Enigma, firebrand, visionary. All three are perspectives on Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers have been clashing with security forces in that country for three violent days. Al-Sadr remains at the center of such violence, according to Newsweek magazine's Babak Dehghanpisheh, because of his family history in the region, his charisma and his ability to engage displaced and disgruntled Iraqis. What's more, Dehghanpisheh says, there's evidence that al-Sadr — already respected militarily and politically — is taking steps to bolster yet another side of his reputation.
Since August 2007, al-Sadr has been credited with reducing violence in Iraq by leading followers and his Mahdi Army in a cease-fire. Dehghanpisheh, Newsweek's Baghdad bureau chief, says it's an agreement that's being stressed to its limits. "[Al-Sadr's] representatives in parliament have come out and said the cease-fire is still in place." But, Dehghanpisheh says, "It does seem that there are several commanders or hundreds of supporters who may not be listening."
This dissension in al-Sadr's ranks is a development that the cleric had anticipated, Dehghanpisheh says. "In the past couple of years, there has been a fracturing or splintering of supporters, especially on the military side," the reporter says. "In the past year ... there have been elements of Sadr's own movement who have targeted these rogue commanders."
The recent violence might seem to be a test of al-Sadr's ability to lead, Dehghanpisheh says. "It's escalated to such a level, Sadr can't really back off and say it's just rogue elements." But, he says, as the son of an important sheik, al-Sadr remains in a better position than almost any other Shiite cleric to influence regular Iraqis.
"Sadr's family name has a lot of street cred. ... His father was here during Saddam's regime. He was thought to be murdered by Saddam's intelligence apparatus. While there are a lot of other prominent clerics who are now back from exile, there were many of them who spent time in Iran and Syria during the really hard days of Saddam's rule. When they came back, they didn't have nearly the same amount of street support."
Al-Sadr is apparently shoring up his reputation as a cleric. "We're hearing from sources within his own movement and sources in Najaf that he's beefing up his religious credentials," Dehghanpisheh says. "He isn't that senior of a cleric. He left off his studies to a certain extent after the U.S. invasion in 2003. In the past year or so, he has been studying partly through the Internet and with the help of some other clerics. One of the clerics that's been mentioned is a prominent Iraqi-born cleric who is now a prominent politician in Iran."
This secret studying, Dehghanpisheh says, could earn al-Sadr a new title. "If he does reach the status of ayatollah ... it would bolster his political status. It would give him a lot more pull with the Iraqi street."