ALL EYES ON AL-SADR AS IRAQ VIOLENCE SWELLS
By Charles Levinson
April 9, 2008 (updated Apr. 10)
BAGHDAD -- As a young seminary student, his nickname was Mulla Atari, because he preferred video games to studying the Quran. Now, Moqtada al-Sadr is a radical cleric revered by millions of poor Shiites as a modern-day Robin Hood. He also may be the most powerful man in Iraq.
The recent spike in violence here has shown that the enigmatic Shiite cleric and his Mahdi Army militia continue to have the muscle to plunge Iraq into warfare -- and essentially reverse recent security gains made by the U.S. military that the Bush administration cites as a key sign of progress. Or as he did in August, al-Sadr can stop much of the bloodshed by ordering a cease-fire -- and win some credit from the U.S. military for the resulting calm.
Al-Sadr appears to be headed for a military and political showdown with the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki over who will hold sway in Iraq.
The outcome could determine whether Iraq is run by a reliable U.S. ally, a staunch anti-American cleric who backs armed resistance against the "occupiers," or a combination that fuels chaos.
"If this isn't resolved peacefully, the results will be disastrous. The government could fall, and the Americans and the Iraqis will pay a huge price," says Hossam al-Azzawi, a Sunni lawmaker whose Accordance Party has opposed al-Maliki but supports him in his standoff with al-Sadr.
The relationship between al-Maliki and the cleric is complex: Al-Sadr's support initially helped put al-Maliki in power, and al-Maliki's go-slow approach in cracking down on al-Sadr's militia as it targeted and killed rival Sunnis has long frustrated the U.S. military.
In recent months, al-Sadr has tried to transform his following into a political force that would compete in local elections this year. He called a cease-fire for his militia -- Iraq's strongest -- eight months ago, but he has continued to train and arm it.
Al-Maliki, citing rising concern about violence in the southern city of Basra, launched an offensive against the cleric's strongholds there two weeks ago. That fighting spread to Baghdad, where gun battles continue between U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and Shiite militants.
After al-Sadr mobilized his militia in late March, attacks in Baghdad jumped from 13 a day to more than 100, the highest level since August. Although al-Sadr ordered his militia to stand down on March 30 and says the cease-fire remains in effect, sporadic fighting between Mahdi splinter groups and U.S. and Iraqi security forces continues.
In Sadr City, the Baghdad slum of 2.5 million people that is al-Sadr's base, more than 50 people have been killed since Sunday, according to the U.S. military. Mortars fired from Sadr City by Shiite militias pound the heavily fortified Green Zone, where U.S. workers have to wear body armor and helmets whenever they go outside and sleep on cots in their offices instead of in their tin-roofed trailers.
The shelling persisted Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of the U.S. capture of Baghdad. And the U.S. military announced the deaths of five more soldiers, for a total of 17 troop deaths since Sunday.
The U.S. military has said the Mahdi splinter groups are backed by Iran and that it's unclear whether they have direct links to al-Sadr.
That raises questions about al-Sadr's ability to control his entire militia, but al-Maliki treats the situation as if al-Sadr is at the helm: The prime minister warns the cleric's followers that they will be banned from running for office if al-Sadr does not disband his militia. Al-Maliki is rallying Iraq's other parties to support his ultimatum.
In response this week, al-Sadr threatened to lift his cease-fire if the Iraqi government does not halt attacks on his Mahdi Army or set a timetable for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq.
Analysts say such a move could escalate the violence in Iraq -- and cast significant doubt on the Bush administration's claims that the situation in Iraq is improving.
"The fact that we seem to be sitting on this powder keg suggests to me that we haven't gotten as far as the (Bush) administration would suggest," says Steven Cook, an Iraq specialist at the Council of Foreign Relations. "It was like al-Sadr flipped on the switch and all of a sudden there was widespread violence, and I felt like I was instantly transformed back to the days before the 'surge'" of increased U.S. troops last summer.
Cook and other analysts say the recent fighting indicates that if al-Sadr chooses to fight, he could drag Iraq into a new round of bloody sectarian battles and doom U.S. hopes for an early withdrawal. On the other hand, if he stands down and disarms his militia, one of the biggest obstacles to the U.S. military in Iraq could be neutralized.
'BIG QUESTIONS' TO BE ANSWERED
Even in Iraq's Byzantine politics of tangled alliances, decades-old grudges, and myriad religious, political and regional players, al-Sadr stands out as tough to read.
He appeared in public last month for the first time in more than a year in an interview with Al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite news channel. His public statements are ambiguous; his actions often contradictory.
He is currently in Iran, having spent the past year there studying under a hard-line cleric who was an early proponent of the Iranian revolution in which Ayatollah Khomeini assumed dictatorial control, but al-Sadr said last month that religious leaders should not play politics.
He says defeating the United States in Iraq is his top priority, but his cease-fire and other political maneuvering helped the U.S. military accomplish some of its key objectives, such as reducing violence and passing benchmark legislation.
"It's hard to tell whether al-Sadr is the key to progress in Iraq, or America's sworn enemy," says Rick Barton, an adviser to the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission set up by Congress that recommended withdrawing from Iraq last year. "These are big questions that remain unanswered."
Al-Sadr, 34, is beloved by poor Shiites who live in run-down areas such as Sadr City, which is named for his father, a popular cleric with control over an extensive network of social services in poor Shiite neighborhoods. The typical household there has 12 people; sewage flows down muddy alleys.
