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Sadr plays to power of martyrdom

Wednesday, the US military said its forces were preparing for a major offensive in Najaf.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 12, 2004



BAGHDAD

Whatever one thinks of his politics, Moqtada al-Sadr is a man who understands the power of symbols.

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By holing up inside the Shrine of Imam Ali - tomb of the Shiite faith's supreme leader after the prophet Muhammad - and promising to fight until his very last drop of blood, Mr. Sadr is trying to position himself in a long line of powerful populist Shiite martyrs. When he gives sermons at the mosque in nearby Kufa, he always dresses in white, a color that Muslims bury their dead in. It's as if he's saying, "I'm already dead."

Now, Sadr may have put himself into a classic win-win scenario. If he is killed while fighting in such a holy site, he would become a martyr, drawing thousands of Shiites to his cause. If American and Iraqi forces pull back from a final assault on Najaf - and indeed, intense negotiations have been conducted since the beginning - and create another truce with Sadr, Sadr may be seen by many as a man who stood up to the Americans.

Experts say it's a strategy that plays on the deepest cultural urges of Shiite Islam's traditions. And it just might work.

"He's a shrewd politician, because he knows that the Americans will never enter the holy tomb of Najaf," says Amatzia Baram, a noted scholar on Shiite Islam at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington. "The Americans will never do it. The Iraqi government might send in troops, but that's not a simple decision to make. So Sadr is pretending to be a martyr."

Mr. Baram laughs: "He gets to be a martyr without much chance of dying."

Across southern Iraq, fighters aligned with Sadr have fought sporadic battles in the oil-terminal town of Basra, as well as in Amara, Nasiriya, Kufa, Karbala, Najaf, and in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.

In Najaf, US marines say they are preparing for a final assault on militiamen within and around the shrine. One Iraqi official, Ibrahim Jaafari, called for US forces to withdraw from Najaf and leave the fighting to Iraqi forces, but US marine commanding officer Col. Anthony Haslam said that his marines would honor last week's request from the Najaf governor and root out the Mahdi Army once and for all.

"Iraqi and US forces are making final preparations as we get ready to finish this fight that the Moqtada militia started," said Colonel Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Najaf.

As US troops continue their assault on Najaf, there is some sign of rising anger among Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite believers, who make up some 60 percent of the population. Seventeen months after American troops overthrew their arch enemy, Saddam Hussein - who saw Shiites as potential sympathizers with neighboring Shiite Iran - many Shiites now say that America is turning its back on them.

While the country's new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, is himself a Shiite, he is a secular one, and none of the prominent Shiite clerics have been included in the new interim government. Instead, Mr. Allawi has invited former members of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party to take up key positions, a fact that leads many Shiites to believe that their political voice will never be heard. Instead, they are turning to violent movements, such as Sadr's Mahdi Army.

If the siege of Najaf ends up being the spark that sets the countryside ablaze, then it is Sadr (and not Al Qaeda operative Abul Musab al-Zarqawi) who is fanning the flames. While Sadr is not a high-level cleric in the Shiite hierarchy, his ability to tap into religious and cultural forces may vault him over the heads of higher-level Shiite leaders such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. And his chief cultural tool is the concept of martyrdom.

A poll, conducted by the Coalition Provisional Authority in April, showed that Sadr's popularity had increased as a result of standing up to the Americans. Some 68 percent of Iraqis approved of Sadr in May, compared with 10 percent for the US military. That said, only 2 percent of Iraqis wanted to see Sadr as a presidential candidate.

Sadr is only the latest of his family members to toy with martyrdom. His father was killed by Hussein in 1999 for giving speeches against Hussein from the pulpit. Sadr's grandfather was also killed in 1980 for the same reason.

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