Elections Test Strength, Reach Of Sadr's Influence Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — once one of Iraq's most powerful men — and the movement he heads have suffered a number of military and political setbacks. Nonetheless, his followers remain a force to be reckoned with in upcoming provincial elections.
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Elections Test Strength, Reach Of Sadr's Influence

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Elections Test Strength, Reach Of Sadr's Influence

Elections Test Strength, Reach Of Sadr's Influence

Elections Test Strength, Reach Of Sadr's Influence

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99866230/99977434" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Iraqi Shiite Muslims display a poster of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr during an anti-U.S. protest after noon prayers in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood in 2007. Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Shiite Muslims display a poster of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr during an anti-U.S. protest after noon prayers in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood in 2007.

Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

An Iraqi boy in Sadr City sits beneath ripped campaign posters for Adel Hazl Gatii al-Kaabi of the Iraqi Teachers list, a candidate in provincial elections slated for Jan. 31. Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

An Iraqi boy in Sadr City sits beneath ripped campaign posters for Adel Hazl Gatii al-Kaabi of the Iraqi Teachers list, a candidate in provincial elections slated for Jan. 31.

Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

In Iraq, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was once one of the country's most powerful men.

At his word, tens of thousands of young men would flood the streets for demonstrations. His militia, known as the Mahdi Army, battled U.S. forces, Iraqi government troops and Sunni militiamen. His bloc of supporters in the Iraqi Parliament was once considered a kingmaker.

Now, Sadr's movement is not on the official list of candidates in the provincial elections scheduled for Jan. 31. But while his power has waned after losing both political and military fights, his followers remain a force to be reckoned with.

Ahmed Hussein is a young, poor Shiite, like many of Sadr's followers. He says they will all follow Sadr's orders.

"If you ask me to vote for any other party, I will not because I have to follow my leader. And Sadrists will do the same," he says.

Though not officially participating in the provincial elections, Sadrist leaders are endorsing two so-called independent lists.

Sadr himself hasn't been seen in public in Iraq in more than two years. He is said to be studying Islamic theology in the Iranian holy city of Qum.

Sadr's official spokesman in Iraq is Salah Obeidi. He says Sadrists aren't fielding candidates themselves but do want their followers' voices to be heard.

"We think we are not a political party, but we are a powerful, popular movement, [and] we have to participate in such important events to balance the situation," he says.

Some Iraqi analysts believe the Sadrists could tip that balance.

The two large Shiite parties — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI — are vying for control of the Shiite south. Sadrist voters could make the difference in that fight.

The issue that concerns Obeidi the most is a proposed vote to make much of southern Iraq into a separately governed region, such as the Kurds have in the north. It's a move that would weaken the power of the central government in the area — something the Sadrists strongly oppose.

The Islamic Council is the main force behind the push for an autonomous region. One of its leaders, Hasan al-Zamahly, doesn't think the Sadrists pose much of a threat now.

He says the Sadrists aren't participating in the political process because "they know that their participation will expose their real weakness."

The Sadrists once had both political and military arms. Their Mahdi Army militiamen targeted American soldiers. They also inspired fear among Iraqis: During the worst of the sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007, death squads linked to the Mahdi Army left dozens of bodies in Baghdad's streets every day — most of them Sunnis in what are now mostly Shiite neighborhoods.

But the militia's power was shattered last year. Iraqi and American forces fought battles with the Mahdi Army in southern cities such as Basra and in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood — still the heart of the movement.

Now, both American and Iraqi officials say the Mahdi Army is a broken force.

"The Sadrists now are just like the orphans," says Ibrahim Samaidai, a political analyst. "Some of them were dismissed by Sadr. Those people are wanted by the Iraqi government and the coalition forces, and hated by all Iraqi people."

Such comments anger Obeidi, Sadr's spokesman. He says the Mahdi Army was the main defender of the Shiite community.

"We have fought against al-Qaida. We have defended the millions of visitors to ... the holy shrine in Najaf [and] the holy shrine in Karbala" when the Iraqi army and police were weak, he says.

Obeidi adds that the Sadrists haven't completely given up on an armed force. He and other Sadrists are confident the candidates the movement supports will do well in the upcoming elections.