ALISON STEWART, host:
"Enigma," "firebrand," "visionary." Three perspectives on one man, Shiite Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His followers have been clashing with Iraqi security for three days now, especially in the southern city of Basra, a Shiite stronghold. Iraq's prime minister has called for Sadr and his followers to lay down their weapons by tomorrow. Sadr has asked the prime minister to leave Basra. Yeah. He told the prime minister to get out, threatening civil disobedience. Sadr has been leading his followers and his Mahdi army in a ceasefire which began in August in 2007, and he's been credited with reducing some of the violence in Iraq.
His power has grown because he can get results. Why can he get results? Because of his family history in the region, his own charisma, and his ability to engage displaced and disgruntled Iraqis. In Newsweek Magazine, there was a profile of al-Sadr written by Babak Dehghanpisheh. He's the Baghdad Bureau Chief for Newsweek. Babak, how are you?
Mr. BABAK DEHGHANPISHEH (Bureau Chief, Newsweek Magazine): I'm doing very well, thank you.
STEWART: OK, we have a little bit of a delay, so our listeners can understand what's going on. I do want to start with the news of the day. There's a curfew in Basra, schools and universities are closed. What happened that led al-Sadr's followers to be in the clash so heavily with Iraqi security?
Mr. DEHGHANPISHEH: Well, it was really the Iraqi security forces that started this round of fighting. The prime minister, Mr. Maliki, went down to Basra with the Ministers of Interior and Defense, and my understanding from sources that I've talked to is that they had gone down to discuss the security plan for the city and whether they had really planned it out or not, they did begin to execute the security plan the and security forces pushed out to its neighborhoods where the Mahdi army, the fighters loyal to al-Sadr are dominant, and that really kicked off the fighting.
STEWART: So does this pushing into these areas in the fighting back by the Mahdi army, does this mean the ceasefire is over? Or is this an isolated incident?
Mr. DEHGHANPISHEH: Well, as far as Sadr's supporters, his political representatives in Parliament, have come out and said that the ceasefire is still in place. There was a statement read by one of Sadr's representatives, a cleric named Khazan Larigie(ph) down in Najaf a couple of days ago, and he also reiterated that the ceasefire was still in place.
So visually the line is that the ceasefire is still in place, but it does seem that there are several commanders or just hundreds or his supporters who may not be listening to it, because there is fighting in Baghdad, there is fighting in Basra still, and there are reports of fighting in a number of smaller cities, like Hila, Tuth, Samarra, Diwaniya also.
STEWART: Now, you write in your piece in Newsweek, though, that Sadr is looking to sort of, I don't know if "streamline" is the right word, but to purge his mighty army, his followers, of people who are troublemakers. Could you discuss a little bit about the thought process behind this? Why he would do this? Why he wouldn't just want numbers? Why he wants quality over quantity?
Mr. DEHGHANPISHEH: Sure. In the past couple of years, there has been a fracturing or a splintering of the supporters of Sadr, especially in the military side of his movement, within the Mahdi army. And there are a number of commanders who aren't thought to be really following his orders anymore. These are these elements that the U.S. military refers to as the "rogue Mahdi," and that was really the target of this cleaning or purging of the movement.
And in the past year we've seen that, particularly in the past six months since this ceasefire has been announced, we've seen that there have been members of Sadr's own movement who have targeted these rogue commanders and have tried to get them out. So, in a way, they don't give the cleric a bad name. But with this current operation, it seems to have quickly escalated to such a level that Sadr really can't back off and say it's a rogue element. So it still remains to be seen how it's all going to play out.
STEWART: It's interesting you said, you mentioned his public face, because in one of your articles, you described al-Sadr as agreeing to a ceasefire as partly a PR move. Why would that be a PR move?
Mr. DEHGHANPISHEH: It was. It was. Actually, it's a bit of, sort of, inside baseball within the Shia in Iraq. It goes back to a Shia religious festival called the Shaabaniya last August. It commemorates the birth of Imam Mahdi, which Sadr's Mahdi army was named after. And during that festival in Karbala, there were clashes between various militant factions. There were clashes between a militia man and guards at the two shrines there in Karbala.
There was a government investigation and they found that the people who were really causing the problems were Sadr's supporters. So, that was one of the main reasons that, you know, that Sadr called for the ceasefire, because it looked really bad among the Shia community that his followers were this, sort of, out of control, even within a Shia religious festival, they couldn't control themselves.
STEWART: We're speaking with Babak Dehghanpisheh, the Baghdad Bureau Chief for Newsweek about Muqtada al-Sadr. We've been talking mostly about the news of the past 72 hours. I do want to back up a little bit and talk about Sadr's history. He comes from a long line of influential Shiite clerics, including his father, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, who was murdered during Saddam Hussein's regime. How does his family history play into his political influence now?
Mr. DEHGHANPISHEH: Well, really more than many of the other Shia clerics, Sadr's family name - they have a lot of street credit amongst ordinary Iraqis, because as you mentioned, his father, Mohammed Sadeq Sadr was here during Saddam's regime. He was thought to be murdered by Saddam's intelligence apparatus.
And you know, while there are a lot of other prominent clerics who are back from exile, there were many of them who spent time in Iran or Syria during the really hard days of Saddam's rule. So, when they came back, they didn't have nearly the same amount of street support that Sadr's family and himself that did either.
STEWART: And you reported he's actually studying to become an even more powerful figure, perhaps working towards becoming an Ayatollah. How is he doing this? And how much more influential would this make him, if he became an Ayatollah?
Mr. DEHGHANPISHEH: That's right. What we're hearing from sources within his own movement and sources in Najaf is that he is trying to sort of beef up his religious credentials. You know, he really isn't that senior of a cleric at the moment. He left office studies to a certain extent after the U.S. invasion of 2003, but we've heard that in the past year or so he has been studying partly through the Internet actually, and you know with the help of some other clerics - one of the clerics that has been mentioned is a prominent Iraqi-born cleric who is now a prominent politician in Iran.
And you know if he does reach the status of ayatollah, that would give him even more power to sort of issue religious decrees, and it would also bolster, you know, his political status as well. It would just give him a lot more pull basically with the Iraqi stream.
STEWART: Babak Dehghanpisheh is the Baghdad bureau chief for Newsweek. Thanks for sharing your reporting, Babak. Be safe.
Mr. DEHGHANPISHEH: Thank you.
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