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Al-Sadr's Interests Political, say Experts - 2004-08-26

Forces loyal to radical Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have tied up Iraqi and U.S. troops in the holy city of Najaf for weeks, taking refuge in some of Shia Islam's holiest shrines. VOA's Middle East Correspondent Greg LaMotte spoke with two regional experts, who say Moqtada al-Sadr has moved shrewdly to unite Iraq's Shiite population behind his resistance to the U.S.-led coalition, and positioned himself for a prominent political role in Iraq.

According to religious and fundamentalist experts, the real purpose behind Iraqi Islamic cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's presence in Najaf is an effort to seize political control in Iraq.

Hala Mustafa specializes in the study of fundamentalist Islam at the al-Ahram center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"I think that Moqtada al-Sadr and his movement is trying to manipulate the political process that is about to start and to be launched in Iraq," she said. "And that's why he resorts to the armed action. I think Moqtada al-Sadr and his movement is trying to control Iraq completely or to control the political process."

Ms. Mustafa says Moqtada al-Sadr chose Najaf for two reasons. It is home to some of Islam's holiest shrines and therefore evokes passion among Shi'ites. She says he is confident that neither the Iraqi military nor U.S. troops would likely wage an attack against the shrines.

According to Mohammed Abdel Kodous, who has written several books and articles on the Islamic faith, Moqtada al-Sadr's decision to go to Najaf was an intentional ploy to turn Muslim Shi'ites against the American presence in Iraq.

Mr. Kadous says, in his view, Moqtada al-Sadr pulled off what he called a "savvy political move" by dragging American troops into one of Iraq's holiest cities for the purpose of unifying Shi'ites against the Americans. Once the American troops were present in Najaf, he says they created sympathy for the Islamic cleric among the Shi'ite population.

"Moqtada al-Sadr successfully laid a political trap and the Americans and Iraqi military fell into it," Mr. Kadous says. In the process, he says Moqtada al-Sadr increased his own political popularity among Shi'ites in Iraq.

Hundreds of militiamen loyal to the cleric have been killed in intense battles over the past three weeks in Najaf. Several efforts to arrange a peace deal have failed.

The Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, who holds enormous influence over the Shi'ite population in Iraq, arrived in Najaf Thursday hoping to bring peace to the besieged city.

And while interim Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi Thursday expressed hope a peace deal could be reached, he also warned this would be the last chance for militias to lay down their weapons and leave the holy city.