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Loyalists of Rebel Cleric Flex Muscle

Times Staff Writer

He boycotted elections and rejects the validity of the government. For months, he’s stayed behind the scenes, allowing others to deliver his Friday sermons and rarely appearing in public.

Nevertheless, Muqtada Sadr, an anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric, is emerging as a big winner in the Jan. 30 vote, thanks to some of his followers who won seats in the National Assembly with different slates and are forging their own alliance.

About two dozen Sadr loyalists say their recently formed Independent National Bloc represents about 9% of the assembly, with ambitions to grow.

The bloc is small compared with the United Iraqi Alliance, which won more than half the seats, and the Kurdish slate, which controls about 27% of the assembly. But Sadr’s followers did far better than many other political groups, including the well-established Iraqi Communist Party.

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“And keep in mind, we got these seats even though half of Sadr’s followers boycotted the election,” said Fatah Sheik, head of the Independent Cadres and Elites Party, which won three seats in the National Assembly and is now part of the Sadr bloc. “If everyone had participated, we would have won much more.”

Twenty members of the bloc won their seats as part of the United Iraqi Alliance, which sought out Sadr associates for its slate to boost its appeal. One member of the new bloc was elected on the slate of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Sheik said.

So far, leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance -- which has enjoyed the support of Iraq’s leading cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- say they do not fear that members of the Independent National Bloc may break away. They note that the group is still relatively small and consists primarily of political newcomers.

Political experts say the fledgling bloc could wield more influence by remaining part of the larger alliance than by trying to break out on its own, at least for the time being.

“They are a part of our alliance,” said Saad Jawad, political chief of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a top Shiite party and member of the United Iraqi Alliance.

But differences are starting to emerge. The Sadr bloc has been more aggressive than the alliance in demanding that U.S. troops leave Iraq immediately, and it is less willing to negotiate power-sharing deals with other groups, such as the Kurds and Allawi’s slate.

On Saturday, a top Sadr spokesman issued a warning to Ibrahim Jafari, the Shiite leader nominated to become prime minister, saying he was not paying enough attention to their demands.

“If we don’t feel that the United Iraqi Alliance is fulfilling what we want, we will raise our voices and become an opposition inside the alliance,” said Nasser Saadi, a Sadr movement leader who won his assembly seat on the slate.

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It remains unclear how involved Sadr will be in the political coalition he inspired. The cleric, whose assassinated father remains one of Iraq’s most revered religious leaders, has not met with the new bloc nor offered any words of encouragement, endorsement or direction, his aides said. But Sadr does not oppose their activities.

The political success of Sadr’s followers comes despite repeated attempts by U.S. and Iraqi officials to sideline the firebrand cleric, whose militia of young, disenfranchised men battled U.S. troops last year in the holy city of Najaf and the Baghdad slum of Sadr City.

“He’s a phenomenon who cannot be ignored,” said Hassan Bazzaz, a political science professor at Baghdad University. “He’s representing the poor people. These people would do anything for him. That’s why he can be very effective.”

The Sadr bloc has met about half a dozen times to strategize, and it plans to elect a leader this week. Members are monitoring negotiations between the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish slate to form a new national government.

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And the bloc is lobbying to get at least one Cabinet post, perhaps the health portfolio.

The group has already had private meetings with Jafari, the prime ministerial nominee, and Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader who is expected to be named president.

The Sadr bloc sent a delegation to the country’s Kurdish region last week to convey to Talabani their frustration over the delays in forming the new government, which they blame on the Kurds. Bloc members have threatened to expose backroom negotiating tactics in an attempt to embarrass the Kurds.

One of the group’s main demands is the release of more than 200 Sadr loyalists who were arrested during the battles last year. The bloc also wants the official withdrawal of an arrest warrant issued in 2003 against Sadr in connection with the killing of a rival cleric.

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“They want his name to be cleared,” said Jawad of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Shiite leaders have agreed to drop the arrest warrant and investigate the status of the detainees, and have them released if they are not charged with a crime, Jawad said. A day after the delegation visited Talabani, he announced his support for freeing the detainees.

Members of the new assembly bloc often can be found at Sadr’s political bureau in Baghdad, which serves as an unofficial headquarters and meeting place. Members say they take guidance and direction from the teachings and sermons of Sadr and his father.

Saadi and Sheik are part of the new crop of Sadr political leaders.

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Saadi runs a pharmacy and Internet cafe in Baghdad. Sheik, who sports a picture of the cleric on his cellphone, is editor of a Sadr-leaning newspaper and often served as a spokesman for his militia. Now he spends his days racing between political strategy sessions in a curtained sedan, pushing government leaders for a more prominent role for Sadr’s movement.

For some loyalists, the decision to join the government was a difficult one, considering Sadr’s repeated statements that no administration can be legitimate as long as U.S. troops remain in Iraq.

“The Sadr movement is an ideological movement,” said Sheik Mahmoud Sudani, chief administrator of Sadr’s political affairs office in northern Baghdad. “We have a principle against participating in a government when there are still foreign troops in the country.”

But Saadi said he believed it was time to join the government. “The political process is in need of our participation,” he said.

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On the streets of Sadr City, some residents are hopeful that representation in the government will improve their lives.

The new political bloc “will benefit the Sadr movement,” said Hussein Kadhim, 30, a laborer. “We want them to rebuild Sadr City, which was oppressed during the former government. We want better services and to express our opinions.”

Saadi said his ultimate loyalty was not to Sadr or to the United Iraqi Alliance that helped him win his seat, but to the thousands of Sadr followers.

“The people elected me,” he said. “I owe them.”

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Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux and special correspondent Said Rasheed contributed to this report.


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