- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

BAGHDAD — A Shi’ite cleric in a poor Baghdad neighborhood claims to have recruited an army of more than 1,000 Iraqi volunteers who are ready to die to reach heaven.

The army doesn’t have any weapons, at least not yet, but Sheik Abbas Zubaidi said his recruits are already armed by the strength of their convictions.

“The Americans only have brute force and weaponry. We have God, the prophet and followers. And they are stronger than the Americans’ weapons,” the cleric said in an interview.

“We see heaven before us,” he said. “We are willing to sacrifice ourselves to reach heaven.”

Sheik Zubaidi’s effort is part of a larger recruitment campaign in southern Iraq and in the Shi’ite slums of Baghdad led by a young charismatic preacher named Sheik Moqtada al-Sadr.

The new force is named Mahdi’s Army — after the twelfth Shi’ite imam or saint who disappeared in the Iraqi city of Samarra in 874 and whose return is to herald a new age.

It claims that more than a million Iraqis have signed membership applications in the first week alone.

U.S. officials generally consider Sheik al-Sadr’s group a nuisance. It frequently stages demonstrations in front of U.S. bases proclaiming, “Down with America” and “No justice, no peace.”

Privately, American officials say they won’t trounce on Sheik al-Sadr and provoke his flock unless he does something violent.

The Shi’ite branch of Islam broke off from Sunnis almost immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. Iraq’s Shi’ites constitute more than 60 percent of the population.

Under Saddam Hussein, a Sunni muslim, they were denied power and brutally oppressed. Many sought help and shelter from neighboring Iran, a Shi’ite-majority country and Islamic state run by clerics.

Sheik al-Sadr, a brooding, 29-year-old cleric based in the Southern Iraqi city of Najaf, opposes the U.S.-led occupation, rejects the legitimacy of the American-backed governing council and answers to Ayotallah Kazim al-Haeri, a hard-line cleric based in the Iranian religious city of Qom, and the Hawza, the main Shi’ite religious seminary in Najaf.

Sheik al-Sadr and his followers have been holding regular, peaceful demonstrations in Iraq and Najaf, denouncing the American occupation force as the enemy of God and decrying the 25-member governing council as an illegitimate “Zionist” body.

Sheik al-Sadr has vowed to create his own alternative council with the aim of eventually establishing an Islamic state.

“The governing council represents only the interests of a few political parties and not all groups and classes of Iraqi society,” he said in a recent interview. “Our governing council will be open to all parties and religious groups in the country.”

Since the day after Sheik al-Sadr made a fiery July 18 sermon calling for the creation of an Islamic army, his group also been actively recruiting young men into Mahdi’s Army.

Between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., bearded young men line up to volunteer.

Men sitting behind desks write down names and addresses on photocopied forms in neat, Arabic script.

“I am signing up because I believe in Moqtada al-Sadr,” said Malik Abdul Hussein, an unemployed 21-year-old. “If he calls for it, I would sacrifice my life.”

In the interview, Sheik al-Sadr deflected questions about the future aims of the army, saying only that it will fulfill the Hawza’s orders.

Shi’ite scholars and political leaders — including those with ties to the Iranian-linked Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) — dismiss the young cleric as an upstart.

“He’s young and unexperienced and has not yet finished his studies,” says Ali al-Abudi, a spokesman for SCIRI, which now has a seat on the 25-member council.

But Sheik al-Sadr has already recruited key tribal leaders who praise his radical message and his calls for an Islamic state.

“There is no difference between the religious and the political,” said Namal Alawi, spokesman for the powerful Alawi tribe, one of Iraq’s biggest. “Only Sadr has been calling for an Islamic state. That’s what we want in Iraq.”

Like Shi’ite revolutionaries in Iran, Sheik al-Sadr’s people draw rhetorical strength from martyrs and prisoners. The sheik’s father, Ayatollah Mohmmad al Sadegh al-Sadr, was killed by Saddam in the late 1990s and another relative, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Sadr, was killed in 1980.

Both have become major symbols in the postwar Shi’ite resurgence throughout the south. Their likenesses have been painted on the same monuments that once depicted Saddam.

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