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Fighting Rages in Najaf, Iraqi Cleric al-Sadr Plays on Anti-American Sentiments - 2004-08-10

In Iraq, radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has vowed to keep fighting against U.S. forces, scuttling hopes for a quick end to the uprising by his supporters that began anew last week. The battles have been especially fierce in the holy city of Najaf, but an impoverished neighborhood in Baghdad has also been taken over by Mr. al-Sadr's militia. Part of the cleric's appeal comes from his unwavering anti-American stance.

Gun battles have raged for days in the streets of Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad slum named for the father of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The elder al-Sadr was a highly respected religious leader killed by Saddam Hussein. The younger is a controversial cleric with a small but extremely loyal following. His militia, the Mahdi Army, has twice risen up to take on U.S. troops. Sadr City is one of his strongholds, as is the holy city of Najaf, where Mr. al-Sadr lives.

In Sadr City, a Mahdi Army fighter calling himself Abu Akeel says he will attack the Americans anytime Moqtada al-Sadr orders it.

He says Mr. al-Sadr is not asking to lead the government. He says the cleric is working for all Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, and for the dignity of Iraq. He believes Iraq's other leaders are just looking out for themselves.

But although Moqtada al-Sadr's following is fiercely loyal, his support is far from universal among Iraqi Shia, especially outside of Sadr City.

In Baghdad's largely Shia neighborhood of Kadhimiya, most people are followers of another cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. A shopkeeper named Ammar Adnan al-Hashemi says he did respect Mr. al-Sadr's father, but he does not think much of the son.

He says, "I think the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr do not represent the majority of Shia Muslims. I think they are a minority."

Other residents of Kadhimiya have even stronger words of criticism for the radical cleric, but they are often quiet words, at least in public. One man says, "we reject him completely." But he will not speak on tape because he is afraid of retaliation by Mr. al-Sadr's militants. He points down the street toward the cleric's local office, and says his people are everywhere, listening.

Moqtada al-Sadr is only 31 years old and far too young to be considered one of Iraq's leading clerics. His strength comes from his popularity among the poor and disenfranchised, rather than from his clerical accomplishments. Many observers believe his repeated calls for an uprising against the Americans are a bid to increase his standing as a religious leader.

In Kadhimiya, another shopkeeper, Ali Mahdi al-Kenani, says he thinks some people follow Mr. al-Sadr out of respect for his late father.

Mr. al-Kenani says, "I think he should work with the other clerics and religious scholars because he needs more experience to be a true leader. And his age is not helping him."

Mr. al-Kenani admits, though, that he admires the firebrand cleric's determination to keep fighting the Americans.

An unemployed 32-year-old named Ayad Sayeed Kadhim says he personally does not follow Mr. al-Sadr, but he understands why people do.

He says, "I have relatives who follow Moqtada al-Sadr and I know how they think. They are desperate and hopeless. They prefer dying with Moqtada al-Sadr than dying of poverty. They say it is better to die a martyr than for no reason at all."

The Sadrist uprising has exasperated the interim Iraqi government, which would prefer to put the insurgency behind it and focus on rebuilding the country and preparing for next year's election. Government leaders have offered Mr. al-Sadr several chances to distance himself from the uprising, but despite some mixed messages, they have always been rebuffed.

"What are they fighting for now?" asked Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the interior minister. He says an election is coming in January, and anyone is free to try to persuade the Iraqi people to vote for him. So in his view, continuing to fight does not make sense.

"For example, Sadr at least had what some people might call a legitimate reason during the occupation because he was calling for the removal of the occupation," he said. "Well this has happened now. They are not coming with any political program. So I am not sure what anybody is fighting for!"

But fight they do, and the death toll from the latest uprising keeps climbing. On Saturday, Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi extended an olive branch to Mr. al-Sadr, saying he did not necessarily blame the cleric for the actions of his followers, and inviting Mr. al-Sadr to take part in the elections.

But on Monday, Mr. al-Sadr made his first public statement since the latest rebellion began. He said he will keep fighting the Americans up to his last drop of blood.