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Radical Iraqi Cleric Expands His Reach

Times Staff Writer

Muqtada Sadr’s expanding web of power starts right here, on the teeming streets of a neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad named after his assassinated father and uncle.

It begins with charities and public services, such as subsidized cooking fuel, street cleaning and soccer games for the aimless boys of the Shiite Muslim ghetto.

It extends to neighborhood watch groups and his Al Mahdi militiamen, who control and secure Sadr City as well as southern cities such as Basra, sometimes menacing rival Shiite groups, U.S.-led forces and, more recently, Sunni Arab neighborhoods.

It has spread to Iraq’s parliament, where the young anti-U.S. cleric’s followers control a key 35-seat bloc that has boosted interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari’s political fortunes, and to provincial councils and local police forces in the Shiite south, where militiamen serve as a kind of morality police.

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It stretches through key ministries such as transportation and health, which have become vast patronage troves for Sadr’s followers. And it has grown beyond Iraq’s borders: Sadr has spent the last few months circling the region as he rides a wave of tremendous popular support unique among any of the political movements that have emerged in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was ousted.

Three years ago, the U.S. invaded Iraq at least in part, the White House says, to unleash the nation’s democratic potential. By deftly employing gun and ballot alike, Sadr has used the chaos of the postwar period to spread his movement’s power day by day -- and, startlingly, transform himself from obscure young rabble-rouser to hunted rebel to statesman.

Sadr’s status has alarmed U.S. officials hoping to wind down the American presence and leave behind a stable government. U.S. and Iraqi officials worry that his movement, with its arsenal of weapons and radical ideology, poses a threat to any central authority and inspires other political movements to take up arms.

“The true nightmare in Iraq is not Anbar,” the province that is the hotbed of the Sunni-led insurgency, “it’s Basra,” said a high-level U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s neighborhood by neighborhood, police station by police station, collectives of quasi-political, quasi-criminal gangs, who may use a label that has a national color to it but in reality isn’t national at all.

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“And it’s the intermingling of criminality and the push for individual power, all blended into one.”

“Muqtada! Muqtada!” chant thousands of faithful who gather for Friday prayers in Sadr City, in frequent rowdy street rallies, during religious ceremonies where older crowds blush at the sight of Sadr’s young male followers jumping up and down and swiveling their hips. “Yes, yes, Muqtada!”

Electricity courses through the crowds of his followers in Sadr City, the milieu of energetic Iraqi youth. They play soccer in dusty fields of a district that has become a national gold mine of talented professional athletes. They volunteer for street cleanup operations and donate blood after Friday prayers. They carry grenade launchers and AK-47s as they patrol the neighborhood as part of his Al Mahdi army.

“We do all the services for the people, all the humanitarian work,” said Kareem Jorani, a member of the militia. “Whatever people need, we provide. We protect them at night. We provide security for the people.”

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Others in Baghdad call Sadr City residents “shuruqi,” or easties, a derogatory term referring to the capital’s poor eastern edge as well as the predominantly Shiite southeast of the country that was brutally suppressed by Hussein.

The young Sadr, somewhere between his mid-20s and mid-30s, has turned “shuruqi” into an emblem of pride, a rallying cry of a defiant movement forged in mosques as well as the battlefield.

Sadr inherited control of the Martyr Sadr foundation, the network of mosques and charities throughout the country’s Shiite areas funded by donations from the millions of followers of the Sadr clerical line, after the fall of Hussein’s government.

But his benevolent efforts aside, violence has been a part of Sadr’s legacy and a tool for his advancement since he announced the creation of his Al Mahdi army in the summer of 2003, quickly turning it into an impromptu force of thousands of young men. Because the militia is informally organized, its strength today is unknown.

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Fighting broke out between Al Mahdi militiamen and U.S. forces in the spring of 2004. The militiamen surprised Americans with their tenacity. By the time the battles ended in the autumn of 2004, the militiamen had fought the Americans to near standstills.

Sadr’s forces suffered heavy losses, and incurred heavy damage to Valley of Peace cemetery in Najaf, his hometown and the site of the shrine of Imam Ali and some of the faith’s most important seminaries.

The people of Najaf and the nearby shrine city of Karbala, mostly loyal to more moderate clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, grew to despise Sadr.

But his battle scars and vehement denunciations of U.S. and British forces bolstered his nationalist credentials to followers and demonstrated to a ruling class of mostly exiled politicians his capacity to use his militiamen to bring the political process to a halt.

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Senior clergy in both Iraq and Iran pressed him to join a coalition with other Shiite parties in two parliamentary elections last year.

Sadr played it both ways, criticizing the elections while allowing his followers to run as either independents or on the main Shiite slate. He now controls more seats in the 275-seat legislature than any other political leader.

