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Reporter: Kelly Crowe
From The National, April 5, 2004
Muqtada al-Sadr is a young Shia cleric who has seized the attention of the Americans and much of the rest of the world.
Muqtada al-Sadr (AP photo)
He is the leader of the Mahdi Army, the militia that barricaded itself inside the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. Al-Sadr is a vocal opponent of the Iraqi interim government and his militia has been fighting with the U.S. and Iraqi armies in Najaf and the Sadr City section of Baghdad.
"The people of Iraq are supportive of what they call the Sadr movement
and I am the leader," al-Sadr said in an interview with the CBC in April 2004.
This movement is seeking to establish an Islamic state in Iraq under Shariah law.
At 30, he hasn't finished his religious training. He's still a student, too young to be a full-fledged religious authority, but he has inherited both status and credibility from his famous father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, once one of the most powerful Shiite clerics in Iraq before he was assassinated by Saddam Hussein.
Al-Sadr is using his father's reputation to wrestle power from the established Shiite leadership and lead an anti-U.S. revolt, says Mideast expert Mamoun Fandy.
"The majority of the Iraqi population are under 25, so the majority of the young are attracted to him and they are attracted to his fiery message," Fandy says.
Al-Sadr's support lies mostly with the poor in Baghdad's impoverished suburbs. His movement is based on strict Islamic values, and he has invoked a wider Islamic struggle, warning that the Americans are occupying some of the most sacred Muslim ground, and he is threatening to act on behalf of Palestinian extremist groups.
"It throws the whole situation into chaos because it links the whole Arab politics together. It is not just a confined situation of the Iraqis. It really expands beyond the Iraqi boundaries," Fandy says.
Al-Sadr has always been an irritant for his unwillingness to co-operate with the American forces, but it was the closing of his newspaper in late March 2004 that lit the fuse. After protests and the arrest of one of his supporters, al-Sadr said the demonstrations were not working and he urged his supporters to terrorize their enemies.
"This is really a very difficult situation because if they arrest him, practically they are increasing his power and increasing the number of his followers and also radicalizing the whole situation. If they don't arrest him, also, they will appear weak," Fandy says.
So far, al-Sadr has failed to interest the educated middle class and many Iraqi Shiites are not interested in turning Iraq into a strict Muslim state. But al-Sadr is the first Shiite cleric to openly challenge the U.S. presence, a move that might force other more tolerant Shiite leaders to take a tougher stand.
MORE: Muqtada al-Sadr interview