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Militant Iraqi Cleric Challenging Mainstream Party for Shiite Votes

As Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim community prepares for elections at the end of the month, the voters face a choice between two distinct factions within the Shiite religious circle.

Inside an Internet café in the desperately poor Baghdad district called Sadr City, 37-year-old conservative Shiite politician Fatah al-Sheikh warmly greets his American visitors.

The internet café serves as the operations center for Mr. Sheikh's new political party called the National Independent Cadres and Elites, better known by its English acronym, NICE.

Smartly dressed in a western suit, it is hard to believe that only a few months ago, Mr. Sheikh was the press officer for radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which fought pitched street battles with U.S. troops here in Sadr City and in the southern holy city of Najaf.

Fatah al-Sheikh, who also edits a local newspaper called Sadr Rising, says he now represents the side of Mr. Sadr's movement that seeks progress through politics. As head of a slate of candidates for the new Iraqi National Assembly, he says he wants to empower the impoverished people of his community through political legitimacy, not armed rebellions.

"Let me be clear about what we are," Mr. Sheikh says. "We believe we represent the foundation of Iraq's future. We are the true Iraqi patriots and we know what is good and right for our people."

Mr. Sheikh is careful to say that his party is not directly representing Moqtada al-Sadr in the elections. In Shiite Islam, it is considered improper for senior religious figures to involve themselves in the affairs of government.

But Mr. Sheikh and his running mates openly discuss their devotion to the cleric, who, many observers say, has been quietly encouraging his senior followers to put down their guns and to enter Iraqi politics.

This vast, ethnically insulated slum of nearly three million mostly-Shiite Muslims is fertile ground for the Sadr movement as it builds its political base.

Moqtada al-Sadr is the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, for whom the neighborhood was re-named after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Ayatollah Sadr was assassinated in 1999 and many people believe he was killed by Saddam Hussein's agents because of his frequent public criticisms of the dictator's brutal regime.

But the elder Sadr was also known for his strong public disagreements with Iraq's most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who preached against openly provoking Saddam. In 1993, Grand Ayatollah Sadr broke away from Mr. Sistani's inner circle to begin his own, more militant movement, urging Shiites to actively resist anyone who tries to oppress them.

The bad blood between the Sadr faction and the Sistani faction grew worse following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Mr. Sistani's decision to cooperate with the Americans in formulating a political future for Iraqi Shiites drew the wrath of Sadr followers, who accused Mr. Sistani of appeasing to occupiers.

While Mr. Sistani pushed for elections, the young Moqtada al-Sadr called on Shiite men to take up arms and fight the occupation. Thousands died in fighting with U.S. troops.

Now the Sadr branch is competing in the elections too, with a Western-style campaign that would have been suicidal under Saddam's regime.

Like a veteran politician, the Sadr City candidate, Fatah al-Sheikh, visits different areas of the slum daily, meeting residents and encouraging them to speak out about their problems.

After listening to a man complain about the city's chronic gasoline shortage, Mr. Sheikh promises that he will work to bring greater economic benefits to this long-neglected neighborhood.

The politician also emphasizes that Sadr City is where he grew up and that Mr. Sistani could never speak for the people in this community. He says the followers of the elder Sadr and his son should not forget that Ayatollah Sistani has refused to condemn the American occupation.

Who will the millions of people in Sadr City vote for? Mr. Sheikh asks. I tell you confidently that they will give their votes to me, to my party, and to Moqtada al-Sadr, he says.

Despite Mr. Sheikh's prediction, there are many residents in Sadr City, like construction worker Sabah Jaseem Alwan, who say they are not ready to abandon the revered Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

Mr. Alwan says he will support Ayatollah Sistani in the elections because he is a wise religious scholar. He says he believes Moqtada al-Sadr does not yet have the credentials to lead the Shiite people.

Ayatollah Sistani's followers have put together a powerful slate of candidates that Shiites in Sadr City are finding hard to ignore.

Known as the United Iraqi Alliance, the party represents Iraq's two largest Shiite religious parties. The leading names on the slate are well known followers of the ayatollah and although Mr. Sistani himself does not make endorsements, he has indirectly offered support and has issued a holy decree, telling Shiites that it is their religious duty to go to the polls on election day.

Seats on the 275-seat Iraqi National Assembly will be apportioned according to the number of votes received by each candidate list. So it is likely that both Shiite wings will be represented and will carry forward their differences into meetings halls in downtown Baghdad.