A Young Radical's Anti-U.S. Wrath Is Unleashed

Posted in Iraq | 06-Apr-04 | Author: Jeffrey Gettleman| Source: The New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 4 — For months, as American occupation authorities have focused on a moderate Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a radical young Shiite cleric named Moktada al-Sadr has been spewing invective and threatening a widespread insurrection. On Sunday, he unleashed it.

At his word, thousands of disciples, wearing green headbands and carrying automatic rifles, stormed into the streets of several cities and set off the most widespread mayhem of the occupation. Witnesses and occupation officials said the disciples occupied police stations, fired rocket-propelled grenades at American troops and overran government security in Kufa, the town in south central Iraq where Mr. Sadr lives. "The occupation is over!" many yelled. "We are now controlled by Sadr!"

Mr. Sadr, 31, is the son of a revered Shiite cleric who was assassinated in 1999 by hit men under the rule of Saddam Hussein. He comes from a long line of clerics. A famous uncle was also silenced by Mr. Hussein in 1980.

Mr. Sadr had two older brothers, but they were killed with his father, leaving him the heir apparent.

In the prelude to the transfer of power from the American-led occupation authority to Iraqi civilians, planned for June 30, Mr. Sadr has been increasingly caustic, issuing statements denouncing Americans and any Iraqis who work with them. A newspaper that has been his official mouthpiece was shut down by the American occupation a week ago.

On Friday, he announced that he was opening Iraqi chapters of Hezbollah and Hamas, militant pro-Palestinian groups that Israel and the United States consider terrorist organizations. "I am the beating arm for Hezbollah and Hamas here in Iraq," he said.

Mr. Sadr is one of many powerful Shiite clerics calling for an Islamic government, though his following seems especially devoted. His men wear black shirts and black pants and carry larger-than-life portraits of him. He has a ruddy face and a thick black beard, and most photos feature him angrily shaking a finger.

On a recent day in Kufa, hundreds of boys marched around the town's main mosque, holding up posters of Mr. Sadr and chanting his name.

"It's true Moktada inherited a lot of support," said Hamid al-Bayati, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a prominent Shiite political party. "But there is also a lot of new passion for him."

On Sunday night, townspeople in Kufa said Mr. Sadr was holed up in its main mosque. Many said they would die before they would allow occupation forces to capture him.

In the past year of the occupation, Mr. Sadr has shown many faces. At times he is isolated by the Shiite leadership, at other times he is embraced. In the world of Shiite clerics, Mr. Sadr is an upstart. He is several ranks and many years away from attaining the title of ayatollah, which would mean his rulings would carry the weight of religious law.

Immediately after the invasion, Mr. Sadr deployed black-clad disciples to patrol the streets of Baghdad's Shiite slums. His men handed out bread, water and oranges. They also provided much-needed security. Mr. Sadr had seen a void and filled it. In return, leaders in the Shiite district of Baghdad that had been known as Saddam City decided to rename the area Sadr City, after Mr. Sadr's father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.

Whether justified or not, Mr. Sadr has a reputation for vengefulness. Last April, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a rival Shiite cleric, was hacked to death by a mob, a crime one of Mr. Sadr's henchmen is now accused of committing.

In June, Mr. Sadr formed a militia called the Mahdi Army. Many groups in Iraq have private armies. But Mr. Sadr's men, estimated to number in the tens of thousands, also formed their own religious courts and prisons.

This fall and winter, Mr. Sadr was eclipsed by Ayatollah Sistani, the septuagenarian cleric who demanded direct elections sooner rather than later and emerged as the most influential Shiite leader. The two do not talk.

As Mr. Sadr's popularity faded, his talk grew more militant.

In February, he declared his militia "the enemy of the occupation."

Last week, the American authorities shut down Mr. Sadr's newspaper, Al Hawza, after they accused it of inciting violence. Although the paper did not print any calls for attacks, the American authorities said false reporting, including articles that ascribed suicide bombings to Americans, could touch off violence.

The closing, set to last 60 days, began a week of protests that grew bigger and more unruly at each turn.

"Death to America! Death to Jews!" Mr. Sadr's supporters shouted.

The newspaper was an important symbol for many Shiites. Al Hawza took its name from a loose-knit Shiite seminary that dates from a thousand years ago. Its clerics have played pivotal roles in Middle Eastern history — and often militant ones. In 1920, Hawza clerics in Najaf encouraged the revolt against British rule in Iraq. In 1979, they played a similar role in the Islamic revolution in Iran, which like Iraq is mainly Shiite.

On Sunday, Mr. Sadr called for his followers to "terrorize your enemy."

"There is no use for demonstrations, as your enemy loves to terrify and suppress opinions, and despises peoples," he said in a statement.

"I ask you not to resort to demonstrations because they have become a losing card and we should seek other ways," he said. "Terrorize your enemy, as we cannot remain silent over its violations."