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Fighting Continues Between Coalition Forces, Shi'ite Cleric's Loyalists - 2004-04-06


Fighting continues in several Iraqi Shi'ite-populated areas, including Baghdad, involving militiamen loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and coalition forces. The cleric issued a statement Tuesday saying the insurrection shows that the Iraqi people are not satisfied with the occupation.

Political and religious analysts in the Arab world say 30-year-old Moqtada al-Sadr is a novice politician who is making a power play as the coalition prepares to hand over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government in June.

The U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, declared the young cleric an outlaw on Monday following several days of fighting.

The head of the al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Jordan, Uraib el-Rantawi, says the coalition should be very careful in dealing with Mr. al-Sadr, in part because he has strong Shi'ite religious connections outside of Iraq.

"He has a very good connection with the Iranian clerics, especially Ayatollah Hahari," he said. "He is one of the most leading clerics among the Iranian regime. Moqtada al-Sadr, from the early beginning, tried to put himself in a certain manner in order to be a legitimate representative of the Shi'ite people in Iraq.

"And, he is trying to take the example from what happened in Lebanon with the leadership of Hezbollah and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin of Hamas in Palestine," continued Mr. el-Rantawi. "And, I think it is very, very dangerous to underestimate his role in the Iraqi Shi'ite population and in the region."

The young cleric's father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was revered among many Shi'ites throughout the Arab world. He was killed in 1999, apparently by agents of Saddam Hussein. Since the fall of Saddam, local residents have renamed the city where the family is based from Saddam City to Sadr City, in his honor.

The elder Mr. al-Sadr was killed along with two of his sons, leaving his youngest son Moqtada as the heir to his political and spiritual legacy, even though the young imam has no position of authority in Shi'ite Islam.

Last week, an Iraqi court issued a warrant for his arrest for conspiracy to murder a rival Shi'ite cleric, Abdel-Majid Khoei, who was more friendly toward the coalition. Mr. Khoei was killed last year in Najaf, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Mr. al-Sadr has denied the charges, and says he is opposed to terrorism.

An expert on religious conservatives at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Hala Mustafa, notes that Moqtada al-Sadr is relatively new to the political scene in Iraq. She believes he is trying to use his family's name to seize political power as the U.S.-led coalition prepares to hand authority over to the Iraqis.

"I think a great part of his act now is related to the struggle for power and fortune that erupted in Iraq since the declaration of the coming withdrawal of the American role from Iraq, or the transfer of authority to the Iraqis," said Ms. Mustafa. "And, I think that's why this escalation of violence is in the country now."

While some political analysts have said they believe violence could spread throughout the Arab world if Moqtada al-Sadr is arrested, Ms. Mustafa disagrees. She says he does not represent the average Shi'ite in the Arab world and his appeal is limited mostly to poor, uneducated Shi'ites living in Iraq.

U.S. officials in Iraq have said the cleric's followers are attempting to establish Mr. al-Sadr's authority in place of the legal government, and they say that will not be tolerated. A coalition ban on a newspaper published by his group, for alleged incitement, and the arrest of one of his key aides, sparked the latest fighting.

The young cleric and a group of his followers were barricaded in a mosque in southern Iraq, with thousands of supporters protecting them. But on Tuesday he traveled to Najaf to, as he put it, prevent more bloodshed.

U.S. military officials in Iraq have said Mr. al-Sadr is free to surrender and will be treated with dignity and respect if he does, just as any other alleged criminal in the new Iraqi justice system is treated. If he does not surrender, they have vowed to arrest him.

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