In Iraq, Shiites are wild card

Moderates hold sway, but thousands marched Sunday to back an anti-US cleric.

Two hours before the Iraqi Shiite cleric was to speak, the faithful were already staking out space in the mosque courtyard. Mortada Abbas Sabih laid down a plastic-sacking prayer mat on the baking sand, and hid from the sun beneath a black umbrella, to await political enlightenment.

Every Friday, Mr. Sabih journeys 15 miles to hear a very political sermon at the gold-domed Kufa Mosque. He hears Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the most outspoken anti-American clerics in Iraq, talk about ways to end the US occupation, and the need to turn Iraq into an Islamic state.

Last Friday, Mr. Sadr gave a particularly fiery sermon, announcing that he was recruiting a private army and blasting Iraq's new US-backed governing council. "If you ignore the governing council, you'll be restoring good to your country," he said, according to the Associated Press.

Sadr supporters say the US sent troops to surround his house the next day, according to the AP. The response was angry and immediate; Sadr's followers staged a large demonstration in Baghdad on Saturday, and that more than 10,000 angry Shiites took to the streets of Najaf Sunday in protest. For many Shiites, Sadr articulates a frustration with the American presence in postwar Iraq.

"I don't think America would want to be occupied by Iraqis," Sabih said at a sermon on July 11. "We receive orders from the Hawza [religious scholars]. When they say we should be martyrs, we will. But we are waiting now to see what will be."

The question of what will be is creating a duel between mullahs in Iraq and dividing the Shiite community, which makes up more than 60 percent of the population. While there are signs that more moderate views are prevailing - with key Shiite leaders engaging in the new US-created governing process - the collapse of Saddam Hussein has unleashed a swirling free-for-all of religion and politics.

The results of this Shiite debate matter to US forces, which come under attack up to 25 times each day across Iraq. Most assailants, US and British officials say, are diehard Sunni Muslim Hussein loyalists.

But any concerted anti-US military push by the majority Shiites could unravel the occupation. Conversely, the Shiites can play a critical role in stabilizing Iraq, if they embrace US reconstruction and governance plans.

Two Fridays ago, sweat dripping down his face from the rim of his black turban, Mr. Sadr addressed thousands of rapt believers with a dour glower and little charisma.

He is young man of low religious rank, but draws his following from those who remember his father, Ayatollah Mohamed Sadiq al-Sadr, one of the most respected clerics in Iraq, who was killed by the regime in 1999.

Sadr the younger called for Iraqis to unite to form an "Islamic nation," for loyalists of the previous regime to "change themselves" and beg forgiveness, and for a Iraq-only political process.

"Many people at the time of Saddam were afraid to express their opinions, and had to lie," Sadr said. "So why are they afraid now, and of whom?"

In a brief interview afterwards, Sadr said that "nobody is optimistic with the Americans," and he dismissed suggestions of division in Shiite ranks.

US forces on the ground in Najaf say the split among Shiites has not been aimed at them, and so does not concern them. "We haven't had any problems with [Sadr] or any Islamist group," says Capt. Tom LaChance, a US Army civil-affairs officer in the city. "I know they want us gone, but to leave now would leave a real vacuum."

Sadr is a leading light among what Shiites call the "outspoken Hawza," who advocate symbiotic ties between mosque and state, and sometimes look to Iran's Islamic republic for a model. Most of them want the US to leave immediately.

But many senior mullahs in Iraq - especially some of those with firsthand knowledge of the failings of Iran's revolution to create a democratic Islamic state - only want Islam to be respected, in a primarily secular state.

The scale of that division came clear when Sadr was asked about leading Shiite Ayatollah Mohamed Bakr al-Hakim's decision to take part in the US-led political process.

While the crowds at the Kufa mosque may point to some popularity, analysts say that more and more Shiites see Sadr's views as leading to a dead end.

The result, they say, is a shift in support toward Mr. Hakim - who denies any division among the Shiites - and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's chief mullah. They have approved working with US occupiers, if only to help end the occupation.

"There is no doubt that, due to the scale of the problems in Iraq, this gives us in a very important role in solving these problems," Hakim said in an interview in the southern holy city of Najaf.

Before Hakim returned from exile in Iran in May, some walls here were painted with graffiti, heralding him as "his eminence God's great miracle." Monday, Hakkim's 8,000-strong militia, known as the Badr Brigade, have returned from Iran and are helping locally with rebuilding clinics and schools and sports programs, in an effort to win hearts and minds.

Privately, Hakim's aides go further in discussing the Shiite divisions, and say they hinge on how to deal with the Americans, how to turn the Shiite majority into real political power, and how to strike a balance between religion and politics. They also talk about the best way to aim for an Islamic state, or one that at least deeply respects Islam.

"Those who want to push us to take on the Americans these days will be restricted," says one Hakim aide, making a jibe at Sadr. "But if they think they are the most powerful, they will make a mistake, because no one will follow them."

Sadr's answer is based on the influence of Ayatollah Kadhim Husseini Haeri, a hard-line cleric based in Iran's holy city of Qom.

"Sadr's people always want to be at the forefront, the leaders of this nation," says an Iraqi Shiite observer from Karbala. "They want to be close to the Iranian experience, and to Hizbullah, which made something for the Shiites in Lebanon," the observer says. "But Iraqis don't want to replace one dictatorship with another. Most Shiites want democracy in Iraq, but in a peaceful way."

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