Emerging for the first time after months in hiding from US forces and Shiite rivals, Moqtada al-Sadr swept into Iraq's Kufa mosque in late May to deliver a potent sermon.
"No, no, no to Satan! No, no, no to America! No, no, no to occupation! No, no, no to Israel!" he roared, wearing a white shroud over black robes to indicate his readiness for martyrdom.
But along with strident calls to resist, the cleric struck another theme that is increasingly heard from ascendant Shiite leaders: Muslim unity.
"I want to say now that the blood of Sunnis is forbidden to everyone," preached the cleric. "They are our brothers in religion and in nationality."
The message is a pan-Islamic blend of Shiite ideology and nationalism heard also in Lebanon from Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and in Iran from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Those populist leaders, at the fore of new Shiite prominence in the Middle East, are defining an "axis of resistance" to America and its allies in rhetoric and action. That stance is winning some support across the sectarian divide, while their extensive social programs inspire support from the region's poor.
In Iraq, Sadr does it by playing all sides in Iraq's power matrix. He has seeded loyalists in the US-backed government, played kingmaker for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and controlled some ministries that matter to ordinary Iraqis, including health and transport. Sadr's six ministers resigned in April in political protest, but were widely seen as ineffective and corrupt.
But Sadr can also claim the anti-American crown – unlike his main Shiite opponents who, while close to Iran, have also been received in the Oval Office. Sadr has avoided US capture and was wounded in 2004 when his militia took on American forces. But even while reaching out to Sunnis, the Mahdi Army has been engaged in ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods, is accused of kidnapping five Britons last week, and has been engaging in lethal clashes with rival Shiites vying for power in southern Iraq.
Sadr rejects talks with US commanders and says that they still want to kill him, as they vowed to do in 2004: "There is nothing to talk about," he told the Independent on Sunday of London last week. "The Americans are occupiers and thieves, and they must set a timetable to leave this country." He said the intra-Shiite fighting in "many parts of Iraq is the result of a sad misunderstanding."
In Lebanon, national unity was cemented by the war with Israel, and Sheikh Nasrallah burnished his reputation as a heroic "Arab Khomeini."Nasrallah played the Shiite card decisively only once during the summertime battle, in his first speech after Israel began bombing Lebanon to retaliate for Hizbullah's cross-border capture of two Israeli soldiers. He told the Israelis they were fighting the "sons of Hussein, the sons of [Shiite Imam] Ali," says Nicholas Noe, editor of the Beirut-based Mideastwire.com and of a book of Nasrallah speeches titled "Voice of Hezbullah."
It was aimed directly at rallying his troops with dramatic Shiite iconography. But even in that speech – and many subsequent ones – Nasrallah made deliberate references to non-Shiite faiths and their prophets, Moses and Abraham."This was really an effort by Nasrallah to claim a victory for all Lebanese. And he specifically went out of his way to [refer] to their iconic heroes," says Mr. Noe.
During the battle, even Hizbullah was taken aback by the number of non-Shiites who volunteered to fight.
"They were very surprised that people asked to join in the resistance, which is not new," says Patrick Haenni, Lebanon analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Beirut. "But more and more, they were asking to be in the front line, in order to be martyrs, and this is a new phenomenon."
And in Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad is a leader unlike any the Islamic Republic has ever seen. He fashions himself as a working-class hero with his trademark beige zip-up jacket. He takes pen in hand, wading into crowds and writing down the problems of fellow Iranians.
With a wry smile, the president jokes with those mobbing him to "take a number" to await his attention; his office has collected 5 million letters, each with a unique request.
Still, Ahmadinejad is under fire at home for failing to fulfill promises of bringing Iran's oil wealth to the dinner table. Inflation is soaring and gas rationing has begun. Ordinary Iranians – as well as the president's many critics in the clerical class – are also concerned that Ahmadinejad's bellicose rhetoric has brought Iran much closer to open conflict with the US.
