Radical Shiite cleric urges terror in Iraq

After building an army, he unleashes mayhem


BAGHDAD, Iraq - Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical young Shiite cleric, has been spewing invective and threatening widespread insurrection for months while U.S. occupation authorities have been focused on a more moderate Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. At the same time, al-Sadr was amassing an army.

Yesterday, he unleashed it.

At his word, thousands of disciples, wearing green headbands and carrying automatic rifles, stormed into the streets of several cities and set off the most widespread mayhem of the occupation. They took over police stations. They brazenly fired rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. troops. They overran all government security in Kufa, the small town in south-central Iraq where al-Sadr lives.

"The occupation is over!" many yelled. "We are now controlled by Sadr!"

Al-Sadr, 31, is the son of a revered Shiite Muslim cleric assassinated in 1999 by hit men working for Saddam Hussein. He comes from a long line of clerics. A famous uncle was silenced by Hussein in 1980.

Al-Sadr had two elder brothers. But they were killed alongside his father, leaving him the heir apparent.

In the prelude to the planned June 30 transfer of power from the U.S. occupation authority to Iraqi civilians, al-Sadr has been increasingly caustic, issuing statements denouncing Americans and any Iraqis who work with them.

On Friday, he announced that he was opening Iraqi chapters of Hezbollah and Hamas, militant pro-Palestinian groups that Israel and the United States consider terrorist organizations.

"I am the beating arm for Hezbollah and Hamas here in Iraq," he said.

Al-Sadr is one of many powerful Shiite clerics calling for an Islamic government, though his following seems especially cultlike. His men wear black shirts and black pants and carry larger-than-life portraits of him. He has a ruddy face and thick, black beard, and most photos feature him angrily shaking a finger.

On a recent day in Kufa, hundreds of little boys marched in circles around the town's main mosque, holding up posters of al-Sadr and chanting his name.

"It's true Muqtada inherited a lot of support," said Hamid al-Bayati, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a prominent Shiite political party. "But there is also a lot of new passion for him."

Last night, townspeople in Kufa said al-Sadr was holed up in the town's main mosque. Many said they would die before they would allow occupation forces to capture him.

In the past year, al-Sadr has shown many faces. At times he is isolated by the Shiite leadership; at others, he is embraced. In the world of Shiite clerics, al-Sadr is an upstart. He is several ranks and many years away from attaining the title of ayatollah, which would mean that his rulings would carry the weight of religious law.

Immediately after the invasion, al-Sadr deployed black-clad disciples to patrol the streets of Baghdad's Shiite slums. His men handed out bread, water and oranges, and provided needed security. Al-Sadr had seen a void and filled it. In return, leaders in the Shiite district of Baghdad that had been known as Saddam City decided to rename the area Sadr City, after his father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr is known as a man not to cross. Last April, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a rival Shiite cleric, was hacked to death by a mob, a crime one of al-Sadr's henchmen is now accused of committing.

In June, al-Sadr formed a militia called the Mahdi Army. Many groups in Iraq have private armies. But al-Sadr's men, estimated to number in the tens of thousands, also formed their own religious courts and prisons.

Last fall and winter, al-Sadr was eclipsed by al-Sistani, the septuagenarian cleric who demanded direct elections soon and emerged as the most influential Shiite leader. As al-Sadr's popularity faded, his talk grew more militant. In February, he declared his organization "the enemy of the occupation."

Last week, U.S. authorities shut down al-Sadr's weekly newspaper, Al-Hawza, accusing it of inciting violence. The authorities said false reporting, including articles that ascribed suicide bombings to Americans, could touch off violence.

The closing, set to last 60 days, began a week of protests that grew bigger and more unruly at each turn.

The newspaper was an important symbol for many Shiites. Al-Hawza took its name from a loose-knit Shiite seminary that dates back a thousand years.

Yesterday, al-Sadr urged followers to "terrorize your enemy."

"There is no use for demonstrations, as your enemy loves to terrify and suppress opinions, and despises peoples," he said.

"I ask you not to resort to demonstrations, because they have become a losing card and we should seek other ways," he said. "Terrorize your enemy, as we cannot remain silent over its violations."

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