- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

BAGHDAD — The bombing and bloodshed that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war have propelled anti-American firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr to the forefront of Iraqi politics. The young Shi’ite cleric, who twice defied the United States in 2004, has emerged as a major threat to U.S. plans for Iraq.

Sheik al-Sadr already had managed to carve out a strong position in Iraqi politics. His followers won 30 of the 275 parliament seats in the December elections, and his support enabled Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to win the nomination of the Shi’ite bloc for a second term as prime minister.

But the outbreak of Shi’ite-Sunni violence presented Sheik al-Sadr with an opportunity to exploit.

Through skillful use of intimidation and then concessions, Sheik al-Sadr, 31, has profited more than any other Iraqi figure from the unrest that swept the country after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi’ite shrine, which triggered reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics.

Many of those reprisal attacks were thought to be the work of Sheik al-Sadr’s own Mahdi Army militia, which operates in the Shi’ite slum of Sadr City and in Shi’ite strongholds throughout the country.

But Sheik al-Sadr, who was in Lebanon when the bombing occurred, denied any role in the violence. He quickly joined moderate Shi’ite clerics in public appeals to halt the attacks.

The message, when the violence stopped, was clear: Sheik al-Sadr controls the streets in much of the country, and no agreement to restore order has any chance of success unless he signs off on it. No major Shi’ite figure, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, now would challenge the sheik openly.

In effect, Sheik al-Sadr’s followers caused trouble and then took credit for stopping it.

Having showed its power in the streets, Sheik al-Sadr’s movement acted quickly to solidify its political position and broaden its influence among Iraqis at large. Those moves pose a major challenge to mainstream Shi’ite parties and to the United States.

Sheik al-Sadr, the menacing face of Shi’ite street power, became the voice of brotherhood and Iraqi pride. It was a shift for a man who led two armed uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004 after being charged in the slaying of a rival cleric, a case that was frozen under a January deal to end the fighting.

In Najaf on Sunday, Sheik al-Sadr told his followers that “there is no such thing as Sunni or Shi’ite mosques. The mosques are for all Iraqi people and for all Muslims.”

Sheik al-Sadr then turned to hard-line Sunni clerics, who share his opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq, signing an agreement with the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars to prohibit killing members of the two sects and banning attacks on each other’s mosques.

A joint statement blamed the presence of U.S. and other coalition forces for the sectarian crisis and urged them to withdraw as soon as possible.

All this represents a major challenge, especially if Mr. al-Jaafari is confirmed as prime minister and grants Sheik al-Sadr’s followers major posts in the new government.

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