Controversial Iraqi Shiite savors growing power

A cluster of men descends on Hakim Zamili at Friday prayers in Sadr City. The politician, once accused of running death squads out of Iraq's Health Ministry, graciously accepts their embraces, while his bodyguards form a ring around him to prevent him from being crushed.

In this Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Baghdad, people cheer Zamili like a conquering hero; outside its blast walls and checkpoints, many revile him. He represents the very paradoxes at the heart of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's movement, which is poised to play a significant role in the selection of the country's next prime minister.

Once celebrated for its resistance against American forces, the movement became weakened by Iraqi government crackdowns, fierce internal divisions and Sadr's absence while in Iran.

But in the March 7 national elections, Sadr followers may end up the leading vote-getters in their Shiite political bloc, with at least 40 seats, a showing that would give them a bigger voice than Shiite religious parties that are seen as friendly to the U.S. The number, though not a surprise, is a reminder of the movement's ability to mobilize followers with an intensity that many rival groups, hobbled by years in exile, lack.

Zamili, 44, who was arrested in a raid by U.S. forces on his Health Ministry office at the beginning of the 2007 U.S. troop buildup, appears to have gained the second-highest number of votes for any Sadr candidate in the country.

The U.S. military once hoped Zamili would be convicted in an Iraqi court for the excesses of Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army; Zamili was put on trial in connection to killings, kidnapping and corruption, but the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. Now, people in Sadr City visit his home, proud to be seen with a man they greet as their defender in Iraq's darkest days.

The soft-spoken politician, who has been studying the "Rubaiyat," the classic collection of verse by Omar Khayyam, for a graduate degree in comparative literature, is ready to assert the Sadr bloc's rights in the halls of power. He said he expected that the movement would ask for prominent positions in ministries, including Cabinet posts and director general positions, as well as leadership slots in the army and police.

"Our numbers are large and can delay some projects, many projects and laws," he said, in a warning for those who might try to isolate the Sadr movement, including Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a fellow Shiite who launched an offensive against the Mahdi Army in 2008. "We want success for the government."

Those close to Maliki are already talking about barring the Sadr bloc from the next government because of figures like Zamili. Such a prospect could prove dangerous. "If the Sadrists are alienated, violence could come back in a big way," a Western advisor to the Iraqi government warned.

Whatever happens, the religious movement's electoral success is proof of the enduring legacy of Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, a figure revered for his defiance of Saddam Hussein and subsequent martyrdom when unknown assassins, probably from Hussein's security service, gunned him down in 1999.

Muqtada has led his father's movement in the ferment of post-Hussein Iraq. By 2006, the Mahdi Army appeared to rival the state, and without the U.S. military troop buildup, it is possible that it might have taken control of Baghdad.

Many Iraqis credit Maliki's crackdown against the Mahdi Army with helping stabilize Iraq and ending the sectarian bloodshed. But here, such actions are assailed as oppression and have prompted angry cries for political change in a district suffering from poverty and lack of services.

Unlike many current lawmakers, who live in the fortified Green Zone or possess a second passport, Zamili has never left his home in Sadr City, a shambling brown concrete building on an unpaved street. "How can we ask someone to help the people if they lived in a fortified zone?" he said. "The people will vote for somebody close to them."

Freed since the summer of 2008, Zamili dismisses the charges against him as a nuisance. He points to his acquittal as proof of his innocence, though detractors believe the Sadr movement intimidated witnesses to change their testimony or fail to appear. He claims he was undermined by corrupt people in the ministry and those who wish to weaken the Sadr movement over its resistance to the U.S. military.

Even as he stated his innocence, Zamili made it clear that he believed the Mahdi Army had the right to defend Iraq's Shiites from the Sunni Arab suicide bombers who have attacked the country's majority population in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

"We didn't [commit] the acts of car bombs or killing because of one's [religious] identity. We were defending ourselves, and people like me defended the Ministry of Health," Zamili said, surrounded by an approving audience. "If a thief breaks into your home and you defend it, are you the criminal and the thief is the victim?"

ned.parker@latimes.com

Salman is a Times staff writer.

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