- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

QOM, Iran — An Iranian Shi’ite leader considered the mentor of Iraqi Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr has dissociated himself from the young cleric, who is leading an uprising in southern Iraq.

Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri distanced himself months ago from the firebrand cleric based in the Iraqi city of Najaf, his spokesman said.

“Al-Sadr speaks for himself, and we speak for ourselves,” said Muhammad Hussein al-Haeri, the ayatollah’s younger brother.

“People thought that everything he said he got it directly from Ayatollah al-Haeri. But we’ve said that’s not true. As a result, the al-Sadr group doesn’t have much of a relationship with the ayatollah anymore.”

Shi’ite Islam is the majority religion in both Iran and Iraq, and recent events in Iraq have shaken this holy seminary city south of Tehran, which is among the most important cities in the Shi’ite faith.

According to news reports, Sheik al-Sadr, under pressure from Iraqi clergy, has backed down on some of his demands and is negotiating a peaceful settlement.

The Associated Press reported that the new U.S.-appointed Najaf governor offered yesterday to defer murder charges against the firebrand cleric if he disbands his militia. Sheik al-Sadr countered with a demand that U.S. authorities ask him directly for talks.

Adnan al-Zurufi, who was appointed governor last week, said he will ask the U.S.-led administration to delay legal proceedings against Sheik al-Sadr until after the Americans transfer power to a new Iraqi administration on June 30.

There was no comment from U.S. officials, but Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of U.S. forces in the Najaf area, said he had been urging religious, political and tribal leaders to seek a political solution to the confrontation.

Sheik al-Sadr has been holed up in Najaf since early April, after U.S. authorities announced an arrest warrant against him in connection with the April 2003 assassination of a moderate rival cleric in Najaf.

In a statement yesterday, he said he was willing to tell his fighters to end the confrontation “if the occupation forces officially request negotiations, provided that they are just and honorable and under the supervision of religious authorities.”

Still, Qom is on edge. At the city’s numerous Internet cafes, young Iraqi, Iranian, Afghan, Pakistani and Persian Gulf Shi’ite students from the dozens of the religious schools surf Arab and English-language news Web sites.

Clerics and students, mistrustful of Iran’s state-controlled broadcasting networks, follow events on the Farsi-language service of the British Broadcasting Corp.

The Shi’ite clergy here have been divided as to whether to support Sheik al-Sadr’s stand against the Americans or blame him for inciting violence.

“The al-Sadr group is not an accountable group on the Iraqi political scene,” said Sheik Fazel Maybodi, a liberal cleric and supporter of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s pre-eminent theologian. “If someone wants to wage holy war, he has to be under the discretion of someone like al-Sistani.”

The Shi’ite clerics and students in this 1,000-year-old city — with centuries-old ties to Iraqi seminary and shrine cities such as Najaf and Karbala — said they felt doom, frustration and betrayal over what was happening in Iraq.

“A situation has come about that if America ever thinks of leaving Iraq, the country will turn into another Afghanistan,” said Ahmad Javaherian, an Iraqi religious student who was looking forward to returning to his native country soon.

“We were in favor of the U.S. invasion,” said the 24-year-old, who watches events closely on television. “But we’re in a situation now where we’re counting how many Iraqis the American forces have killed and comparing it to how many Iraqis Saddam killed.”

Many fear an explosion among the 150 million Shi’ites in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain should U.S. troops storm Sheik al-Sadr’s place near the Najaf burial place of Imam Ali, among the three most revered figures in the Shi’ite branch of Islam.

Some said they were horrified by news of Iraqis killed in the fighting thus far, complaining of America’s squandered opportunities.

“Does America want to drown the whole world in blood?” asked the younger Mr. al-Haeri.

He said the Shi’ites, who suffered under Saddam Hussein’s rule, didn’t protest but celebrated when the United States invaded Iraq. “And this is how America treats the Shi’ites.”

Ayatollah al-Haeri moved from Iraq to Qom before the 1979 Islamic revolution. The younger Mr. al-Haeri said Sheik al-Sadr’s father, the late Baqir al-Sadr, and Ayatollah al-Haeri were old friends and seminary companions. Though Sheik al-Sadr remains officially one of Ayatollah al-Haeri’s representatives in Iraq, he had gone his separate way months ago.

Mr. al-Haeri said the ayatollah had used whatever influence he had on the young firebrand to urge him to resist peacefully. He blamed the United States, which shut down Sheik al-Sadr’s newspaper and arrested his deputy, for provoking the cleric into taking up armed struggle.

“These guys had a newspaper, they have some offices, and they had a Friday prayer platform,” he said. “They spoke. They didn’t make war.”

But many clergy weren’t as forgiving of Sheik al-Sadr and his actions in Iraq.

Sheik Maybodi, on a recent trip to Iraq, attended Sheik al-Sadr’s Friday prayer service in the city of Kufa, near Najaf.

“His posters, his pictures, his slogans were not appropriate,” he said. “For someone who’s young and hasn’t finished his studies, such political activity is not right. I don’t approve of his behavior.”

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