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Iraq: Young, Anti-American Shi'a Cleric Arrives As A 'Surprise' On The Scene

A young Shi'a cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, is popular among the poorest Shi'a Muslims in Iraq. He strongly protests against the presence of U.S. troops in the country and says he is creating a religious militia of his own to maintain security. But some analysts question his legitimacy and the level of his public support.

Prague, 1 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Muqtada al-Sadr, a charismatic Iraqi cleric, has emerged as one of the country's most talked-about Shi'a leaders.

Al-Sadr -- who is believed to be around 30 years old -- lives in the holy Shi'a city of Al-Najaf and comes from a powerful clerical dynasty. He is the son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, who was killed in 1999 by agents presumed to be working for Saddam Hussein, thus becoming one of the major symbols of Shi'a resistance to the former regime.

Hassan Abdulrazak is a research fellow at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Britain. He says, "Contrary to the Dawa Party, which is deep-rooted in Iraqi society, or the Supreme Council [for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI], for example, or al-Howza itself, represented by [Grand Ayatollah Ali al-] Sistani, this guy came as a surprise to the Iraqi scene."

Al-Sadr is one of the most vocal critics of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. He insists U.S. troops -- which toppled Hussein's regime in April -- should leave the country immediately and that Iraqis be given an opportunity to create an Islamic state if they choose.

Analysts say al-Sadr is clearly taking advantage of his father's reputation but question his overall level of support. There is also a feeling among them that al-Sadr is becoming more and more radical in his anti-American views.

Al-Sadr has called for the creation of a militia to fight immorality and "alien ideology" in Iraq. He says the militia will not take up arms against occupying U.S. troops, saying its aim is to maintain peace and security. He says the militia will try to force U.S. troops out of the country using peaceful means.

It is unknown how large al-Sadr's militia is in reality. Al-Sadr's spokesman, Sheikh Aws al-Khafaji, said this week that some 10,000 volunteers have already come forward. Reports say more than 1,000 volunteers have joined the militia in the populous slum area of Baghdad once known as Saddam City, now renamed Al-Sadr City.

A representative of Iraq's interim Governing Council -- interviewed by RFE/RL -- was reluctant to comment on the activities of al-Sadr, saying critical remarks about him could split Iraq's Shi'a community. Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shi'a member of the council, says "It is so important and sensitive [of an] issue that we should not liberally pass judgments and pass decisions or pass comments on this issue. It's very sensitive. It's very important. It's a strategic issue."

Al-Rubaie declined further comment.

Saddam City is where the young cleric first became active and found support. People there say they have reason to trust al-Sadr. His supporters have restored law and order in the impoverished district. Volunteers are building mosques, hospitals are functioning, and services are being provided. Al-Sadr's supporters are operating courts, publishing a weekly newspaper, and repeatedly rally thousands to urge that U.S. troops leave the country.

Al-Sadr makes no effort to hide his contempt for the 25-member Governing Council, whose members -- including a representative from SCIRI, the best-organized Shi'a party -- were appointed by the United States. During Friday prayers, he constantly brands the council as a tool of the U.S. and says it should be dissolved. He says he wasn't invited to join the council and has no wish to do so because the U.S. controls the body. He calls instead for a ruling body elected by Iraqis.

However, analysts say al-Sadr is unlikely to become a serious challenge to the Governing Council.

Abdulrazak, of the University of Exeter, says al-Sadr is a populist who has no political agenda and no organization of his own. He says the cleric is too young to become a spiritual leader.

"From the Shi'a point of view, a person needs to spend long years of study to be a leader," Abdulrazak says. "Al-Sadr isn't even near this point."

Abdulrazak continues: "I heard him talking. I don't think this guy has real intelligence, for example, or a deep political agenda or thinking. He speaks like a very simple person, and I don't think that he can [attract] all Shi'a people."

Al-Sadr's movement recognizes Ayatollah Kazim al-Husseini al-Haeri, an Iraqi cleric based in Iran, as its religious leader, not al-Sistani, who advocates that clerics remain out of politics.

Last month, a few dozen U.S. troops in Al-Najaf were involved in a tense standoff after some 10,000 of al-Sadr's followers gathered to challenge what they thought was a U.S. attempt to detain him. The incident was defused after the U.S. told the crowd that no such effort had been made.

But Abdulrazak says such noisy demonstrations do not necessarily indicate al-Sadr enjoys broad support.

"Many Shias support al-Sadr but the support is much less than for traditional Shi'a political organizations," says Abdulrazak. He says the Islamic Dawa Party and SCIRI have established histories and have their own charismatic leaders, such as Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the head of SCIRI.

Abdulrazak says that, at best, some 15 percent of Iraq's Shi'a community may be sympathetic to al-Sadr's rhetoric. He says some of al-Sadr's support can be understood as a sort of protest against a situation in which Iraqis have been so far denied the chance to choose their own leaders.

In Abdulrazak's opinion, "Al-Sadr exploits this situation and uses it against the Americans."

Muhammad Abdel Jabar is a Shi'a and the organizer of a new political party in Iraq called For Reconstruction and Democracy. He says al-Sadr's popularity is directly related to the U.S. failure to maintain law and order in the country following the invasion.

Iraqis face electricity shortages and a lack security. Safe drinking water is in short supply. Many Iraqis blame the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority for everything that is wrong in the country. If life begins to improve in Iraq, Jabar predicts, support for al-Sadr will fall.

Jabar says al-Sadr's supporters are poor and young. He points out there is little support for al-Sadr among the middle class or within the Shi'a religious establishment. Al-Najaf's more senior clerics have kept quiet about al-Sadr's initiatives, either out of respect for his father or because they want to avoid a conflict with the younger generation.

The Coalition Provisional Authority has so far paid scant attention to al-Sadr, saying his followers do not represent the country's Shi'a majority.

The AP recently quoted the coalition commander in Al-Najaf, Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Conlin, as saying al-Sadr is young and immature and "is not important" in Al-Najaf.