Iraqi Radical Cleric Al-Sadr Studies for Ayatollah

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is quietly resuming seminary studies toward attaining the title of ayatollah — a goal that could make the firebrand cleric and his Mahdi Army an even more formidable power broker in Iraq.

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And let's move to another country that has the United States concerned. The many opponents of the U.S. in Iraq include an anti-American leader who is nearly always identified in news reports as a radical Shiite cleric. In 2008, he may focus a little less on the radical part and a little more on being a cleric. Muqtada al-Sadr heads Iraq's biggest Shiite militia movement. His followers have many votes in Iraq's parliament. But this year, his aides say Sadr will launch himself into serious religious studies.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: This Shiite seminary or Hausa in Najaf is the most famous in the world. It's here where aides of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr say he is resuming his studies. His goal was to become an ayatollah like his famous and revered father before him. But given he's now the Shiite equivalent of a parish priest trying to become a cardinal, it will take years of study.

Sheik SALAH AL-UBAIDY (Spokesman of Muqtada al-Sadr): (Arabic spoken)

NELSON: Spokesman Sheik Salah al-Ubaidy says Sadr decided to take a break from his political responsibilities to speed up the process. That's welcome news to American military commanders who are hoping Sadr's decision means the cleric's Mahdi Army militia will continue their break from violence.

Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the second highest American commander on the ground in Iraq, says it also shows Sadr is maturing as a leader.

Lieutenant General RAYMOND ODIERNO (Commanding General, Multinational Corps-Iraq): I think that would just legitimize the work that he's tried that didn't work to a more peaceful solution, I think, by becoming ayatollah overtime. So I see that as a peaceful way to go back doing business.

NELSON: There's no doubt Sadr would have more sway as an ayatollah than he does as a low-level cleric. Among observant Shiites, ayatollahs reign supreme. Their fatwas or religious edicts are used by Shiites to guide personal and financial decisions in their lives. Even their political choices are generally governed by ayatollahs. For example, the ruling Shiite alliance used Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's picture on ballots rather than those of its candidates. Even Sadr uses his father's image on posters and flyers not his own.

Mohammad Ibadi(ph), a Hausa or seminary student in Najaf.

Mr. MOHAMMAD IBADI (Seminary Student, Najaf Mosque): (Through translator) When we have religious questions, we go back to the sayings of Muqtada al-Sadr's late father. It may take him almost six years to complete the requirements to reach a level at which he could issue those sorts of religious rulings.

NELSON: But becoming an ayatollah could give Sadr a long-term influence over Iraqi political and financial affairs, especially as the United States scales back its involvement in Iraq. It could also escalate Sadr's rivalry with Sistani, the Grand Ayatollah who is the most powerful religious leader in Iraq.

Sadr has made no secret of his distain for the Iranian-born Sistani and other clerics here who've trained or lived in Iran. That despite U.S. claims that Sadr's Mahdi Army militia receives money and arms from the Iranian government.

Sadr's aides say he will study in Najaf, not in the Iranian holy city of Qom, where his movement's main spiritual adviser lives, and will be tutored by Arab religious teachers. That choice in his Arab heritage will appeal to many Iraqi Shiites should Sadr succeed in becoming an ayatollah, says Ali al-Yassari(ph), a former Sadr bloc parliament member.

Mr. ALI AL-YASSARI: (Through translator) Our religious scholar should be Iraqi and not connected to some place outside Iraq. So it's good he's doing this as long as it's to benefit Iraq.

NELSON: Still, Yassari says he believe Sadr has another motive for focusing on his religious studies - escape. He says Sadr is worn down by political squabbles and by splinter groups that use his name while terrorizing Iraqis.

(Soundbite of noise)

NELSON: As to where Sadr will pursue his studies, his spokesman says it won't likely be in traditional settings like this Najaf Mosque. Instead, he will mostly use CDs and books in his office or at home. The aide says that's because of his high profile and threats to his life.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Baghdad.

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