Sadr plays to power of martyrdom
Wednesday, the US military said its forces were preparing for a major offensive in Najaf.
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But martyrdom is not just a Sadr family business. The tradition goes back to Imam Ali himself, who was killed by dissident followers in a mosque just three years after taking on the position of caliph, or leader of the Muslim faithful. Ali's two sons, Hassan and Hussein, were also martyred. Hussein, the most famous, was killed by the army of a Syrian king, Yazid, in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala.Skip to next paragraph
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In his sermons from Kufa, Sadr has often made specific parallels between himself and Hussein, and compared the United States with King Yazid. The Americans, like Yazid, are tyrants, he has said, who are leading good Muslims away from their religion. It is the duty of any Muslim to fight against such a tyrant, he says, even if it means provoking one's own death.
"Martyrdom is the central concept of the Shiite religion," says Juan Cole, a Shiite expert and historian at the University of Michigan. "At the holiday of Ashura, people listen to sermons of how the martyrs died, and people weep and cry, beating their chests, regretting that things didn't turn out right. It is said that when one weeps for the death of Hussein's martyrdom, one will have a guaranteed place in Heaven."
If the Americans and Iraqi Army do end up assaulting the Shrine of Ali, they will not be the first. Hussein threw the full force of his military against the shrine in 1991 after Shiite rebels launched an abortive rebellion. Artillery barrages damaged the shrine complex and special-forces soldiers killed the rebels inside the complex itself. The brutality of this crackdown at such a holy site turned most Shiites against Hussein, even those who had defended him in the past.
In the prosperous Baghdad neighborhood of Khadimiya, a cluster of shops and markets around the massive Khadimiya Shrine, Shiites disagree heatedly on whether Sadr would be a worthy martyr. Some consider him to be an upstart. But all agree that any attack on the Shrine of Ali itself would cause outrage that would inflame all Shiites.
"In our belief of Islam, we think that these places are so holy that all Muslims must fight to defend them, for the sake of our religion," says Kadhim Sayed Flaeh, a merchant from the district. "The Americans came here to announce freedom, but they have become an occupying force."
"If the Americans attack the shrine, then I think all Iraqi people will declare their allegiance to the Mahdi Army," says Abdul Amir al-Maliky, a resident.
Others say they would welcome Sadr's death. Sadr's fighters, for a second day in a row, announced a curfew starting at 1 p.m. , calling on all Iraqis to clear the streets and close their shops in the anticipation of battle with the Americans. At 11:30 a.m., fighters came through the market with guns shouting for the shops to close immediately.
Shopkeeper Mohammad Jassim calls the Mahdi Army a destructive nuisance. "All of our sacred books from heaven don't allow this kind of behavior," he says. "If the Shrine of Ali is destroyed, we will blame Sadr, not the Americans."
Salam Abid, a laborer, scowls as the fighters march off, sending citizens scurrying home. "They are just small kids. They could do anything. They have no minds inside their heads."
Mr. Abid says he reveres Sadr's father and grandfather, but has no time for Moqtada the younger.
"All Sadr's family were killed for religious reasons," he says, "not politics. Moqtada will be killed in the name of chaos."
The Shrine of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib in Najaf, Iraq, is considered the holiest site (after Mecca) among Shiite Muslims, say experts.
Imam Ali is considered the leader of the Shiites. He was the cousin and the son-in-law of the Muslim prophet Mohammad.
With a resplendent golden dome and minarets, the mosque is also home to great quantities of priceless gifts from potentates and sultans over the ages. Historians say the tomb of Ali - a rectangular structure surrounded by a two-story sanctuary - was likely built by Azoud ad Dowleh in 977; burned later and rebuilt by the Seljuk Malik Shah in 1086; and rebuilt yet again by Ismail Shah, the Safawid ruler, around 1500.
It's estimated that 1 million pilgrims visit the shrine each year. Adjacent to the shrine is a vast cemetery known as the Valley of Peace. It is the preferred resting place for Shiites in death because many believe that proximity to Ali's Shrine will ensure entry into heaven.