When it came time to dole out ministries, Sadr asked for and got the ministries of transportation, with control over ports, roadways and motor vehicle licensing; and health, with at least 150,000 employees; and began handing out jobs to followers.

“The Mahdi army of Iraq is at the service of the Iraqi people,” Sadr said in an interview last month on Al Jazeera TV. “The Mahdi army was at a time a military army, but now it has become a cultural army. In the past the fight was a military one. Now the conflict is a religious one.”

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Still, Al Mahdi’s paramilitary operations continue apace. Among Sadr’s crowd, guns and ammunition are always close at hand. Young Mahdi militiamen toting Kalashnikovs and wearing flak jackets direct traffic and check cars in Sadr City. Inside Sadr offices, militiamen monitor radios and cellphones. An agent was recently overheard calling an Al Mahdi army office to report a suspicious car entering the neighborhood.

“Follow him,” a commander ordered over a cellphone.

Black-shirted Al Mahdi militiamen are largely believed to be responsible for February attacks on Sunni Arab mosques and clerics after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

For days, Sunni Arab leaders and television stations gave horrifying accounts of “black shirts” marauding through Sunni neighborhoods and abducting young men.

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“This is the point of danger in the Sadr movement,” said Isam Arrawi, a hard-line Sunni Arab nationalist and member of the Muslim Scholars Assn., a clerical umbrella group. “Furious masses, in the absence of good thinking, did unspeakable things.”

Sadr denied that his followers were responsible for the carnage. In response to the chaos, he adopted a moderate tone and ordered his followers to stop wearing black. They complied, and now mostly wear street clothes.

Sadr’s followers enforce not only security but a fairly harsh Islamic fundamentalism. On university campuses, Al Mahdi army adherents order women to cover their heads. They have intimidated liquor store owners. Last year in Basra, the militiamen stormed through a coed picnic beating unveiled women.

But even Iraqis who loathe Sadr’s fundamentalism welcome his movement’s efforts to guard mosques and religious ceremonies and act as a force of order, if not law. In the rest of the capital and much of the rest of the country, Iraqis cower in their homes, their neighborhoods moribund caldrons of fear and despair. Sadr City and cities of the south buzz with frenetic activity, protected by armed militiamen. Pedestrians and cars jostle for space below huge portraits of the young Sadr and his famous father, Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, and uncle, Mohammed Bakr Sadr, both believed to have been slain by Hussein’s forces.

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“The government cannot protect us because they are infiltrated and corrupted,” said Ghasem Khalidi, a 40-year-old employee at the Ministry of Industry from Basra and follower of the moderate cleric Sistani. “The governmental forces are made up of different militias who each seek the interests of their own political parties.”

With control over so-called service ministries, Sadr’s followers have been able to deliver improvements denied other Iraqis. Sadr City’s streets, ravaged by neglect and by bombs planted by Al Mahdi militiamen in the 2004 uprising against the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, have been repaired.

The whole 8-square-mile neighborhood of up to 2 1/2 million people stands in stark contrast to the rest of the capital. Lime-green saplings have been planted in main squares, part of a rare beautification effort. The stench of raw sewage, which last year overwhelmed warrens of densely packed residential alleyways, has dissipated, signs of progress for which both U.S. officials and Al Mahdi members take credit.

“We diverted resources from Sunni neighborhoods and rich Shiite neighborhoods to our neighborhood,” said Hatem Adhad Mohammed, 41, a municipal worker and Sadr loyalist.

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As the influence and presence of secular Iraqi politicians such as former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi wane, Sadr’s domestic and international political credibility swell. U.N. chief envoy Ashraf Jehangir Qazi and most of Iraq’s most important politicians have begun visiting the cleric.

Sadr has often traveled to Iran, where he maintains ties with both the political leadership in Tehran and senior clergy in the seminary city of Qom. But he has expanded his regional itinerary, meeting with leaders in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon.

Unsettled by Sadr’s threats and distracted by an ongoing Sunni Arab insurgency, U.S. and Iraqi officials have allowed his movement to gather steam, with his deputies turning segments of the government into patronage machines and his militia turning sections of the country into fiefdoms.

Officials acknowledge the perils involved in his rise.

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“It is not an acceptable answer to succumb to the presence of a militia to protect a particular neighborhood or a city’s security,” said a Western diplomat in Baghdad who specializes in Iraq’s military affairs but spoke on condition of anonymity. “Militias are not loyal to a body politic, or to a constitution, or to a nationally elected set of leaders. A militia’s loyalty is to one particular ethnic-sectarian group. They’re not accountable to the rule of law.”

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A special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.


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