Al-Sadr claims to be a descendant of the prophet Mohammed and hails from a family of respected Shiite clerics who challenged the ruling political and religious leaders.
His uncle and father were opponents of Saddam Hussein, and both were killed by the Iraqi dictator.
Al-Sadr's older brothers had been his father's close aides, while Moqtada was given lesser jobs in his father's organization, according to author Patrick Cockburn in his new book *Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq*.
After his father and two brothers were killed in 1999, al-Sadr remained a relatively unknown seminary dropout until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Al-Sadr inherited his father's following and control over various health services.
Al-Sadr was considered an ill-educated populist and rabble-rouser, Cockburn says, and he clashed with his family's traditional rivals, the aristocratic Shiite religious parties that shied away from politics and wanted al-Sadr to do the same.
"The al-Sadr movement is basically a class struggle against those Shiite parties in government that have no idea of the poverty in the heart of Shiite neighborhoods," says Ibrahim Sumydai, a former Iraqi intelligence officer and political analyst. "When al-Sadr comes like a Robin Hood revolutionary defending the rights of the poor, the people believe him. … He may not have the political skills and he may not have the religious credentials, but the people still follow him."
Al-Sadr emerged from his father's shadow by challenging American authority with a radical brand of politics mixing Islam, nationalism, and armed resistance.
He made driving U.S. troops out of Iraq his top priority. He established his Mahdi Army, battled U.S. forces in 2004 and helped send Iraq into sectarian civil war in 2006 after Sunni insurgents blew up a Shiite shrine. Then last August, the fiery cleric declared the cease-fire and violence across Iraq plummeted.
Al-Sadr had retreated to the Iranian city of Qom in early 2007 to burnish his religious credentials in hopes of returning to politics with the authority of a senior cleric. His followers largely have abided by the cease-fire, opened a political office and declared their intent to run in the provincial elections.
"We want to compete for power in elections, and we have proven this with our actions, but the government attacked us saying we are terrorists," says Baghdad's deputy mayor, Naeem Abaob al-Kaabi, a leader in al-Sadr's movement.
Al-Kaabi says fears that al-Sadr could oust the ruling parties in open elections prompted the Iraqi government crackdown on Mahdi Army strongholds.
"The government knows they will lose a lot of power if there are elections, and so they try to make a crisis now and then as an excuse to delay the elections," al-Kaabi says.
MIXED SIGNALS FROM CLERIC
Reidar Visser, a specialist on Shiite politics and editor of the Iraq-focused website historiae.org, warns that the United States is jeopardizing al-Sadr's decision to participate in peaceful politics by supporting al-Maliki's campaign against the Mahdi Army.
"For the past months, the Sadrist leaders have consistently signaled that they are committed to Iraq's political process," Visser says. "That is why it is so alarming that the U.S. continues to give its full support to al-Maliki against al-Sadr."
Al-Maliki's offensive, instead of weakening al-Sadr, has shown that the cleric's militia is better organized and better armed than ever, Visser says. In two weeks of fighting, Iraq's fledgling security forces have struggled to gain ground.
Al-Sadr remains one of the most vocal opponents of the U.S. military.
"The Iraqi people are suffering just as if they were still under Saddam," al-Sadr told Al-Jazeera. "The small Satan left and the great Satan came. God willing, the occupation forces will be driven out as happened in Vietnam."
The U.S. military still credits al-Sadr for much of the recent progress. His support helped parliament pass a law calling for the provincial elections -- one of the pillars of the U.S. reconciliation strategy.
"The Sadrists actually helped this administration achieve one of its benchmarks," Visser says.
The United States has responded to al-Sadr's mixed messages at various times by either confronting the cleric or appeasing him. In 2004, U.S. troops shut down al-Sadr's newspaper for 60 days and arrested his top lieutenant on murder charges. That set off six months of pitched battles between al-Sadr's gunmen and U.S. soldiers.
Today, U.S. officials appear to be reaching out by not identifying al-Sadr's Mahdi Army as the enemy and instead saying American troops are battling criminals and rogue elements that splintered from his militia.
"The increase we've seen in attacks the last couple of weeks are the work of criminal elements," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Hammond said.
When al-Maliki launched the offensive against Shiite militias in Basra last month, the prime minister barely consulted with U.S. officials beforehand, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said. The offensive put the U.S. military into a potentially explosive battle just before Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus testified before Congress this week.
"The (Iraqi) government keeps saying it is not going after the Sadrists and it is only going after terrorists, but the reality is very different," al-Kaabi says. "Their goal is to distance the Sadrists from the political process, and that's what is happening."
Sumydai, the former Iraqi intelligence officer, says the government decided to crack down on al-Sadr to shore up its relationship with the United States after seeing Iraq's Sunnis regain American trust by going after al-Qaeda.
"The Shiite parties saw the growing cooperation between the Sunnis and the Americans and started to fear that maybe the Americans will turn and give power back to the Sunnis," Sumydai says. "The other Shiite parties wanted to prove that they are still America's closest allies in Iraq, so they attacked the Mahdi Army."
Al-Sadr realized what was happening and declared his cease-fire so the government wouldn't have an excuse to attack, Sumydai says.
"Al-Sadr is someone we have to deal with," he says. "We have to try to attract him gradually to our mission of rebuilding a new Iraq."