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