Reaching out to the lower classes
These populists also tap into Shiites' sense of victimization. Their skillful outreach to the Shiite masses fills gaps where governments will not or cannot go.
In Iraq, Sadr's Mahdi Army, though splintering in recent months, has been deepening its relevance to poor Shiites. It helps with everything from paying for funerals to mounting neighborhood security patrols. Sadrists are speaking of a new strategy to weed out extremists behind sectarian killings, and join Sunnis in a nationalist cause.
Its ambitions are modeled on Hizbullah, a secretive and sophisticated guerrilla force that in 2000 achieved something no other Arab military had accomplished: getting Israeli forces to withdraw from occupied territory."Hizbullah and the Mahdi Army are two sides of the same coin," Sadr told the British newspaper last week. "We are together in the same trench against the forces of evil."
That means emulating Hizbullah's social net that provides health-care, education, small loans, and housing for the poor. During the war with Israel, Hizbullah met the needs of hundreds of thousands of displaced Shiites with mobile medical teams and soup kitchens that served 50,000 hot meals a day in Beirut alone.
After the fight, Hizbullah bulldozers and workers – financed with millions from Iran – paid compensation to victim families and began to rebuild 15,000 destroyed houses. Nasrallah has tried to assuage the pain, blaming the US in a rally in January: "Yes, George Bush wants to punish you because you were … victorious," Nasrallah said. "It is prohibited to be victorious during the US era. You are forbidden from raising your heads or standing upright."
"The Americans now are in the heart of crisis," says Ali Fayyad, a Hizbullah politburo member. "Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and [Sunni Palestinian] Hamas are an alliance. Their goal is to rebuild equilibrium in the region."And that requires Muslim unity. "We took a decision: It's a red line to have a conflict between Sunnis and Shiites," adds Mr. Fayyad. "In the whole region, we're trying to play a positive role ... to stop rising tensions."
'Axis' stretches beyond Middle East
At the highest levels, Iran has also sought to ease Shiite-Sunni friction – to better project itself as the leader of all Muslims. Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution "does not take into account whether the Palestinians are Sunnis or Shiites. It defends them," supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a mixed group of clerics in January.
"Today, we have to be watchful to make sure the enemy is not able to use this sensitive point, this weak point ... in the world of Islam," he said. Muslims "should not listen to the enemy's enticements. They should not attack each other."
Ahmadinejad took that message to Saudi Arabia in March, where he and King Abdullah agreed that the "greatest danger" to Islam is any attempt to "fuel the fire of [sectarian] strife."
But, like no other leader of the anti-US axis, Ahmadinejad is spreading the Shiite gospel through the region and beyond.
On a visit to Venezuela in January, he and President Hugo Chávez – calling each other "brother" – said a $2 billion "anti-US fund" would help third countries escape "imperialism." And in May, Ahmadinejad visited Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko is often described in the West as "Europe's last dictator." Iran and Belarus created a "strategic partnership," while Ahmadinejad praised yet another "brother" as a "brave and powerful" leader for opposing the US.
"Countries pursuing a policy of hegemonism must yield to the iron will of our peoples," Ahmadinejad said. "We will be victorious!"
The Sunni-Shiite war
Still, these three demagogues are seeking to lead in a region beset by sectarian violence that threatens to spill beyond Iraqi borders.
Extremist Sunni Al Qaeda denigrates Hizbullah's name, calling it the "Party of Satan" instead of the "Party of God." (Salafists and Wahhabis, whose ideology forms the backbone of Al Qaeda, consider Shiites non-Muslim and resent their ambition to lead the resistance for all Islam).
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, wrote in 2004: "If we succeed in dragging [the Shiites] into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger."
"You have a competition over who speaks for the resistance," says Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival."
"Iran and Hizbullah would like to be recognized as leaders ... and see it as a way of rising above sectarianism. Al Qaeda says, 'We are the champions of resistance,' and don't want to rise above sectarianism."
Sunni jihadis have, in fact, been murdering Shiites by the hundreds in suicide bombings. And they, too, celebrate themselves as martyrs.
