Shiite Contender Eyes Iraq's Big Prize

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It would be easy to dismiss Muqtada al-Sadr as little more than a street punk. That may be a mistake when dealing with a man who appears to have established himself as the de facto ruler of a huge chunk of Baghdad — the Shiite ghetto once known as Saddam City, now renamed Sadr City in honor of Muqtada's uncle, the legendary martyred anti-Saddam rebel cleric Muhammad Bakir al Sadr. Sadr City could be described as the Compton of Iraq, but its 2 million residents make up 8 percent of Iraq's entire population. A substantial domain, then, for a young man who claims to be 30 years old, but whom many of his associates admit is more likely 23. But, as everyone from the U.S. military, the Shiite clerical authorities in Najaf and the leading Iran-based Shiite exile group have discovered in recent weeks, Muqtada's ambitions may be a lot broader than simply running Sadr City. And that's a chilling prospect for U.S. efforts to guide the political transition in Iraq, since Muqtada's supporters are among the most visible and most militant among the Shiite faithful, whose powerful and not always friendly emergence on the streets of post-Saddam Iraq has shocked American planners.

Muqtada's supporters are alleged to have been involved in the murder of pro-U.S. returned exile Ayatollah Abdel Majid al-Khoei at Najaf last month, and then briefly laid siege to the home of Iraq's supreme Shiite authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and demanded that Sistani leave Iraq. Some U.S. officials speculated that his fanatical supporters, who had worked underground, were a pro-Iran faction stirring up trouble. But it quickly emerged that Muqtada spelt trouble even for the leading Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Muqtada — whose supporters have crowned him the heir to the leadership mantle of his father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr who inherited it from the martyred Muhammed Bakir al-Sadr before being martyred himself — believes he has a claim to national leadership.

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Not that he'll accept the top job in a new government in the (rather unlikely) event its offered to him by the Americans: "The U.S. will ignore the opinion of the Iraqi people and it will compose the new government according to its own desires," Muqtada told a press conference this week. For that reason, he says, he will decline any offer to rule the new Iraq. "I don't want the chair of the government because it will be controlled by the U.S. and I don't want to be controlled by the U.S." When asked if that meant he would want to attack the Americans, he snorted and replied with the colloquial Arabic equivalent of "Why would I want to f**k myself?" He declined further comment, implying that it would only get him into trouble.

His chubby frame draped in black robes and turban, he maintained a permanent scowl throughout the press conference as if to add gravity to his words, delivered with a lisp in colloquial Arabic peppered with street slang, rather than in eloquent classical Arabic more common among Shiite scholars and clerics. And, again unlike other Shiite leaders, he spoke bluntly and aggressively, without vague hints and innuendo. Muqtada professes no gratitude to the U.S. for ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein. He gives all the thanks to God.

Unlike his father, Muqtada has no formal religious standing to interpret the Koran, and relies for religious authority on an Iran-based Iraqi exiled cleric, Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri. But he clearly believes he will himself assume the rank of marjah — the highest authority on religion and law in Shiism, in American pop-cultural terms a knight on the highest Jedi council. His father and uncle certainly provide him with an impeccable pedigree in terms of Iraqi Shiite martyrdom. Their names — along with Muqtada's — were chanted by thousands of worshipers making the pilgrimage to Karbala last week. He denies being too young to assume spiritual authority, explaining that his father became just such an authority — or mujtahid — at the age of 25, while another important Shiite scholar and relative, Muhammed Bakir al-Sadr attained that rank at 22. Says Muqtada, "I am not a mujtahid, but I am not far from becoming one."

Even before he attains such status, he does not hide his contempt many of the others who have. "I deny all marjah, except for Haeri, and I represent the second martyr (meaning his father) and not the Hawza (the supreme religious academy of Iraqi Shi'ism, located in Najaf)." Of the other marjah, he says, "some of them have no followers." He downplays the importance, both political and military, of one of the most senior marjah, Ayatollah Mohammed Sayeed al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its military wing, the Badr corps. "The Badr corps have ten or twelve thousand supporters while three quarters of Iraq are soldiers of Sadr. The Iraqi people don't follow any marjah but my father. And Haeri is important now, because my father deputized him." 

Revealing some of the schisms even among supposedly Iranian-influenced Iraqi Shiites, Muqtada is disparaging of SCIRI's Hakim. "The followers of Sadr don't like Hakim because he betrayed the people of Basra and the south when he urged them to fight (in the 1991 anti-Saddam intifada), and didn't come in to help them, causing the intifada to fail."

Asked about efforts to organize Shiite clerics to play a political role in the post-Saddam situation, Muqtada replied: "I reject all the Hawza that has relations with America and I reject everyone from the Hawza who is involved in politics. Anyone who seeks to be involved in politics should join hands with America." At the same time, however, Muqtada al-Sadr is promoting the involvement of clerics in public affairs, as against the more apolitical role for the imams envisaged by Sistani and others at Najaf, and urging that women be veiled and alcohol be banned throughout Iraq.

Of the murder of Ayatollah al-Khoei, for which two of Muqtada's guards have been arrested, Muqtada denies involvement. "I expelled Mustafa Yaqubi and Sheik Kais (the men arrested) and we beat them," he says, insisting that he had tried to protect Khoei. "I tried to save him. I sent my men to announce on loudspeakers that all arms should be laid down. I tried to go out to help Khoei, but I was threatened with the same fate as him if I went out."

That remains a distinct possibility in the high-stakes battle for dominance among Iraq's majority Shiite population. But it's a possibility for which Muqtada is ready. "I am not afraid," he says. "I wish to be a martyr, and I don't fear death."