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Cooperative tone of Sadr surprises U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Muqtada Sadr, the radical anti-American cleric, has backed away from confrontation with U.S. and Iraqi forces in recent weeks, a move that has surprised U.S. officials who long have characterized his followers as among the greatest threats to Iraq’s security.

Thursday, a leader of the Sadr movement in one of its Baghdad strongholds publicly endorsed President Bush’s new Iraq security plan, which at least some U.S. officials have touted as a way to combat Sadr’s group.

“We will fully cooperate with the government to make the plan successful,” said Abdul-Hussein Kaabai, head of the local council in the Shiite Muslim-dominated Sadr City neighborhood. “If it is an Iraqi plan done by the government, we will cooperate.”

Over the last several weeks, the Shiite cleric and his followers have dropped their threats to quit Iraq’s U.S.-backed government, and after years of shunning the “occupier,” they have allowed their emissaries to meet with U.S. officials.

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Many U.S. officials are skeptical of Sadr’s moves, citing his history as leader of a violent group and wondering whether he and his movement have really changed or are merely lying low at a time of particular scrutiny and potential peril.

“There’s a change of behavior that we can see,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters this week. “If it’s a change of heart, that’s a good thing. If it’s a change of tactic, we need to be cautious.”

Allies of Sadr suggest he has begun heeding the appeals of other Shiite leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, to temper his actions in order to preserve unity in the Shiite-dominated government.

“We were not going to be dragged into a trap to clash with the government or any other of our people,” said Nassar Rubaie, a member of parliament who is close to Sadr. “We are aware such a thing could happen.”

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Others suggest the cleric has been mellowed by the realities of exercising power. The Sadr movement controls several government ministries, including Health and Transportation.

Control of those bureaucracies has given Sadr substantial patronage and resources and made him one of the country’s most influential men. But being part of a government characterized by inefficiency, corruption and brutality has also made him answerable for its many sins and undercut his popularity, Iraqi officials close to him said.

“If the electricity is cut, people come to Muqtada to complain,” said Ali Yasseri, a former editor of Al Hawza, a pro-Sadr newspaper.

Corruption within

Outside the capital, in Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland, some pro-Sadr groups that took control of provincial governments as reformers turned out to be corrupt and brutal, engaging in gun battles with Iraqi security forces in several cities.

“His supporters were taking money by force and political office by force,” said Sheik Diya Din Fayyad, a Shiite cleric and lawmaker from a rival faction. “They lost their popularity among the Iraqi people. He was forced to disavow hundreds of his supporters because of their actions.”

Playing the rebellious warlord was far simpler. Three years ago, when he was backed into a corner by the Iraqi government and U.S. forces, Sadr lashed out with a fury that shook Iraq and the region. He launched a formidable uprising against U.S. forces that lasted months, particularly in the southern city of Najaf, and he emerged a political giant.

Bruised but empowered after months of confronting U.S. forces, Sadr then entered the political process. He did so warily, coaxed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani into joining a Shiite unity bloc for the January 2005 elections.

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At the end of 2005, when new elections were held, Sadr took part more wholeheartedly and garnered 30 seats. When the time came for the Shiite coalition to choose a prime minister, Sadr’s support gave Maliki the job by a single vote.

Since then, the country’s healthcare and transportation infrastructures have visibly deteriorated under the control of Sadrist leaders. Hospitals, already strained to the breaking point by daily trauma casualties, have become dirtier, bloodier and more poorly equipped and staffed.

“The people who he depended on to run the institutions performed very badly,” said Yasseri, the former editor. “We thought we were going to give Iraqis their rights back and eliminate corruption and nepotism. Unfortunately, corruption and nepotism have become part of the Sadr movement.”

Some Sadr supporters have begun turning against the movement.

“People have the right to call it a corrupt government since it hasn’t achieved the simplest Iraqi ambition,” said Fattah Sheik, a Sadrist member of parliament who says he’s breaking with the bloc to pursue an independent party.

The Al Mahdi army, the fast-growing and powerful militia Sadr launched as a social and political movement to protect impoverished Shiites, is now perceived in many areas as just another armed group terrorizing ordinary Iraqis.

“Once, if there was a problem in a neighborhood, people would call upon the Mahdi army,” lawmaker Fayyad said. “Now no one trusts them.”

As those troubles mounted over the last year, Sadr grew frustrated with mainstream politics, Yasseri said. Last fall, the cleric once again raised the anti-occupation banner that had served him well in 2004. In November, he demanded that Maliki refuse to attend a meeting with President Bush in Jordan until the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawal.

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When Maliki ignored him, in what Khalilzad called a “defining moment,” Sadr announced a boycott of the government.

A key aide arrested

The U.S., with Maliki’s support, responded by increasing pressure on Sadr, arresting one of his key aides, Sheik Abdul-Hadi Darraji, and giving military commanders the green light to conduct sweeps of some Sadr strongholds in east Baghdad.

At the same time, leaders of the Shiite coalition, including Maliki and Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, presented Sadr with evidence that many acting in his name were working against his interests, Shiite officials said.

Sadr’s actions, they said, could lead to all-out fighting between his backers and Iraqi security forces. That, they warned, would destroy Shiite unity.

Those arguments appear to have had an effect on Sadr, several Shiite officials said. Over the last few days, his loyalists have stepped up their cooperation with the Maliki government, ending their boycott, which, according to Fayyad, was contributing to the movement’s unpopularity.

“The positive thing is that Muqtada is now listening and taking advice,” Fayyad said. “It was different before. His whole strategy before was to oppose others and be alone in his decisions.”

Khalilzad is not the only observer, however, who harbors doubts about Sadr’s intentions.

“He’s afraid he’ll get into a losing war,” said Suha Azzawi, a professor of political science at the University of Baghdad. “He’s ordered the militias to temporarily leave their positions. They will continue their activities after the crackdown.”

But others close to Sadr say he has changed politically, becoming more responsible and concerned about his public image. In 2004, Sadr was a militant leader, heeding the visceral nationalism of his followers to fight the American occupation. Now he is a player, his movement an integral part of a government under domestic and international pressure to come up with a formula to save the country from civil war and serve its beleaguered population.

“Evolution is a characteristic of life, and the person who doesn’t evolve cannot lead a society,” said Qusai Abdul-Wahab, a lawmaker and prominent supporter of Sadr. “When the Sadrists were under pressure before, they attacked the Americans. Now the national interest requires more selfrestraint. Mr. Muqtada would not like to appear as one contributing to the chaos in Iraq.”

daragahi@latimes.com

Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Saif Hameed, Zeena Kareem and Saif Rasheed contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Muqtada Sadr

Muqtada Sadr is the son of a leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, who was killed in 1999, allegedly on the orders of Saddam Hussein. His birth date is disputed, but he is in his early 30s.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, residents of a huge Shiite-dominated slum in east Baghdad, then known as Saddam City, renamed the area Sadr City after the family.

Muqtada Sadr founded his Al Mahdi militia after the invasion, and it began clashing with U.S. troops. In April 2004, U.S. officials issued an arrest warrant, accusing Sadr of a role in the 2003 slaying of a rival Shiite cleric. That spring, and again in the summer, Sadr’s forces fought intense battles with U.S. troops in Najaf and other cities until Iraq’s Shiite leadership brokered a truce.

In the Iraqi elections of December 2005, Sadr’s supporters won 30 parliamentary seats. In 2006, Sadr’s bloc provided the key votes to make Nouri Maliki prime minister. U.S. officials have accused Sadr’s militia of sponsoring death squads that have killed thousands of Iraqis, particularly Sunni Arabs.

Source: Times research


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