Sadr enters the mosque at Kufa where he's led Friday prayers for nearly a year denouncing the authorities and warning of an "imperialist" conspiracy against Iraq's majority Shiites.
The thousands fill the vast open courtyard, chanting the name of their hero when he strides through the gate, and they take up his call during the sermon. "No, no to America! No, no to Israel! No, no to imperialism!" In Baghdad, the authorities worry about how to handle this militant cleric, his rising profile and his willingness to flex the street muscle he's built up in Iraq's slums.
But the Sadr in question is not Moqtada, the young cleric whose gunmen now occupy Kufa and the neighboring shrine city of Najaf. Instead, the year is 1998 and the man leading the prayers is Ayatollah Mohammed Sadek Al-Sadr, Moqtada's father.
While Moqtada's religious credentials are weak, his family's political standing is as deep as the modern history of Iraq. His grandfather was the prime minister in 1948. And this young, militant cleric didn't spontaneously emerge after the fall of Saddam Hussein. US forces now entering the city of Najaf, are up against a man who has donned the well-cultivated mantle of his father, the leading Shiite thorn in the side of the Hussein regime in the 1990s. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the year Sadr's grandfather was prime minister.]
Today, the younger Sadr has built on his father's popularity and created a militant Shiite movement that has eclipsed many in the more moderate Shiite majority, who have remained largely silent.
For the moment, his movement is stalled. The uprising he sparked across southern Iraq in early April has failed. But the ability of a fairly junior cleric to defy the US-led coalition is a sign of how difficult Iraq's political transition is about to become.
In his sermon last Friday, Moqtada threatened to use suicide attackers against US forces if they try to root him out of Najaf. Monday, 200 US troops took over positions from 200 Spanish forces who withdrew from a base in Najaf three miles from the city center's holy sites. The move was seen as a way to keep a foothold in the city, controlled by Sadr's forces. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly identified the number of Spanish troops withdrawing from Najaf.]
For his supporters, the stand-off with the Americans is evidence that he's on the right path. "The tyrants always fear the ones who are most just, must good,'' says Ali Yassawi, sitting in the movement's main office in Sadr City, the sprawling Baghdad public housing quarter that is a hot-bed of Saddriyun, or Sadr supporters. "At first I wasn't sure about Moqtada, but just like the father, our enemies are fighting against him. This proves he's on the right path."
Fighting and dying for near hopeless causes inspires almost mystical reverence within the Shiite community, going back to the beginnings of the Sunni- Shiite split in the 7th century. When Imam Ali was assassinated after leaving the mosque in Kufa where he had set up a rival caliphate, his son Hussein later led 72 men into battle against an army of 4,000 opponents. Hussein's defeat at Karbala cemented the schism.
Moqtada refers to the US as "Yazid," the name of the Ummayid Caliph whose men killed Imam Hussein, and talks about the martyrdom of both his own father and his uncle, the prominent Ayatollah and philosopher Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, killed by the Hussein regime in 1980. His framing of the conflict in these terms has made it difficult for the US to deal with Sadr, a man US officials have charged with murder.
"The idea of martyrdom and persecution does resonate throughout the Shiite world,'' says David Patel, a PhD candidate at Stanford University in California who's studying Shiite political movements in modern Iraq. "The average Shiite is unlikely to empathize with Moqtada's plight, probably thinking he brought it on himself." But Patel says that if US forces move on Najaf, Sadr's support could blossom.
Though it may appear as if Sadr came out of nowhere, he's employed a philosophy of total opposition, and the means to carry out, inherited from his father.
While the family fought Hussein, and now stands against the US, their oppositionist position has always had one objective: To bring the rule of wilayat al faqih, or the rule of the jurisprudent, to Iraq, patterned after Iran's theocracy. "In difficult situations like the ones we faced under the regime of Saddam Hussein, people will always look for leaders who stand up for their rights,'' says Imam Hazim al-Araji, a cleric close to Moqtada. "The Sadr line showed themselves to be the ones willing to stand up to [the] regime, and suffered for it. The people really respect this."
With a ruthless campaign of assassinations, Hussein had cowed most of the Shiite clergy in the 1990s, with major regime opponents in exile. The hawza, the senior Shiite leadership and seminary teachers in Najaf, were silenced.
Mohammed Sadek al-Sadr's rise to prominence was an unconventional one. Close aides to Moqtada say the regime approached the father in the early 1990s and even steered funding towards him in the hope that he'd help co-opt Shiite sentiment that had flared in the 1991 uprisings after the Gulf War. Though the Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, they have never held power.
Under the cloak of Hussein's "Faith Campaign" in the early years of the decade, which was designed to recast the secular Iraqi dictator as a defender of Islam, Sadek al-Sadr sent emissaries throughout the center and south of the country, building up a network of clerics with similar ideas. But he didn't stay loyal to the Hussein government. By about 1995, he began calling for the resumption of Friday prayers, which had been mostly banned by the Hussein regime except in mosques controlled by clerics loyal to the government.
"The regime was afraid of internal opposition so they were looking for a cleric they could control,'' says Jawad al-Khalasi, a cleric with extensive contact with Moqtada's network. "They thought Sadek al-Sadr was perfect, that he was weak and easily controlled. But he tricked them."
By 1998 his sermons had begun to take on a militant tone. He began to define the domestic Shiite clergy as split into two camps - the "speaking hawza" represented by him and clerics close to him and the "silent hawza" led by Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and others, who spent the last decade of Hussein's regime under house arrest and who eschewed overtly political statements.
Sadek al-Sadr, who studied Islamic law with Iran's future leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini while the latter was exiled to Najaf, indirectly attacked clerics like Sistani in his sermons, saying their silence on political issues lent indirect support to the regime.
Sistani belongs to a Shiite camp that worries that involvement in politics can contaminate religious purity. This view is sharply at odds with men like Ayatollah Khomeini, who believe that only senior clerics are fit to rule. Both the elder and the younger Sadr have also attacked Ayatollah Sistani for being an Iranian by birth, and thus lacking their commitment to Iraqi national issues, though their criticisms ignore their ties to other Iranian clerics.
Al-Sadr also set himself apart by reaching out to tribal networks and the urban poor - and these efforts looked to Hussein as if Sadr was seeking to build his own power base.
By 1999, Sadek al-Sadr was openly attacking Hussein's rule. He called for Shiites to stop making direct donations to the Shiite clergy, since he said some of the money was being diverted to the regime for use on "women and liquor."
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."
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.