Sadr's Disciples Rise Again to Play Pivotal Role in Iraq
iraqwar: In the tumult that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003, he hit the streets with a clique of fellow Shiite Muslim clerics to organize what became Iraq's first postwar popular movement. Their symbol was Moqtada Sadr, a young, radical clergyman and son of a revered ayatollah. The next year, Araji emerged as the group's public face, as it twice fought U.S. troops. He and others were arrested, and for nine months, he languished in U.S. custody in Abu Ghraib prison, then at Camp Bucca.
Now, as the country enters a time as politically uncertain as any since the fall of former president Saddam Hussein, Araji is a free man. So are a handful of Sadr's other closest, most dynamic aides, men in their thirties who have helped shape the organization's combustible mix of Iraqi and Arab nationalism, millenarian religious ideology, grass-roots protest and gun culture. With customary bravado, Araji and the others today are sending a message: They are ready to make up for lost time.
"It's a new dawn," said the turbaned cleric, with a hint of a smile. He leaned against a wall plastered with Iraqi flags and portraits of the Sadrs and those killed in last year's battles. "People have been released, and they're working harder than before."
Long the bane of the U.S. project in Iraq, Sadr's movement returned to center stage last week, with what his aides describe as a new confidence following the release of Araji and other leaders, along with the experience of their sometimes quiet activism. In dramatic fashion over three days, the movement embodied virtually every aspect of power in today's Iraq: support in the street, an easily mobilized militia and loyalists within the government that it often denounces.
After a clash Wednesday night in Najaf that they blamed on a rival Shiite militia, Sadr's armed followers poured into Baghdad and at least six other cities. Twenty-one members of parliament and three cabinet ministers loyal to him suspended their work in protest. Two days later, they organized some of the biggest demonstrations in recent years; ostensibly protests over government services, they were effectively shows of strength.
The newly freed aides say even they are surprised at the growing level of organization they have found within the group: clearer lines of communication, a more structured hierarchy and a sprawling social services network. In the Baghdad slum named after Sadr's father, the ramshackle headquarters that were wrecked repeatedly by U.S. troops last year only to be rebuilt sit next to the movement's newly completed, two-story stucco building with floodlights, air conditioners and seven agitprop-style megaphones clustered on the roof. A few miles away is a new office, trimmed in red and black, for the movement's social work, run by Araji. Across the street is an information center.
In a country whose sectarian and ethnic divides have relentlessly deepened, Sadr stands as a rare figure with support among both Sunnis and Shiites. At a protest Monday against Iraq's new constitution in Tikrit, near Hussein's home town, Sunnis held aloft pictures of the cleric. "Yes, yes to Sadr!" some of the 1,500 protesters shouted. Read more