Global Policy Forum

Influence Rises But Base Frays for Iraqi Cleric


By Sabrina Tavernise

New York Times
November 13, 2006

Few have ever described Moktada al-Sadr, the mercurial leader of Iraq's mightiest Shiite militia, as a statesman. Yet there he was last month sitting on a pristine couch with the prime minister (no longer cross-legged on the floor), making public calls as well as sending private text messages to aides discouraging sectarianism, and paying visits to the home of Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric.

For years an angry outsider, Mr. Sadr, 33, has moved deep into the inner sanctum of the Iraqi government largely because his followers make up the biggest and most volatile Shiite militia. Now, after more than a year in power, he and his top lieutenants are firmly part of the establishment, a position that has brought new comfort and wealth. That change has shifted the threat for the American military, which no longer faces mass uprisings by Mr. Sadr's fighters when it enters their turf.

But the taming of Mr. Sadr has produced a paradox: the more settled he becomes in the establishment, the looser his grip is over his fighters on the streets and those increasingly infiltrating the security forces. In the two years since they fought against American tanks at Mr. Sadr's command, many have broken away from the confines of compromise that bind him, and have taken a far more active role in killing, something his supporters say worries him. He says he is trying to weed them out — 40 were publicly dismissed last month.

The increasing violence of some of his followers mirrors the overall unraveling of Iraq, which has become less centrally controlled and far more criminal since the American invasion in 2003. The situation is one of the highest priorities for the incoming Democratic-controlled Congress in the United States. The Sadrists "are really facing a problem," said one Shiite politician. "They formed a militia. It expanded. Now each one is a cell. This is the dangerous thing."

As always with the elusive Mr. Sadr, who has rarely granted interviews to foreign journalists, it is not clear whether his public pronouncements and efforts at reform are sincere, or how long they will last. But in Iraq, power flows from the barrel of a gun, and he, better than anyone, knows that. Mr. Sadr's new prominence in politics is partly a result of intense American and Iraqi efforts. For most of 2004, Iraqi leaders shuttled south of Baghdad to Najaf, where he lives, to persuade him to get followers in his militia, the Mahdi Army, to disarm and also to ask him to enter the political process. Eventually, he did, though many of his followers kept their guns.

Now parties loyal to him control the single largest portion of seats in Parliament and elevated the prime minister to power. They control five government ministries. Mr. Sadr is often described as fickle, image-obsessed and having a short attention span. But lately, he has cut a more sophisticated image. He rented and refurbished a large house near his own for guests in Najaf, after returning from a monthlong trip early this year. It was his second visit abroad, and he met with princes and kings of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Iran, according to a Shiite politician close to him.

"Now they can sit on couches," instead of rugs, he said. Perhaps most significant, Mr. Sadr has been paying visits to the son of Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and apparently learning the arts of negotiation and compromise. "Nowadays he's communicating better," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser. "Grand Ayatollah Sistani is trying to bring him within the fold."

While all this is happening, however, the war has grown far deadlier for Iraqis on the street, and many of Mr. Sadr's supporters are following a fresh crop of more militant Mahdi commanders. It is not that poor, young Shiites no longer follow Mr. Sadr; his image still adorns concrete walls. Religious rap songs play just as loudly on the streets of Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad that is the heart of his support. But Mr. Sadr's new call for calm — one he is required to make as a part of the Iraqi establishment — is not satisfying to many, who are deeply angry at sectarian killings by Sunni militias. "When a worker is killed because he's from Sadr City, what do you expect from his family?" said a 26-year-old graduate student from Sadr City. "It is a fact that he will try to take revenge."

One result is a small proliferation of senior militia leaders — a coalition intelligence official said in September there were at least six — striking out on their own. One new commander is a fishmonger who goes by the name Abu Dera, meaning "man of the shield." According to legend, an American tank fired directly on him and missed. Although his supporters deny it, Sunnis say Abu Dera is one of the city's biggest killers, responsible for thousands of murders of Sunnis whose bodies are surfacing daily in a giant garbage dump less than a mile from his block. He is often referred to as "the Zarqawi of the Shiites," a reference to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia who was killed by American forces last June.

The Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who is Shiite, has given the approval for the American military to arrest him. They have tried and failed at least twice. Abu Dera clearly inspires Shiites who want to take the law into their own hands, or as they see it, carry out justice for Sunni aggression while their government looks on helplessly. "Mahdi Army has killed the main insurgent figures," said the 26-year-old in Sadr City. "It did a favor for the Americans and the government."

The fracturing of Mr. Sadr's militia traces the arc of Iraq's history since the American invasion. In 2004, the American military was the common enemy, and Mr. Sadr's followers even joined Sunnis to fight in Falluja. But as vicious attacks by Sunni militias intensified, perception of the enemy shifted, and Iraq's two main sects began fighting each other.

One result has been a spectacular spike in killing — the monthly death toll in the capital has been double the rate of a year earlier — and Mr. Sadr's militia is being blamed. At first, Mr. Sadr denied that his forces were responsible. Some Shiite Iraqi officials have said that many people claim Mahdi affiliations, even Sunni militants. Whatever the case, the killing has gotten so bad that he considers it a threat to his power, his supporters say. "Now he's become very worried," said the politician who had discussed Mr. Sadr's trip abroad. "The violence has reached this point of being out of control." Even Mr. Maliki, the prime minister, has noted the predicament. "We don't know what Mahdi Army means any more," he remarked ruefully to a Reuters reporter recently.

Mr. Sadr has tried to fashion his organization after Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia commanded by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, which showed its efficiency and unity of purpose during the war with Israel this summer, instituting exams for new members and dismissing wayward heads of his offices. In Basra, in the south, he is on his seventh since 2003. But Mr. Sadr has been thwarted by his undisciplined forces.

Mr. Sadr has disavowed a number of his commanders. At a Friday Prayer last month, the names of 40 dismissed Mahdi Army commanders were read aloud at a lectern in front of a sea of men holding umbrellas against the hot sun. Among them were Hassan Salim, the leader of the Mahdi Army in Baghdad, and Hajj Shimel, a prominent cleric. Abbas al-Kufi, Mr. Sadr's strongman enforcer, arrived from Najaf to attend the reading.

That public response fits snugly with the agenda of the American military, which is chipping away at the most corrupt edges of Mr. Sadr's empire through arrests. Even though the military has made more than six forays into the area since early August, including an Oct. 25 attempt to arrest Abu Dera, Mr. Sadr has been largely silent, and the only repercussions were a few angry public remarks by Mr. Maliki.

Indeed, the challenge Mr. Sadr presented to the American military in 2004, when his followers fought tanks in flip-flops, seems to have melted away. "We have arrested people who in 2004 we would have had to move M1 tanks to Sadr City to suppress an uprising over," said one intelligence official who spoke to reporters in September about Mr. Sadr's army. That is in part because Mr. Sadr is standing by a newly declared truce with the Americans and also because of the Sadrists' new proximity to power, well-connected local residents critical of the Mahdi militia say.

During a recent raid, area residents said, $4 million was found in the house of one militia member. "Now Mahdi leaders have the money, they have the Parliament," said a merchant who asked not to be identified for safety reasons. "They do not want to risk it by fighting. Those who tasted the sweets will never give them up."

American and Iraqi officials say Iran is also a major financial source. But while the unraveling of Mr. Sadr's unified militia takes away some problems for the military, it also creates new ones through the infiltration of the Iraqi security forces. "You have more points of entry," said Lt. Col. Eric Schacht, whose soldiers patrol areas of largely Shiite eastern Baghdad.

American officials have urged Mr. Maliki to take up this problem with Mr. Sadr and, to some extent, he has. But sectarian divisions have hardened in politics, and Shiite leaders, incensed at what they say is an American obsession with militias, have treated Mr. Sadr gently. "We find his arguments very true," said a Shiite lawmaker, Sami al-Askiri. "We agree with him."

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