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Radical Iraqi Cleric Vows Fight to the Death with US Forces - 2004-08-09


Following five days of intense fighting in the Iraqi city of Najaf, Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr vowed to continue the battle against what he called the occupation of Najaf. But, political analysts in the Middle East say he is losing credibility, even among his own followers. Even so, it appears Moqtada al-Sadr may have the upper hand when it comes to dealing with the interim government in Iraq.

The radical cleric vowed Monday to defend the Muslim holy city of Najaf until his "last drop of blood." And, despite hundreds of casualties among militants over the past several days, the young cleric called on his Mehdi army to continue battling Iraqi army and coalition forces in the city south of Baghdad.

According to the head of the al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Jordan, Uraib el-Rantawi, Moqtada al-Sadr is becoming what he called Iraq's "political nightmare" for both the interim government and his own followers. Mr. el-Rantawi says that's because the cleric cannot be believed by anyone.

"Sometimes, he offers cooperation with the Iraqi government," Mr. el-Rantawi says. "Sometimes, he offers his people to serve restoring security in Iraq. He sometimes becomes close to the so-called Iraqi resistance. Sometimes, he returns back to his own references in Iran, especially the Ayatollah. Nowadays, he is challenging the Iraqi government, the Iraqi police, the Iraqi army. He even doesn't want to be a part of the system. He refused to be a part of the Iraqi national conference. I think this man put himself in a very critical situation. He's losing his credibility."

The head of the political science department at Lebanese-American University in Beirut, Sami Baroudi, says it appears Moqtada al-Sadr is working to ideologically split Iraq in two.

"Are you with the government and the coalition? Or are you with the opposition? So, the country is basically going through a very difficult period," Mr. Baroudi says. "There are people who think working with the coalition is the only way of saving the country. And, then there are people like Sadr, and many of the followers of Sunni clerics, who believe the priority now is getting rid of the occupation, and really to see if the current government is intent on using the forces of the United States to break them."

Mr. Baroudi says, while he agrees that Moqtada al-Sadr is losing his credibility, the cleric knows the interim government is afraid to take action against him, because to do so might trigger widespread violence in places like Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad, where more than a million Iraqis live in the Shi'ite dominated section of the capital known as Sadr City.

The only way to deal with the cleric, according to both Mr. Baroudi and Mr. el-Rantawi, is for the interim government to adopt a policy of cooperation and open dialogue, in hopes of reaching a peaceful solution.

For his part, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who called on members of the Mehdi army to put down their guns, has invited the Shi'ite cleric to run in elections scheduled for early next year. There has been no word on whether he plans to do so.

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