Firebrand Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is rapidly gaining support among Iraqi youth, raising fears he could eventually unify Shi’ites and Sunnis against American forces.
A senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace said yesterday he had seen groups of Iraqi youth raptly listening to tapes of Sheik al-Sadr, and both young men and girls kissing his posters.
Even police stations had pictures of Sheik al-Sadr on the walls, said Babak Rahimi, just back from a two-week trip to southern Iraq.
Followers of the militant cleric, who has been generally quiet since leading two uprisings against American forces last year, have been engaged in two days of violent clashes with the rival Iranian-trained Badr Brigades in the holy city of Najaf.
But yesterday Sheik al-Sadr sought to project himself as the voice of reason, ordering his Mahdi militia to end the fighting and calling for Shi’ite unity.
Violence flared elsewhere, with gunmen north of Baghdad attacking cars owned by President Jalal Talabani, killing eight of his bodyguards and wounding 15, a security official told the Associated Press.
Also yesterday, police reported finding 36 bodies in a dry riverbed near the Iranian border, their hands bound and with bullet wounds in the head. Their identities were not immediately clear.
A deadline for a parliamentary vote on a new constitution was extended for the third time, giving the parties another 24 hours to try to persuade Sunni negotiators to support the draft document.
Fighting between the Mahdi militia and the Badr Brigades — the military wing of the leading Shi’ite political party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) — began after Sheik al-Sadr’s followers tried Wednesday to reopen an office in Najaf.
Armed men moved to stop them, setting the office on fire and killing four al-Sadr followers. The Mahdi militia blamed the Badr Brigade and retaliated by attacking SCIRI offices in several southern cities.
Sheik al-Sadr ordered a cease-fire yesterday, telling reporters at his home in Najaf, “I will not forget this attack on the office — but Iraq is passing through a critical and difficult period that requires unity.”
The clashes revealed a struggle for influence among the Shi’ites of south and central Iraq, with Sheik al-Sadr emerging as a liberating figure for many angry and alienated youth. But he also is attracting support from Sunni militants not connected with the religiously driven followers of Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi.
“There is a lot of reverence for Muqtada al-Sadr” among more secular Sunnis, said Mr. Rahimi, who said he was taken aback by the dedicated following accumulated by the young cleric over the past two years.
“This is an anti-American resistance movement, and he will eventually exploit this, he will eventually merge with the Sunni insurgents,” Mr. Rahimi predicted. “This would prompt a stronger force against American troops in Iraq and he will have a lot more followers,” he said.
Mr. Rahimi — an Iranian-American — said he was surprised by the level of affection displayed for the bearded young cleric by young Iraqis and even police in places like Basra.
“It has something to do with something very basic, appealing looks, his charitable organizations and a very prestigious family background. Young girls kissing Muqtada al-Sadr’s photograph? That tells you a lot,” said Mr. Rahimi.
Many of his followers listen closely to the cleric’s revolutionary rhetoric and see him as almost a Messianic figure who will free them from the trash in the streets and the lack of basic services.
The fundamentalist cleric, out of the public eye since his last uprising against U.S. forces was crushed, has been extending his reach throughout the region with extensive charity work and persistent anti-occupation speeches.
In the process, he has gained influence relative to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s most eminent spiritual leader, who still is widely respected as a father figure but is losing support among disaffected young Iraqis, Mr. Rahimi said.
Ayatollah al-Sistani has remained at his home in Najaf and spoken only occasionally as the political parties have squabbled over a constitution. Sheik al-Sadr, by contrast, has shown himself more than ready to dirty his hands in the muddy waters of Iraqi politics.
Authorities fear he could join with Sunnis to try to defeat the new constitution when Iraqis vote on it in mid-October. Like them, he is a nationalist who opposes provisions creating a federal state with a weak central government.