Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr Joins Shiite Mainstream

Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr decides to join mainstream Shiite parties ahead of December's parliamentary elections. Sadr supporters fought U.S. and Iraqi government forces last year. Now, he has firmly aligned himself with the parties that control the current, U.S.-supported government.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

One of the significant political shifts in Iraqi politics this year has been a move by the popular Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He's joining the largest Shiite political bloc for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Sadr's militiamen, known as the Mahdi Army, engaged in bloody clashes last year with US and Iraqi forces. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that the Sadrists, as they're known, are recasting themselves as bridge-building statesmen seeking to hold Iraq together.

PETER KENYON reporting:

Certain figures in Iraq seem to undergo image makeovers faster than a television talk-show guest. Former Iraq National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi went from indicted criminal to heroic opposition leader in exile to respected Cabinet minister. And now the young Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the force behind the bloody standoff with US troops in Najaf last year, has gone from hot-headed rebel to political power broker. This was Sadr in August of 2004 facing the microphones inside the sacred Shiite shrine to the Imam Ali in Najaf, surrounded by US armored vehicles and Iraqi forces, swearing that the battle would only end over his dead body.

Cleric MOQTADA AL-SADR: (Through Translator) I will stay and defend the holy city of Najaf. I will stay until the last drop of my blood is spilled.

KENYON: Sadr claimed he couldn't disband his Mahdi Army because it really belonged to the Mahdi himself, a messianic figure in Shiite tradition who's expected to return someday, just as devout Christians believe in the second coming of Jesus. But by last October, the Mahdi Army began surrendering some of its weapons as part of a peace agreement with the government. Now with 275 legislative seats to be decided on December 15th, the Sadrists appear content to make their case in the political arena.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: At the offices of a defunct newspaper in central Baghdad, the Sadrist movement's political representative sits on an aging brown leather couch as a television broadcasts Koranic verses in the background. Sheik Abbas al-Rubaie has a trim beard and a disarming manner that seems intended to reassure those who fear the Sadrists are pressing for a strictly Islamic government. They're not, says Rubaie, at least not yet.

Sheik ABBAS AL-RUBAIE (Sadr Representative): (Through Translator) Well, it lets me do something that, had we felt able to establish an Islamic government in Iraq, we wouldn't hesitate. If we delayed this for one day, we would be responsible in front of God. But we realize that under this situation, it's impossible to establish an Islamic government.

KENYON: Not everyone's pleased with Sadr's political maneuvering. An Internet chat room that claims to host both supporters of the Sunni-led insurgency and the Shiite followers of Sadr recently featured an angry rant from one man in southern Iraq, who said true Sadrists were dismayed by this move to join the mainstream.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) So I would say that the honorable Sadr no longer has any influence on the movement. I say if the Sadr movement chooses to revolt against the crimes that are happening, then it has to do so.

KENYON: Sadr representative Abbas al-Rubaie dismisses such complaints as coming from the movement's political enemies. The addition of the fiery Sadr movement to the United Iraqi Alliance, whose members are among Iraq's leaders, including Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jafari, strike some as odd. But analysts say from a political viewpoint, it benefits both. The current government has faced rising disenchantment among voters after another year of no security and unreliable electricity and gas supplies. The government's also seen by some as simply the latest group of Iraqis having their strings pulled by American puppet masters. Their image has been further tarnished by the recent allegations of torture at a Shiite-run secret detention center in Baghdad.

The Sadrists, however, suffer from none of these image problems. They're fiercely anti-American. And they're more likely to have fighters being held in prisons, secret or otherwise, than to be in charge of them. Abbas Al-Rubaie recognizes the risk of being seen as embracing the mainstream Shiite parties. He wants it understood that joining the alliance is a tactical move.

Mr. AL-RUBAIE: (Through Translator) We used the military option to end the occupation, but we also have the ability to have peaceful means to reach our goal.

KENYON: For now, though, the Sadrists are along for the political ride, and they expect to get at least 30 seats in the new parliament. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

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