Sadr: a radical cleric gone underground but still calling shots

BAGHDAD - He has not been seen in public for months, but Monday's dramatic withdrawal of his supporters from the government shows that radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is still a dangerous force in Iraq.

The Shiite preacher -- whose location has been a mystery since October and is said by the US military to be in Iran -- continues to be the most enigmatic militant leader and potential power-player in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

On Monday, he ordered his political bloc's six ministers to quit Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ruling coalition in protest at the government's cooperation with the US force in Iraq.

His next move will be keenly anticipated -- with experts divided over whether this marks a setback for a militia chieftain who wanted to reinvent himself as a politician, or a shrewd move to shore up his patriotic base.

Initially underestimated by US authorities and Iraqi officials, the son of revered Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr showed that he can pull political strings even from his undisclosed location.

His supporters deny he is hiding and claim that he continues to live and work in the holy city of Najaf, but on April 9 he failed to turn up at a huge rally of his supporters in the city.

Sadr is backed by the Mahdi Army militia -- estimated to have thousands of loyal fighters -- and by 32 MPs in the embattled Iraqi parliament.

The US military accuses his militia of killing Sunni Arabs in the sectarian conflict that has engulfed Baghdad.

The Pentagon in its December quarterly report termed the militia as the biggest single threat to Iraqi stability, even ahead of Al-Qaeda.

The cleric is idolised by millions of Shiites in Najaf and the teeming Baghdad slum renamed Sadr City after the fall of Saddam.

"He has become the authentic spokesman for a significant portion of traditionally disenfranchised Iraqis, who, far from benefiting from the former regime's ouster, remained marginalised from the emerging political order," a July 2006 International Crisis Group report said.

Sadr's father and two brothers were killed in 1999 by gunmen allegedly sent by Saddam, but young Sadr, now in his 30s, shot to prominence in April 2003 after a US-led invasion toppled Saddam.

Since then, Sadr has twice challenged US forces with armed rebellions.

Though his fighters took a beating, the nationalist cleric has gained an aura that is the envy of Iraqi political leaders who established close ties with Washington.

But his decision to go into hiding and failure to address his followers at the Najaf rally has earned him criticism.

Analysts say the decision to pull his ministers out of the cabinet was an attempt to showcase his power. "Sadr wants to consolidate his ranks," said Joost Hiltermann, Iraq expert at ICG.

While he has few religious credentials, Sadr wears the black turban of a "sayyid" or descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, matched by a black beard and fierce eyes that scowl at the world from beneath a furrowed brow.

As US and Iraqi soldiers continue their crackdown in Baghdad to control his militiamen, Sadr displayed his political power by throwing Maliki's government into a difficulty when Iraq is bitterly divided over sectarian lines.

The cleric has however seen that his fighters do not clash with security forces, preferring to wait out the current security operations.

Arrests of dozens of his men have not triggered the sort of violent protests that followed the March 2004 shutdown of his newspaper Al-Hawzah on charges of inciting violence.

In August of that year, fighting between his militia and US forces culminated in the siege of Najaf's revered Imam Ali shrine.

But some say the cleric, once wanted "dead or alive" by US authorities, now is battling to retain his tenuous hold on militia leaders and is careful not to let any gain too much influence.

In April 2004, the then top US official in Iraq, Paul Bremer, branded Sadr an outlaw and vowed to bring him to trial for the murder of moderate rival cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei a year earlier in Najaf.

Khoei had cooperated with the British and US governments while in exile during Saddam's regime.

Sadr denied any involvement in the murder, which had angered Shiite leaders.

Sadr has since become a political kingmaker who never seeks office himself but can swing votes in parliament to his advantage.

04/16/2007 13:17 GMT

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