The intra-Muslim clashes resonate far."The Islam we speak of is completely 180 degrees different from the Islam that Al Qaeda wants – it's for coexistence," says Mehdi Karroubi, a former parliament speaker in Iran. When delegations used to visit him from Hizbullah, which receives extensive support from Iran, they included Sunnis and Christians.
"Now our ideology is to have Shiites and Sunnis living together, and to have an honest peace in the Mideast," says Mr. Karroubi.
But there is skepticism about all talk of unity. Sadr has been meeting Sunni tribal leaders from Anbar Province, where some have joined to take on Al Qaeda there. But Sadr has long sent mixed messages.
During the fall of Saddam Hussein, Sadr ordered the killing of a Shiite rival, but months later the Monitor heard him preach about unity to form an "Islamic nation."
In 2004, in the name of resisting occupation, Sadr's fighters helped Sunni insurgents battling Americans in the Sunni city of Fallujah. After the destruction of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006, however, Sadrists declared that they would protect Shiites. Since then, elements of the Mahdi Army – some of them under Sadr's control and some not – have been blamed for thousands of revenge killings.
By the end of 2006, the Pentagon stated that the Mahdi Army had overtaken Al Qaeda, as the "most dangerous accelerant" of violence in Iraq.
The Iran-Iraq connection
But Sadr is hardly the only Shiite leader in Iraq. The powerful Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a Najaf cleric in the "quietist" tradition, has been instrumental in preventing an all-out Shiite retaliation against provocative Sunni bombings aimed at stoking sectarian war.
It is the Shiite-on-Shiite power struggle on the ground, between Sadr and his rivals, that portends more future conflict. As Sadr has inherited the mantle and networks of his uncle and father, both widely respected ayatollahs murdered by Mr. Hussein's regime, he has also taken on their rivalry with the Hakim clan.With Iranian military help, the Hakims established an exile group in Iran in 1982 called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). They accused Sadr's family, which stayed in Iraq, of collaborating with Hussein.
But when SCIRI's Iranian-trained Badr Brigade militia crossed into Iraq during a Shiite uprising in 1991, it carried banners of Iranian religious leaders, shocking many Iraqis. Today, SCIRI controls the largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament and its leader, Iraqi Vice President Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, met President Bush at the White House last December.
Still, the Iranian connection continues. In a bid to shed that reputation for a more nationalist one, SCIRI recently changed its name, dropping the word "revolution" in favor of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). In late May, Mr. Hakim was diagnosed with lung cancer and is in Iran for treatment.
"We never rule in the name of the Shiites [and] we do not want to rule in the Shiite name," says Sheikh Humam Hamoudi, a SIIC leader who chaired Iraq's Constitution committee in 2005.
The Sadr family, by contrast, has been critical of Iran's brand of clerical rule and of the SIIC.
"The Iranian government is against Moqtada – because of politics, not religion," says Sheikh Hamoudi, a member of Iraq's parliament. "Maybe Moqtada wants to be like [Sheikh] Nasrallah – but Iraq is different on the ground.
"The injustice in Iraq is the reason for what happens in Iraq," says Hamoudi, noting the decades of anti-Shiite abuse by Hussein. "Israel and others are the reason for Hizbullah. Why is there no Hizbullah [among Shiite minorities] in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia? Because there is no injustice against people."
That sense of oppression goes to the heart of Shiite identity – and Sadr, Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad know how to capitalize on it. No conversation with Shiites goes far without talk of Imam Hussein, the exalted martyr.
"Resistance is a sign of life. If you don't resist occupation or repression or coercion ... this says you are not alive," says Ibrahim Mussawi, a former Hizbullah spokesman and editor in Beirut. "[Hussein] was defending a very just cause: It was justice versus oppression. It was liberation versus occupation. It was dignity versus humiliation. It was all these universal aspirations that every human being should aspire to.... It was not meant for the Shiites themselves."
Scott Peterson reported from Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq over the past six months.