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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

This week on MORNING EDITION, we're describing key players in Iraq. These are Iraqis who are constantly in the news. Their actions may determine Iraq's future. The U.S. is depending on some to help fix problems and hoping for others not to make the situation worse.

Our guide this week will be NPR's Anne Garrels, who's been, as many listeners know, in and out of Iraq since before the war. Good morning.

ANNE GARRELS: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let us start with a very familiar name. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi who has come to be known as the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

GARRELS: Right. The radical anti-American Shiite cleric is how he's always described. Sadr is probably one of the most powerful people in Iraq right now and one of the hardest in some ways to understand. He has probably one of the largest militias. Sadr, on the one hand, says that he does not support sectarian killing. On the other hand, people who say they are allied with him are believed to be responsible for much of it. Sadr is against the U.S. occupation, and in that he shares the views of many Sunnis.

He is currently, in fact, down in Basra. His organization is working to bridge gaps with the Sunnis, and yet there he is with his militiamen being responsible for much of the sectarian violence in the area around Baghdad.

MONTAGNE: And that is the reason why he is so commonly referred to as the radical.

GARRELS: Well, he's a radical in the sense that he pays lip service to the Shiite establishment in Najaf but works totally on his own. His standing comes from his father, who was a very charismatic figure. He was killed we believe by Saddam Hussein, along with Sadr's brother. And that carries a lot of weight in Iraq. People allied themselves with Sadr's father. He appeals to the poor. He has a huge amount of standing with the sort of disenfranchised, with the poor of Sadr's city, and in fact across the Shiite community down into the south.

MONTAGNE: What, ultimately, is Moqtada al-Sadr after?

GARRELS: Well, that's a very good question. On the one hand, he's a nationalist. He wants the U.S. out. He says he wants a united Iraq. Yet, as I've said, his people are very much responsible for a lot of the sectarian killings.

MONTAGNE: But Anne, although he is fiercely anti-American, Moqtada al-Sadr has done one thing that the United States wanted him to do, and that he's joined into the political process.

GARRELS: Well, he's joined into the political process. But in some ways he's used that for his own ends. He has not disbanded his militia, which is somewhere in the neighborhood probably of 60,000 strong. They have infiltrated the police. They are feared greatly by the Sunnis. So he is, you know, working outside the political process as well.

MONTAGNE: Does the United States talk to him? What is the relationship?

GARRELS: They have not met with Moqtada al-Sadr. And in fact he would never be - agree to meet with the U.S. At the moment, there seems to be a growing consensus by American military commanders that they want to go after Sadr and his organization and crush it. However, Sadr is allied with the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It is because of Sadr's support that Maliki became prime minister, and Maliki has in turn protected Sadr. But there is growing movement by some Iraqi political figures who may be getting together, working with the Americans, to say we will go after Sadr.

MONTAGNE: Anne, thank you very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, NPR's Anne Garrels will continue this conversation with the discussion of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

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