Iraq militia chief pulls strings as his forces pull triggersBAGHDAD Men loyal to Moktada al-Sadr piled out of their cars at a plantation near Baghdad on a recent morning, bristling with Kalashnikov rifles and eager to exact vengeance on Sunni Arab fighters who had butchered one of their Shiite militia brothers.
When the smoke cleared after the fight, at least 21 bodies lay scattered among the weeds, making it the deadliest militia battle in months. The black-clad Shiites swaggered away, boasting about the carnage.
Even as that battle raged on Oct. 27, Sadr's aides in Baghdad were quietly closing a deal that would signal his official debut as a kingmaker in Iraqi politics, placing his handpicked candidates on the same slate and on equal footing with the Shiite governing parties in the parliamentary elections in December.
The country's rulers had come courting him, and he had forced them to meet his terms.
Wielding violence and political popularity as complementary tools, Sadr, the Shiite cleric who has defied the U.S. authorities since the fall of Saddam Hussein, is cementing his role as one of Iraq's most powerful figures. Just a year after Sadr led two fierce uprisings, the Americans are hailing his entry into the elections as the best sign yet that the political process can co-opt insurgents.
But Sadr's ascent could portend a much darker chain of events, for he continues to embrace his image as an unrepentant guerrilla leader even as he takes the reins of political power.
Sadr has made no move to disband his militia, the thousands-strong Mahdi Army. In recent weeks, factions of the militia have assaulted and abducted Sunni Arabs, rival Shiite groups, journalists and British-led forces in the south, where Sadr has a zealous following.
At least 19 foreign soldiers and contractors have been killed there since late summer, mostly by roadside bombs planted by Shiite militiamen using Iranian technology, British officers say.
"The fatality rate is quite high, much higher than it was a year ago," Major General J.B. Dutton, the British commander in southern Iraq, said in a briefing to reporters.
Members of the Mahdi Army have also joined the police in large numbers, while retaining their loyalty to Sadr. Squad cars in Baghdad and southern cities cruise openly with pictures of Sadr taped to the windows.
Sadr's oratory is as anti-American and incendiary as it has ever been. A recent article in Al Hawza, a weekly Sadr publication that the Americans tried unsuccessfully to close last year, carried the headline: "Bush Family: Your Nights Will Be Finished." Another article explained that Sadr was supporting the December elections to rid Iraq of U.S.-backed politicians who "rip off the heads of the underprivileged and scatter the pieces of their children and elderly."
Partly because of his uncompromising attitude, Sadr, who is in his early 30s, is immensely popular among impoverished Shiites. That has made him the most coveted ally of the governing Shiite parties as they head into the December elections.
Sadr used this leverage to get 30 of his candidates on the Shiite coalition's slate. This was as many as the number allotted to each of the two main governing parties, the Dawa Islamic Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Sadr's aides have already negotiated with those parties for executive offices and ministry posts in the next government.
Early this month, the leader of the Supreme Council, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, went to the holy city of Najaf to visit Sadr in a gesture of solidarity. Hakim and Sadr are sons of deceased ayatollahs whose families have feuded. In August, the Mahdi Army stormed the offices of the Supreme Council across southern Iraq. Hakim's recent visit showed how much the mainstream Shiite leaders need the support of Sadr, no matter how much they abhorred him.
"They are the largest group in the Shiite community," said Hajim al-Hassani, a secular Sunni Turkmen who is speaker of the transitional National Assembly. "They will be a force to deal with in the elections. If they run separately, they would get most of the seats in the south."
Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi contributed reporting.