Global Policy Forum

Militant Cleric Considers Entry Into Iraqi Politics


By Dexter Filkins

New York Times
October 3, 2004

The Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr has begun laying the groundwork to enter Iraq's nascent democratic process, telling Iraqi leaders that he is planning to disband his militia and possibly field candidates for office.

After weeks of watching his militia wither before American military attacks, Mr. Sadr has sent emissaries to some of Iraq's major political parties and religious groups to discuss the possibility of involving himself in the campaign for nationwide elections, according to a senior aide to Mr. Sadr and several Iraqi leaders who have met with him.

According to those Iraqis, Mr. Sadr says he intends to disband his militia, the Mahdi Army, and endorse the holding of elections. While Mr. Sadr has made promises to end his armed resistance before, some Iraqi officials believe that he may be serious this time, especially given the toll of attacks on his forces.

Mr. Sadr's aides say his political intentions have been endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most powerful Shiite religious leader. He has long tried to tame what he believes is Mr. Sadr's destructive influence on the chances of Iraq's Shiites to win a majority in the elections scheduled for January.

In recent weeks, Mr. Sadr's chief aide, Ali Smesim, has met with some of the country's most important political leaders, including members of the Association of Muslim Scholars, the powerful Sunni organization; leaders of the country's Kurdish community; Christians and other Shiite leaders. Mr. Sadr appears to be particularly interested in cultivating disaffected political groups that did not cooperate with the American occupation and which are not now part of the interim Iraqi government. Those smaller parties, in turn, are keenly interested in tapping the vast support enjoyed by the 31-year-old cleric among Iraq's poor.

"We are ready to enter the democratic process, under certain conditions," Mr. Smesim said in an interview. "We will have a program. And if Moktada comes in, he will be the biggest in Iraq." Mr. Smesim said Mr. Sadr's two major conditions were the involvement of the United Nations, which is already assisting in the elections here, and the absence of any interference from American and British military forces in the electoral process.

Mr. Sadr's overtures toward the political mainstream, if they develop into a full-blown commitment, would represent a significant victory for the American-led enterprise here, just a few months before nationwide elections are to be held in January. Mr. Sadr, who commands a vast following among Iraq's poor, has long posed one of the most difficult threats to the efforts to implant a democracy here. Twice before, he has called for armed uprisings against the Americans that took weeks and hundreds of lives to suppress. More than once, he has promised to disband his militia, only to keep fighting.

His steps, though clear, are still tentative, with no definitive public declaration from the man himself. With an Iraqi murder warrant still issued for his arrest, Mr. Sadr has not been seen in public in weeks. The informal talks to persuade Mr. Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, to disband, have yielded little. Nonetheless, Iraqi officials say they are encouraged by Mr. Sadr's recent overtures, and some believe that this time Mr. Sadr might be serious. The reason, they say, is the political and military defeat that Mr. Sadr suffered in Najaf, where the Mahdi Army was badly mauled by American forces and where Mr. Sadr himself was ordered to capitulate by Ayatollah Sistani.

Mr. Smesim said Mr. Sadr was in the process of trying to form a political coalition, putting out feelers for Iraqis willing to join him. He has even floated a name for a new party - the Patriotic Alliance. According to the same Iraqis, Mr. Sadr's aides have begun to work closely with Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who was once a favorite of the Bush administration but who has since fallen out of favor. In recent weeks, Mr. Chalabi has been advising Mr. Sadr's aides in their search for allies, and he has encouraged members of the Shiite Council, a political alliance that he is a part of, to join with Mr. Sadr. Mr. Chalabi and his allies appear to be interested in tapping the vast support that Mr. Sadr enjoys among Iraqis poor and lower-class Shiites.

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