Shiite Cleric Could Make or Break Transition

Times Staff Writer

He is angry and unapologetic when it comes to criticizing the occupation of Iraq. But unlike other sworn opponents of the American presence, he has a famous name and family history that give him credibility with millions of poor urban Shiite Muslims who make up the majority in this country.

And that is what makes Muqtader Sadr so potentially dangerous to U.S. hopes for an orderly transition to a stable, democratic government -- hopes that are already being sorely tested by an expanding insurgency centered mostly in Sunni Muslim areas of the country.

If Iraq's Shiite slums -- such as Baghdad's teeming Sadr City, named for the young cleric's assassinated father -- erupt like the Sunni heartland, the already problematic U.S. occupation will become even more difficult. Unlike other Shiite religious figures who counsel giving the Americans a chance to prove they are liberators and not occupiers, Sadr has stoked anti-American feelings with weekly denunciations during Friday prayers.

The dark-eyed, slightly pudgy 30-year-old lived up to his firebrand image last week in an interview with The Times.

In his first comments since plans were unveiled to speed up the naming of a provisional government for the country, Sadr dismissed the proposed hand-over of power by July 1 as inadequate, and rejected any role for what he called the "vicious trinity" of the United States, Britain and Israel in Iraq's future.

"Whatever is related to occupation must be considered as 'occupation,' and must be refused by any rational and peace-loving person," he said, sitting cross-legged on cushions in a reception room near a residence he uses in this central Iraq city. The only real solution, he said, was for U.S. forces to withdraw immediately.

What remained to be seen was whether he would wield his fiery rhetoric, his popularity among youths and his skills at provoking demonstrations to try to waylay the agreement reached between civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III and the Iraqi Governing Council. Hints from him and his supporters have been ambiguous, suggesting that Sadr was hesitating and keeping his options open in the face of U.S. warnings that incitement and insurrection would not be tolerated.

Despite Sadr's apparent rejection of the accord, a statement issued last week by the Sadr Bureau, a sort of shadow government that has wide influence in many Shiite neighborhoods, said the proposed new provisional government could be supported -- if certain conditions were met, including that the occupying powers not interfere with the new government and that it be representative of all of society.

Nevertheless, Sadr's statements were hardly reassuring for occupation forces already struggling to contain an insurgency by fighters from the old Baathist regime and extremists from the Sunni branch of Islam. Anti-coalition violence is a regular occurrence in central Iraq, and in recent weeks it has shown signs of expanding north to Mosul and south to the Shiite centers of Basra and Nasiriyah.

Shiites make up at least 60% of Iraq's 25 million people but were second-class citizens under the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein. Since the U.S. and its allies ousted the regime in April, Shiites have emerged to take the majority of seats on the Governing Council and in the interim Cabinet that the council named. Most observers expect that whatever provisional government emerges next year will also be led by a Shiite.

Within the Shiite community, Sadr has a certain following because of reverence for his father, Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, and uncle, Mohammed Bakr Sadr, who opposed the Baathist regime from within Iraq, unlike others who fled to the safety of Iran or other countries, and paid with their lives -- in 1999 and 1980, respectively.

Sadr is also seen by many more senior clerics as an ambitious upstart. More respect is usually accorded the septuagenarian Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who from his base in the shrine city of Najaf has kept his distance from occupation authorities but has also told Shiites not to raise arms against them.

Sadr stays mainly in Kufa, about 10 miles from the more prestigious Najaf, because he is not welcome in that bastion of Sistani adherents. But to the south, and in Sadr City in Baghdad, his organization's emphasis on social work and programs to help the poor has helped cement his popularity.

The nightmare for the U.S. would be if, after it fought a war to depose Hussein, Iraq evolved into an extremely anti-American Shiite state similar to neighboring Iran. Although Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war throughout the 1980s and differ in ethnicity and language, there is a web of overlapping ties and rivalries between the two countries' Shiite establishments.

In the case of Sadr, he is a follower and student of an Iran-based ayatollah whose views on religious governance closely mirror those of the Islamic Republic's late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Those ties have contributed to the widespread suspicions in Iraq that Sadr himself is under the sway of Iran's more hard-line factions.

There has been friction between U.S. soldiers and Shiites, particularly Sadr's militant followers, who tend to represent the anti-establishment movement within Iraqi Shiism. But on the whole, the fact that the Shiites have not challenged the occupation forces has been a huge boon from the American perspective.

In the interview, Sadr said he didn't know whether the calm would continue, but he rejected the idea that Americans would have any role in the process of establishing a government. "Authority and the government should be transferred to the Iraqi people," he said. "This is the necessary thing, and everybody recognizes this, whether they are Iraqi or not."

Similarly, he rejected the proposed seven-month timetable for setting up the new government, saying, "Leadership and the presidency must be transferred immediately. No one has the right to interfere." Sadr made an attempt over the summer to assemble a militia, "the Mehdi's Army," and an Islamic government. But in the interview, he conceded that both efforts were now moribund.

Sadr indicated that he would not rule out creating an Iranian-style state but said the question of whether Iraq should be governed by Islamic or secular law should be left to its people.

"A constitution that foreign parties interfere with, especially the Jewish sides, is unacceptable," he said. "We will adopt what the people will choose. This has nothing to do with the religion or the sects."

Despite the U.S. role in getting rid of Hussein, he said he did not consider Americans liberators, because "liberators would leave the country as soon as it was liberated."

In response to the fears of many Iraqis that an early withdrawal by the United States could allow Hussein and his associates to reappear or civil war to break out, Sadr said he expected the opposite. "Iraqis would be unified more than ever," he said, if U.S. troops left.

"If Iraqis are going to be able to control their affairs by themselves, then their cohesiveness and collaboration would be even more obvious. The cause for disunity is the presence of the occupation. Once removed, the divisions would fall away."

On April 10, a prominent Shiite cleric working with the United States was killed in Najaf by a knife and gun-wielding mob who some believe were Sadr's men; he denies having any role. In the same city in August, popular Shiite political leader Mohammed Bakr Hakim was killed along with more than 100 others in a still-unsolved bombing.

The young cleric said he understood that the same kind of attack may await him.

"Afraid? No!" he said. "But expecting it? Yes!"

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

In stories after April 9, 2004, Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr is correctly referred to as Muqtada Sadr.

--- END NOTE ---

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