Key Shiites soften tone toward US

One of the harshest critics of the United States is now willing to work with the Americans.

At the gold-domed Kufa Mosque in this holy city south of Baghdad, the young firebrand imam, Moqtada al-Sadr, known for condemning the Americans as Iraq's enemies, has softened and redirected his words.

"We were the only enemy of Saddam Hussein, and now the Baathists who still support him are our only enemy," he tells rows of fellow Shiites baking in the hot sun at Friday prayers. "We must resist them and the terrorists."

The US soldiers who recently arrested members of Mr. Sadr's paramilitary army are still "occupiers," he says. But Iraqi supporters of the young sheikh - who rose to the world stage in July, calling for an Iranian-style theocracy - have taken note of his softer tone. The cleric who once called the Americans "infidels" says he is now ready to work with them, spelling hope for the US-led coalition as it looks to transition to Iraqi rule. Last Friday, Sadr praised the American about-face that now favors a faster turnover of authority to the Iraqi people.

"The Iraqi people only want what is good for the Americans, because they are not the enemy," he recently told the London-based Arabic newspaper, Al Zaman. He even said he hoped to be "attending [the Americans'] meetings soon" to further the common goal of a stable Iraq.

The evolution in Sadr's tone is emblematic of a wider rejection of violence and extremism among Iraq's faithful - and the importance of their role to a successful political transition. As the US shifts to the creation of a provisional government by next summer, more Iraqi leaders are saying such a government will have to be made up of representatives from a broader spectrum of Iraqi religious, political, and tribal groups than those now on the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Sadr seems to be among the formerly left-out figures, saying, count me in.

Extremists condemned

For many Iraqis, the foremost worry is that the oppressive Hussein regime and its security forces could return if public ire over poor conditions continues to grow, some religious leaders say. But as attacks against Coalition forces and civilians have increased, such as last week's devastating bombing of an Italian military compound in Nasiriyah, a broad range of Iraqis also speak more fervently of rejecting "Wahabis," or foreign religious extremists they believe are sent by Osama bin Laden. At the same time, many Muslims, especially among the Shiite majority, say they do not envisage an Islamic regime for the country.

"We might like to elect a Shiite government, but we have Sunnis and Christians and others [in Iraq], so we know we must leave the door open to them, too," says a student at Najaf's famed Al Hawza center of religious scholarship, who asked that his name be withheld.

At the 500-year-old Shiite shrine in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district, Muhammed Hussein El Kilidar offers a similar sentiment. "What good will it do the Iraqi people to have a Shiite leader or any Muslim as president, if he does not respect our rights?" says the shrine's director of security and renovation. "Better an unbeliever who is fair and respects all Iraqis than a believer who tramples the people."

"The majority of Iraqis do want Islam recognized in a new constitution," says Hassen Faghd, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "It's a question of their sense of identity." Noting that one new tribal organization is even called the Democratic Tribal Union, Mr. Faghd says Iraq will need to have religious and tribal groups within the system for it to function as a representative democracy. "It's not a question of the government recognizing their traditions," which he says can be undemocratic or against human rights, "but of them being brought in to learn to work within a democratic political structure."

That view is supported by many Muslims, even among Sadr's supporters. "The new form of government must be chosen democratically, that's the most important thing," says the Hawza student in Najaf.

Some Iraqis fear that when fervent Shiites speak of a government "chosen democratically," they mean a Shiite government imposed by the majority through elections. But even in Najaf, most Shiites insist they do not see Iran, for example, as a model for their country.

The Sadr story holds good news and some potential worries for the US authorities here. Sadr's shift away from strident anti-Americanism toward a message opposing terrorism is echoing with his supporters.

"Anyone who acts violently against the people is a terrorist, and we reject them," says Khadhim Al Kufi, an electrician from the Sadr support base of Sadr City in Baghdad - named after Sadr's revered father, who was murdered by the former regime in 1999. "I came here to hear [Sadr] speak of freedom and democracy."

Simply being pragmatic

But for some, Sadr is simply being pragmatic, looking to reduce tensions with the Americans holding some of his men. The heady period of international attention has worn off, they say, as the young cleric has realized that other Shiite religious figures in Iraq command larger followings and control the large donations from worshipers. Iraq's upcoming constitution-writing process is also supported by many Shiites, but faces turbulence as the battle for influence among different religious and ethnic groups plays out.

The Sadr evolution suggests that the once-fiery imam may now be interested in joining - or having a representative join - the US-appointed interim Governing Council he once harshly dismissed. That may be especially true if he sees an expanded version of the council ultimately becoming the provisional government and determining who writes a new constitution.

Some Iraqi observers suggest that Sadr is attempting to emulate Iraq's most influential Shiite religious leader, the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. While remaining aloof himself from the occupying powers, Ayatollah Sistani has not condemned them and has allowed a representative to be named to the Governing Council. Sistani has had his views - including demands for elections to determine who writes Iraq's new constitution - carefully weighed by the Americans.

In return, Sistani has seen his demands at least partially met in the new plan for a provisional government and national elections by 2005. Associates say he supports the new plan.

That influence and respect has not been lost on Sadr, observers say. As some Iraqi leaders speak of "enlarging the tent" to bring in groups or sectors that were originally left out, Sadr may have decided the best way to enhance his power base is from within.

At the Governing Council, some members say the door is open to the young religious leader and his following. Even Jalal Talabani, who holds the council's revolving presidency, agrees that if Sadr were interested in joining the bigger governmental tent, he would be welcomed.

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