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Shi'ite Power Shifting


Many analysts say there a new breed of young political leaders is emerging in the Middle East. Perhaps most prominent among them are Lebanon's Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Iraqi radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Hassan Nasrallah and Moqtada al-Sadr are both deeply religious Shi'ites who say they believe Islam holds the answer to the problems facing Muslim societies. They head organizations with a militant wing and a network that provides social services for thousands of the poor in their countries. Both are powerful politicians. They believe in armed resistance.

Radical Agendas

Both men are anti-American and anti-Western. The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq says Moqtada al-Sadr is responsible for much of the violence in Iraq, including a mob killing of a pro-American Shi'ite cleric in 2004. And Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, is blamed for a large number of deadly attacks, hijackings and the kidnapping of Westerners, and the bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 people in 1983.

But Chris Toensing of the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington says despite many similarities, Nasrallah and al-Sadr are quite different.

"Nasrallah is admired for his personal style and speaking which contrasts markedly with the bombast that Arabs associate with their leaders," says Toensing. "He is very calm, methodical and logical. Sadr is much more of a demagogic speaker. He doesn't sound as educated and logical as Nasrallah, so his appeal is much more limited."

"Moqtada [al-Sadr] is still very inexperienced," says Nir Rosen, a Middle East expert at the New American Foundation in Washington.

"Moqtada's movement began as a reaction to the U.S. occupation [of Iraq] and its leadership. And they [al-Sadr's followers] don't have a real agenda yet, except for being against things. They are against the U.S. occupation, against all Sunnis. Nasrallah is much more of a uniting figure. You see a guy with a big beard and a turban talking about Jihad, you don't think of his potential as a uniting figure - - someone who can be a national symbol. But for many Lebanese, that's what Nasrallah is," says Rosen.

After taking over Hezbollah in 1992, Nasrallah re-positioned the Shi'ite organization as a major player in Lebanese politics. He supported Hezbollah charities while masterminding a low-intensity war against Israeli occupation, which ended with Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Since Syria's military pullout from Lebanon in 2005, Nasrallah has increasingly moved Hezbollah toward political engagement. Hezbollah has 14 seats in the Lebanese parliament and two members in the government.

Nasrallah, now in his forties, was thrust into the international limelight after Israel's offensive last July, which was triggered by kidnappings of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah militants. In the Muslim world, Nasrallah emerged from the conflict as a hero capable of facing down Israel. It broadened, many experts say, his appeal to Shi'ites and Sunnis alike.

Sectarian Conflict

Meanwhile, most analysts note that al-Sadr has been a divisive force in Iraq.

Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University says al-Sadr has sought to replace often by force traditional factions in Iraq with his movement as the voice of the country's Shi'ite majority. He says al-Sadr has fueled sectarian strife in Iraq and remains a bitter foe of the United States.

"Moqtada al-Sadr is one of a number of people representing a new and angry young generation that hated Saddam and hates the American presence [in Iraq]. He has never been willing to talk to the coalition or the United States. He has fought two wars against the American occupation and seems to be ready to fight a third, if necessary. It appears that his militia, his irregular forces, the Mahdi Army, have been heavily involved in death-squad activity," says Diamond. "Many people think it would have been better if his militia and political organization had been shut down early in the occupation. But now, it may be too late to do that. And this is why a number of actors have tried to draw him into the political process, while trying to create some conditions that might contain his militia activity."

Moqtada al-Sadr, about 30 years of age, has little religious standing, but he draws strength from his family. His father and uncle were respected clerics and victims of assassination during Saddam Hussein's reign. The loyalty of many of his father's supporters passed on to the younger al-Sadr. Many experts note that his movement is Iraqi-centered and is considerably less influenced by Iran than Nasrallah's Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Analyst Chris Toensing of the Middle East Research and Information Project says the emergence of young leaders like Moqtada al Sadr and Hassan Nasrallah has been decades in the making.

"There are lot's of other kinds of voices, but they do not have a tremendous amount of political power and a tremendous social following. The reasons for this are historical. The moderate U.S.-allied regimes have for many years fairly ruthlessly suppressed any secular political opposition to themselves," says Toensing.

Democratization and Radicals

Meanwhile, other analysts, including James Phillips of The Heritage Foundation, caution that rapid democratization will not necessarily stem radical Islamists.

"In the Middle East when dictatorships crackdown, it is much easier to root out secular liberal opposition movements and much harder to get radical Islamic movements because Islamic movements are anchored in the mosques. It's difficult for the government to scour out the mosque. So if you move quickly to democracy, chances are the radical Islamists are already organized. They have a head start on the secular parties. By moving quickly to democracy, you give them an advantage," says Phillips.

These trends, most analysts agree, are unlikely to change in the near future. There is also broad agreement that the younger generation of Shi'ite leaders pose a special challenge to moderate Arab governments, some of which have not brought security and economic prosperity to their nations.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.