Your new future Iraqi president
Bow down before the one you serve
Shiite Cleric Increases His Power in Iraq
Joao Silva for The New York Times
By EDWARD WONG
Published: November 27, 2005
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 26 - Men loyal to Moktada al-Sadr piled out of their cars at a plantation near Baghdad on a recent morning, bristling with Kalashnikov rifles and eager to exact vengeance on the Sunni Arab fighters who had butchered one of their Shiite militia brothers.
When the smoke cleared after the fight, at least 21 bodies lay scattered among the weeds, making it the deadliest militia battle in months. The black-clad Shiites swaggered away, boasting about the carnage.
Even as that battle raged on Oct. 27, Mr. Sadr's aides in Baghdad were quietly closing a deal that would signal his official debut as a kingmaker in Iraqi politics, placing his handpicked candidates on the same slate - and on equal footing - with the Shiite governing parties in the December parliamentary elections. The country's rulers had come courting him, and he had forced them to meet his terms.
Wielding violence and political popularity as tools of his authority, Mr. Sadr, the Shiite cleric who has defied the American authorities here since the fall of Saddam Hussein, is cementing his role as one of Iraq's most powerful figures.
Just a year after Mr. Sadr led two fierce uprisings, the Americans are hailing his entry into the elections as the best sign yet that the political process can co-opt insurgents.
But his ascent could portend a darker chain of events, for he continues to embrace his image as an unrepentant guerrilla leader even as he takes the reins of political power.
Mr. Sadr has made no move to disband his militia, the thousands-strong Mahdi Army. In recent weeks, factions of the militia have brazenly assaulted and abducted Sunni Arabs, rival Shiite groups, journalists and British-led forces in the south, where Mr. Sadr has a zealous following. At least 19 foreign soldiers and security contractors have been killed there since late summer, mostly by roadside bombs planted by Shiite militiamen who use Iranian technology, British officers say. The latest killing took place Nov. 20 near Basra.
"The fatality rate is quite high, much higher than it was a year ago," Maj. Gen. J. B. Dutton, the British commander in southern Iraq, said in a briefing to reporters.
Members of the Mahdi Army have also joined the police in large numbers, while retaining their loyalty to Mr. Sadr. Squad cars in Baghdad and southern cities cruise openly with pictures of Mr. Sadr taped to the windows. On Nov. 17, the American Embassy demanded that the Iraqi government prohibit private armies from controlling the Iraqi security forces, after American soldiers had found 169 malnourished prisoners, some of them tortured, in a Baghdad police prison reportedly under the command of a Shiite militia.
Mr. Sadr's oratory is as anti-American and incendiary as it has ever been. A recent article in Al Hawza, a weekly Sadr publication that the Americans tried unsuccessfully to close last year, carried the headline: "Bush Family: Your Nights Will Be Finished." Another article explained that Mr. Sadr was supporting the December elections to rid Iraq of American-backed politicians who "rip off the heads of the underprivileged and scatter the pieces of their children and elderly."
Partly because of his uncompromising attitude, Mr. Sadr, who is in his early 30's, is immensely popular among impoverished Shiites. That has made him the most coveted ally of the governing Shiite parties as they head into the December elections. Mr. Sadr used this leverage to get 30 of his candidates on the Shiite coalition's slate, as many as the number allotted to each of the two main governing parties, the Dawa Islamic Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Forget the Sunnis, he's already cut deals with them. It's only a matter of time before he deals with the Badr Brigade.
Meanwhile Aziz Hakim is whining that he can't murder and torture the "insurgents" the way he wants in the WaPo.
There is no way Sadr and Hakim coexist for long.
posted by Steve @ 2:17:00 AM