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Radical Iraqi Cleric May be Down, but Is He Out? - 2004-06-07

After two months of heavy fighting in and around the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf in central Iraq, the U.S. military says it believes it has largely defeated the militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But the radical cleric still has plenty of support, and potential fighters, among some two million people living in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City.

The Al-Hikma mosque in Sadr City typically draws tens of thousands of worshippers every Friday for prayers. But prayers at this mosque rarely begin without a fervent display of support for Moqtada al-Sadr.

"Long live Moqtada al-Sadr!" the crowd chants, asking God to protect the man they refer to as "the bridge to heaven."

In Baghdad, U.S. military and coalition officials have a different view of the 31 year-old cleric.

They say Mr. Sadr is a criminal who is involved in the murder of a moderate rival cleric last year. U.S. Army Colonel Ralph Baker, who has held numerous talks with Shiite politicians and religious leaders about Moqtada al-Sadr, says he believes the vast majority of Shiites consider the cleric as an uneducated man who does not speak for them.

"Typically, the profile of someone who supports Sadr is poor. He's a young male between the ages of about 18 and 30, unemployed," says Colonel Baker. "What you have is a disenfranchised, disgruntled group of young men and a young cleric who is not considered an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. The only thing that he has going for him is a name that has historic prominence associated with it."

Iraqi Shiites are nearly religious in their devotion to Mr. Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999 and for whom the neighborhood is named. Most people believe the ayatollah was killed by agents of former dictator Saddam Hussein, whose brutal regime the cleric deeply opposed.

Forty five year-old shopkeeper Salih Ibadi says many people in Sadr City support Moqtada just because of the Sadr family name. Everywhere in the vast slum, the younger Sadr's picture appears alongside that of his father's on posters plastered on hundreds of walls.

Mr. Ibadi says Grand Ayatollah Sadr was the voice of the poor and a patriot who spoke against injustice and tyranny. The shopkeeper says Moqtada al-Sadr is admired because of his blood ties to the ayatollah. But other supporters of the young cleric in Sadr City say it is his anti-American stance that has impressed them in recent months.

When U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in April, 2003, the local Shiite population, which had long suffered under Saddam, welcomed U.S. troops as liberators and tolerated their presence in their neighborhood.

The exceptions were Mr. Sadr and a small band of followers who denounced the United States from the beginning as an occupier who invaded Iraq, not to liberate Iraqis but to steal the country's resources.

In the months that followed the invasion, tens of thousands of people from rural areas of Iraq began pouring into Sadr City, hoping to find a better life in the capital. Like many residents, the newcomers had expected the United States and its allies to quickly restore basic services, provide ample jobs and rebuild their long-neglected neighborhood.

When their expectations did not materialize, some Sadr City residents say they began to pay more attention to what Mr. Sadr had to say.

A 37-year-old resident, who would only identify himself as Fatta'h, says he recently joined Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia to fight the U.S.-led occupation. His face hidden behind a checkered scarf and brandishing a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, Fatta'h bitterly complains that the United States has done little to help the poor in Iraq.

"Instead of tanks, why don't they send enough garbage trucks to clean up the cities or give us electricity and air conditioners so that we don't suffer in the heat?" Fatta'h asks.

Iraqi Shiites elsewhere say they, too, have similar complaints. But most, like 28-year-old Baghdad resident Anmar Nissan, say they do not approve of what they see as Moqtada al-Sadr's attempts to use the poor to raise his own political stature.

Mr. Nissan says Moqtada al-Sadr has done little for Shiite Muslims except to bring violence to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The car mechanic says he supports Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a moderate cleric who has been pressing for a peaceful end to the occupation.

Shiite leaders in Baghdad say they are currently exploring a plan to bring Moqtada al-Sadr into the political mainstream by offering him a seat on the National Council, a semi-legislative Iraqi body which will serve the new interim government.

The cleric, who has already denounced the nearly week-old government as a puppet of the United States, has not indicated whether he would accept the offer.