a Najaf hospital.

The killing caused brief uprisings denouncing Hussein in at least four Iraqi cities. They were quickly and ruthlessly suppressed by Hussein's internal security forces, who killed an estimated 200 people in two days of fighting.

Emmad Sejad, a Mahdi army fighter who participated in the 1999 Sadr City uprising says Hussein's forces fired continuously into the crowd, killing about 60 people, including women and children. He says the incident confirmed his support for the Sadr family. "They are all born to be martyrs, the line of the Sadrs is a revolutionary line. And we share the same vision: To bring a proper Islamic government to Iraq."

Moqtada, who's variously described as 31 or 33 years old, took control of his father's organization, going underground to build a network of clandestine cells with the goal of overthrowing the Hussein regime and establishing a Shiite theocracy.

Sadek al-Sadr had left instructions for his followers to take religious instruction from Kazim al-Hairi, a cleric based in the Iranian shrine city of Qom. But on April 8, 2003, Hairi issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, calling on his followers to listen to Moqtada and to ignore the US occupation, urging the Shiites to take power for themselves.

US officials have been consistently surprised by the virulence of Moqtada's supporters and his willingness to promote his aims through violence. The US seemed to be unaware of his militant movement before the invasion in Iraq. In a National Public Radio interview on Feb. 18, 2003, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz played down the potential for an militant Shiite religious movement.

"The Iraqis are ... by and large quite secular. They are overwhelmingly Shia ... they don't bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam being on their territory,'' Mr. Wolfowitz said.

But it didn't take long for Moqtada to attract US attention. On April 7, two days before the official fall of Baghdad to US-led forces, Sadr's supporters rose up in Saddam City, raiding police stations and weapons stockpiles. By April 9, they'd renamed the 2 million-strong district Sadr City after Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr. And Moqtada, still just a junior cleric and student of Islamic jurisprudence, began his own Friday sermons.

"Sadr has called us out to protect Najaf. The Americans have no intention of ever leaving Iraq," says Jaffar al-Musawi, a Sadr militiaman lounging with a group of gunmen near the Shrine of Ali in Najaf, which the Sadr movement now controls, including the donations that flow to it from pilgrims.

But Sadr's men have also turned their sights on other targets, most specifically their domestic Shiite political opponents. US officials say Sadr was behind the murder of Abdel Majid al-Khoei in Najaf last April. Imam Khoei was close to the US, and had returned from exile with US funding to win supporters in Najaf. After Khoei's muder, Sadr militiamen surrounded the house of Sistani, who was briefly forced into hiding.

These incidents demonstrate Sadr's long-term aims go far beyond simply getting the US to leave Iraq. "What's happening now has more to do with the dynamics between Sistani and Sadr than it does between either of them and the coalition,'' says Patel.