- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2003

BAGHDAD One of Iraq's leading Shi'ite imams said yesterday that he is not pressing for the country to imitate Iran, a Shi'ite Muslim nation dominated by hard-line anti-Western clerics.
"We are close to Iran, but it is not necessary to adopt the same model as Iran to run the country. We are separate from them," Imam Hussein al-Sadr told The Washington Times in his first interview with a Western journalist.
The imam was holding court as he sat on flat floor cushions in his modest home near Baghdad's al-Kadoum mosque, where a great-grandson of the prophet Muhammad was entombed 1,300 years ago. An imam is one of the three leading figures in the Shi'ite religious hierarchy.
Mr. al-Sadr, 51 and with a gray beard, is the son of the most famous Shi'ite "martyr" of the Saddam Hussein era, Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, who was killed by the regime in 1980.
Soon after the regime fell, the neighborhood known as Saddam City where more than a million Shi'ites live crammed in poverty was renamed Sadr City, after Mr. al-Sadr's father.
Mr. al-Sadr urged Americans to remain "until the security is re-established in all the country" and a new government is put in place.
"I cannot say how long the U.S. troops should stay here because that depends on the new conditions in Iraq,"he said. "There is no nervousness or tension about their staying, and there is no conflict with them in Iraq."
Long repressed under Saddam's Sunni Muslim-dominated government and representing at least 60 percent of Iraq's population of 24 million, the Shi'ites have split their religious loyalties among at least three leaders.
Iraqi Shi'ites also share a religious bond with Iran, the only other Muslim nation with a Shi'ite majority. However, Iraqi Shi'ites are Arab, not Persian like their Iranian counterparts, and have a strong identity as Iraqis.
U.S. military and intelligence officials said in Washington yesterday that they were watching for signs that Iran might be promoting anti-American demonstrations or other challenges to U.S. authority in Iraq.
"We have concerns about Iranian agents in Iraq," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "We have made clear to Iran we oppose any outside interference in Iraq's road to democracy."
The potential influence of Iraq's Shi'ites was demonstrated this week by a three-day pilgrimage in the holy city of Karbala that ended last night. It included ceremonies with swords, chest beating, ecstatic dancing and ritual chanting.
The pilgrimage, attended by at least 1 million worshippers, had been banned under Saddam's rule.
Mr. al-Sadr said that Shi'ite leaders were concerned at this time with helping stabilize the society and meeting its humanitarian needs. "After that, I cannot say what will happen."
The imam also said that being part of the government was not their main goal, though he did not rule out Shi'ite religious participation.
In Karbala, worshippers completing the pilgrimage expressed skepticism of, if not hostility toward, the U.S. presence. Thousands participated in anti-U.S. demonstrations yesterday, carrying banners with messages such as "No to America, no to Israel, yes to Islam."
The pilgrimage to mourn the prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein was organized by a center of Shi'ite learning known as the Hawza al-Ilmiya. Since Saddam's ouster, the organization has been sending out volunteers to guard banks, get power plants back on line and set up checkpoints.
The Bush administration is keen on helping establish a broad-based, democratic government in Iraq, with representation from Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.
However, there are fears that majority rule could bring theocracy, not democracy, and may not necessarily be friendly to U.S. interests.
"We want the country ruled by Shi'ites, but in a good way," said Ali Bahadilly, a worshipper in Karbala. "But the main thing is for us to feel human again."
Another worshipper outside Karbala's Hussein mosque, the focus of celebrations this week, said, "We wish to be ruled by a man who suffered a lot for Shi'ites in Iraq." He was referring to another Iraqi Shi'ite leader, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, a longtime resistance leader.
Many of the worshippers at the Hussein mosque also expressed support for Mr. al-Hakim, who is considered more radical than Mr. al-Sadr, and Imam Ali Sistani, from Najaf, the country's other main holy city.

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