KUFA, Iraq (AP) — A Shiite Muslim firebrand who has been a
thorn in the side of Iraq’s American administrators is
showing a more conciliatory side. Gone is the talk of setting up a
rival government and the denounciations of rivals. Now he says
Saddam Hussein — not America — is the enemy of
Muqtada al-Sadr’s new tone may have more to do with fear
of arrest than any decision to abandon his quest for leadership of
Iraq’s Shiite majority, coalition officials believe.
Nonetheless, it’s a radical departure for the 30-year-old
al-Sadr, whose fiery anti-American sermons raised fears of a new
front in the battle against the American occupation. In a rapid
rise to prominence this year, backed by young clerics and mostly
poor, urban Shiites, he challenged the religious elders of
Iraq’s Shiite leadership.
Now, al-Sadr is opening channels of dialogue with Shiite groups
he once dismissed, his aides say. And he is striving to attract
educated Iraqis to his movement by toning down his rhetoric.
The spread of anti-U.S. violence into Shiite areas would present
a grave challenge to the U.S.-led coalition. The vast majority of
attacks have been in central and northern Iraq, areas dominated by
minority Sunni Muslims.
Last month, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen.
Richard Myers, said that Washington’s problem with al-Sadr
“is that anybody that incites violence against the coalition,
that’s not proper or legal” and that it “remains
to be determined” whether the Americans would take action
Faced with the prospect of a showdown with the Americans,
al-Sadr appears to have switched tactics. Coalition officials,
speaking on condition of anonymity, believe that al-Sadr’s
talk of a rival government and clashes between his followers and
those of moderate Shiite leaders may have scared away
During last Friday’s sermon in the ancient city of Kufa,
al-Sadr chanted “No, No to colonialism” and thousands
of young worshippers squatting on straw mats, rugs and cardboard
pieces across the sandy courtyard of the city’s main mosque
repeated after him with a deafening noise.
There also were shouts of “No, No to Israel,” but,
significantly, not “No, No to America.”
“Colonialism” is a thinly veiled reference to the
U.S. occupation of Iraq, but the fact that the United States was
not mentioned by name was further evidence that al-Sadr was at
pains not to provoke Iraq’s new master.
In an English-language open letter to the American people
— distributed in his movement’s publication, al-Sadr
wrote, “Iraqi people love and intend no harm to
“There is no enemy of Iraq but Saddam the destroyer and
his cronies, whom we denounce until Judgment Day and they are in
immortal hell,” he wrote.
Some al-Sadr aides believe their leader may have acted too soon
in proclaiming a new, rival government and in moving too quickly
and aggressively to assert leadership within a community that
reveres aging scholars rather than young firebrands trying to
ignore age-old traditions and clerical norms.
Al-Sadr’s popularity has long been weak in the two holiest
Shiite cities of Iraq, Karbala and Najaf. His movement’s
standing elsewhere has diminished as more coalition-backed local
councils find their feet.
His rise to prominence was due in large part to the political
and economic void in the wake of Saddam’s ouster. Al-Sadr
combined canny street politics with a prominent lineage — he
is the son of a revered cleric believed assassinated by
Saddam’s agents — to establish a sizable base of
In his quest for Shiite leadership, al-Sadr vilified older and
more established clerics, branded members of a U.S.-picked
Governing Council as traitors and collaborators and sought to
control of shrines in Najaf and Karbala.
His movement is sustained in large part by the fierce loyalty of
young clerics to the memory of the elder al-Sadr. Its strengths and
weaknesses are closely monitored by the Americans and others at a
time when Shiites in Iraq are casting off centuries of political
disenfranchisement and assuming their place as Iraq’s single
most dominant force.