[Marxism] LATimes: Steadfast in defiance, Sadr gains stature in Iraq

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Wed Aug 18 04:03:48 MDT 2004



Steadfast in Defiance, Cleric Gains Stature With Iraq Masses

Caption: Members of Alpha Company 1st Battalion/4th Marines move through
the streets of downtown Najaf, as the battle between U.S. and Sadr
forces continued Tuesday. The Marines moved in closer to the city
(Carolyn Cole / LAT)

Caption: Bullet casings fly from a machine gun as U.S. forces fire on
insurgents from a building in downtown Najaf. A battle between snipers
on both sides went on for hours Tuesday, a rare experience for even
veteran sharp shooters in the Marines.
(Carolyn Cole / LAT)

August 17, 2004
By Tyler Marshall and Henry Chu, Times Staff Writers


BAGHDAD - Militant cleric Muqtada Sadr's refusal Tuesday to meet with a
delegation of Iraqi religious and political leaders is the clearest
indicator yet that recent fighting in Najaf has strengthened the
anti-American leader, some analysts say.

The snub, which followed last week's breakdown of talks with envoys of
interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, made it clear that Sadr expected any
resolution to the two-week confrontation to proceed on his terms and
timetable. The message was reinforced by the 1,000 militiamen who
greeted the delegation with raised fists and shouts of "Long live


Although Allawi's government had decided to resume military operations
to oust Sadr's forces from the sacred Imam Ali shrine they have
occupied, he opted to let a new round of talks proceed.

Several observers say Allawi and U.S. forces have no viable options
other than trying for a negotiated end to the uprising because
attempting to crush Sadr militarily would carry too high a political

"In all probability, it would take an unacceptable level of force in and
around the shrine," noted Cliff Kupchan, a Middle East specialist at the
Nixon Center in Washington. "Whether Iraqi troops do this or Americans,
it would be a generational setback for U.S. legitimacy in the Arab

Inherent in such assessments is the belief that, even though Sadr's
forces chose to confront the U.S. militarily from one of the holiest
sites in Shiite Islam, the public would almost certainly hold the
Americans and Allawi's U.S.-backed administration responsible for damage
from any operation to crush him.

Although many Iraqis denounce his tactics, Sadr's strident militancy has
made him the embodiment of resistance to the continued presence of more
than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

The Shiite cleric's latest confrontation with American forces has
brought new signs of support, as Sunni Muslim militants in the town of
Fallouja, west of Baghdad, reportedly dispatched supplies to Sadr's
forces. Some prominent Sunni voices in Baghdad have advised the
government against launching an attack, and political and religious
figures have called for efforts to bring Sadr into the political

"Is it better for Iraq and the political process and for democracy to
embrace these people or suppress these people?" said political analyst
Khudeir Dulaimi in Baghdad. 

"It is better to engage the country [including] his followers, who are
very great in number. If we suppress them, they will emerge again." 

Hussein Shahristani, a nuclear scientist who had sought the prime
minister's job, agreed. "Despite the hundreds killed in Najaf and other
cities, the sense I get . is that people are more sympathetic to Muqtada
than ever before," he said. 

Analysts believe that a key to Sadr's political clout has been his
emergence as the only national symbol of defiance to the massive U.S.
military presence that remains in Iraq despite the formal hand-over of
sovereignty. As the U.S. presence grows more unpopular, Sadr's aura
gains more luster.

"He's filled a vacuum of the need to express opposition to the
occupation and the current government," noted Shibley Telhami, a Middle
East specialist at the University of Maryland. "The insurgents are
faceless or disorganized. Sadr's face has become a symbol for

Sadr and his associates' skillful use of Arab satellite television has
propelled the cleric's dour, pudgy image beyond Iraq's borders, a
phenomenon that has only enhanced his stature inside the country.

In his public statements, Sadr has made opposition to the American
presence tantamount to a patriotic duty.

"Everyone can learn from him on how he has used the media to communicate
his message," noted Bruce Hoffman, acting director of the Rand Corp.
Center for Middle East Public Policy in Washington. "He came out of
nowhere into a vacuum to become the most recognized populist political
figure in Iraq." 

In some ways, Sadr's ability to extend his appeal beyond the disaffected
Shiite poor to the middle class has been a surprise. Believed to be in
his late twenties or early thirties, Sadr apparently never finished his
seminary studies and speaks in a fiery, unpolished tongue.

But his growing appeal to people like Alaa Mohammed has greatly
complicated government efforts to resolve the Najaf crisis.

Mohammed is the kind of citizen Iraq needs if the country is to complete
its perilous journey toward democracy. The 29-year-old journalist is
educated, articulate, politically engaged - and a follower of Sadr. 

"Muqtada is our chief," Mohammed declared with no flicker of doubt.
"He's the one we want. He was the only religious authority who faced the
occupying forces." 

A poll by Iraq's Center for Research and Strategic Studies in Baghdad
shortly after thousands of militiamen loyal to Sadr launched a
springtime uprising against the U.S.-led coalition indicated that the
cleric was second only to Iraq's venerated Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani
in drawing support. (Allawi, who was not yet prime minister, trailed far

Although the uprising by Sadr's militia ended in an inconclusive truce -
and the current fighting, too, has produced no measurable military gains
- it is the very act of fighting that seems to add to Sadr's stature.

"He's a populist, a grass-roots political figure," Hoffman said. 

"He's not polished, not terribly intellectual and doesn't have an accent
leavened by decades in exile, but these have become his strengths. At a
very visceral level, he appeals to many Iraqis."


Chu reported from Baghdad and Marshall from Washington. Times staff
writer David Holley and special correspondents Said Rifai, Caesar Ahmed
and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad contributed to this report

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