Defiance, Cleric Gains Stature With Iraq Masses
By Tyler Marshall and Henry Chu, Times Staff
Los Angeles Times
BAGHDAD — Militant cleric Muqtada Sadr's refusal Tuesday to meet with a
delegation of Iraqi religious and political leaders is the clearest
indicator yet that recent fighting in Najaf has strengthened the
anti-American leader, some analysts say.
The snub, which followed last week's breakdown of talks with envoys of
interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, made it clear that Sadr expected
any resolution to the two-week confrontation to proceed on his terms
and timetable. The message was reinforced by the 1,000 militiamen who
greeted the delegation with raised fists and shouts of "Long live
Although Allawi's government had decided to resume military operations
to oust Sadr's forces from the sacred Imam Ali shrine they have
occupied, he opted to let a new round of talks proceed.
observers say Allawi and U.S. forces have no viable options other than
trying for a negotiated end to the uprising because attempting to crush
Sadr militarily would carry too high a political price.
probability, it would take an unacceptable level of force in and around
the shrine," noted Cliff Kupchan, a Middle East specialist at the Nixon
Center in Washington. "Whether Iraqi troops do this or Americans, it
would be a generational setback for U.S. legitimacy in the Arab world."
Inherent in such assessments is the belief that, even though Sadr's
forces chose to confront the U.S. militarily from one of the holiest
sites in Shiite Islam, the public would almost certainly hold the
Americans and Allawi's U.S.-backed administration responsible for
damage from any operation to crush him.
Although many Iraqis
denounce his tactics, Sadr's strident militancy has made him the
embodiment of resistance to the continued presence of more than 140,000
U.S. troops in Iraq.
The Shiite cleric's latest confrontation
with American forces has brought new signs of support, as Sunni Muslim
militants in the town of Fallouja, west of Baghdad, reportedly
dispatched supplies to Sadr's forces. Some prominent Sunni voices in
Baghdad have advised the government against launching an attack, and
political and religious figures have called for efforts to bring Sadr
into the political process.
"Is it better for Iraq and the
political process and for democracy to embrace these people or suppress
these people?" said political analyst Khudeir Dulaimi in Baghdad.
"It is better to engage the country [including] his followers, who are
very great in number. If we suppress them, they will emerge again."
Hussein Shahristani, a nuclear scientist who had sought the prime
minister's job, agreed. "Despite the hundreds killed in Najaf and other
cities, the sense I get … is that people are more sympathetic to
Muqtada than ever before," he said.
Analysts believe that a
key to Sadr's political clout has been his emergence as the only
national symbol of defiance to the massive U.S. military presence that
remains in Iraq despite the formal hand-over of sovereignty. As the
U.S. presence grows more unpopular, Sadr's aura gains more luster.
"He's filled a vacuum of the need to express opposition to the
occupation and the current government," noted Shibley Telhami, a Middle
East specialist at the University of Maryland. "The insurgents are
faceless or disorganized. Sadr's face has become a symbol for
Sadr and his associates' skillful use of Arab
satellite television has propelled the cleric's dour, pudgy image
beyond Iraq's borders, a phenomenon that has only enhanced his stature
inside the country.
In his public statements, Sadr has made opposition to the American
presence tantamount to a patriotic duty.
"Everyone can learn from him on how he has used the media to
communicate his message," noted Bruce Hoffman, acting director of the
Rand Corp. Center for Middle East Public Policy in Washington. "He came
out of nowhere into a vacuum to become the most recognized populist
political figure in Iraq."
In some ways, Sadr's ability to
extend his appeal beyond the disaffected Shiite poor to the middle
class has been a surprise. Believed to be in his late twenties or early
thirties, Sadr apparently never finished his seminary studies and
speaks in a fiery, unpolished tongue.
But his growing appeal to people like Alaa Mohammed has greatly
complicated government efforts to resolve the Najaf crisis.
Mohammed is the kind of citizen Iraq needs if the country is to
complete its perilous journey toward democracy. The 29-year-old
journalist is educated, articulate, politically engaged — and a
follower of Sadr.
"Muqtada is our chief," Mohammed declared
with no flicker of doubt. "He's the one we want. He was the only
religious authority who faced the occupying forces."
by Iraq's Center for Research and Strategic Studies in Baghdad shortly
after thousands of militiamen loyal to Sadr launched a springtime
uprising against the U.S.-led coalition indicated that the cleric was
second only to Iraq's venerated Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in drawing
support. (Allawi, who was not yet prime minister, trailed far behind.)
Although the uprising by Sadr's militia ended in an inconclusive truce
— and the current fighting, too, has produced no measurable military
gains — it is the very act of fighting that seems to add to Sadr's
"He's a populist, a grass-roots political figure," Hoffman said.
"He's not polished, not terribly intellectual and doesn't have an
accent leavened by decades in exile, but these have become his
strengths. At a very visceral level, he appeals to many Iraqis."
reported from Baghdad and Marshall from Washington. Times staff writer
David Holley and special correspondents Said Rifai, Caesar Ahmed and
Saif Rasheed in Baghdad contributed to this report.