By Sudarsan Raghavan Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, May 20, 2007; A01
NAJAF, Iraq -- The movement of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has embarked on one of its most dramatic tactical shifts since the beginning of the war.
The 33-year-old populist is reaching out to a broad array of Sunni leaders, from politicians to insurgents, and purging extremist members of his Mahdi Army militia who target Sunnis. Sadr's political followers are distancing themselves from the fragile Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is widely criticized as corrupt, inefficient and biased in favor of Iraq's majority Shiites. And moderates are taking up key roles in Sadr's movement, professing to be less anti-American and more nationalist as they seek to improve Sadr's image and position him in the middle of Iraq's ideological spectrum.
"We want to aim the guns against the occupation and al-Qaeda, not between Iraqis," Ahmed Shaibani, 37, a cleric who leads Sadr's newly formed reconciliation committee, said as he sat inside Sadr's heavily guarded compound here.
Sadr controls the second-biggest armed force in Iraq, after the U.S. military, and 30 parliamentary seats -- enough power to influence political decision-making and dash U.S. hopes for stability. The cleric withdrew his six ministers from Iraq's cabinet last month, leaving the movement more free to challenge the government.
"Our retreating from the government is one way to show we are trying to work for the welfare of Iraq and not only for the welfare of Shiites," said Salah al-Obaidi, a senior aide to Sadr. He said the time was "not mature yet" to form a bloc that could challenge Maliki, who came to power largely because of Sadr's support.
In recasting himself, the cleric is responding to popular frustration, a widening Sunni-Shiite rift and political inertia, conditions he helped create. The shift is as much a reaction to U.S. efforts to rein him in as it is an admission of unfulfilled visions. His strategy exposes the strengths and weaknesses of his movement as it pushes for U.S. troops to leave and competes with its Shiite rivals in the contest to shape a new Iraq.
Since Sadr emerged with force after the U.S.-led invasion, he has sought to create a Shiite-led state guided by Islamic law with a strong central government. In 2004, his militia battled U.S. forces in Najaf, bolstering his authority and appeal across sects. But his credibility as a would-be unifier of Iraq suffered after his militiamen engaged in widespread revenge killings of Sunnis following the February 2006 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra. His movement remains in flux, at times in turmoil, over the approach toward Sunnis, the proper timing of a U.S. withdrawal and Sadr's political involvement.
"The Sadrists believe they have political problems, and they are trying new tactics to serve their own interests," said Mithal al-Alusi, an independent Sunni legislator. "But anyway, we welcome any political group who wants to talk instead of kill."
Sadr has vanished from sight in recent months, raising concerns about his leadership, although his close aides insist he's in hiding for security and strategic reasons.
Sunnis continue to accuse the Mahdi Army of committing atrocities, and fissures are growing in the loosely knit militia as fighters break off on their own. A three-month-old U.S. and Iraqi security offensive in Baghdad, which Sadr has tacitly backed, has not reduced attacks on Shiites, prompting fears that his militiamen may again spark cycles of reprisal killings. And while Sadr has ordered his fighters to lie low, U.S. arrests of militiamen are mounting, creating discontent.
"The main questions are: How seriously can we take these new tactics? And do they have real control over the Jaish al-Mahdi?" Alusi said, using the Arabic term for the militia. 'We Are Not Anti-American'
As black-clad militiamen stood guard, Obaidi, his white turban glinting in the buttery sunlight, walked into the gold-domed mosque of Kufa. The senior aide to Sadr, tall and gaunt with a black beard, stepped up to a wooden lectern and stared out at the courtyard where the faithful waited. Hundreds of men, young and old, had come to hear Sadr, whom they had not seen in months. This was his mosque. Obaidi, on this day, was his voice.
He read aloud Sadr's two-page sermon, which condemned U.S. military forces building a wall in Baghdad's mostly Sunni Adhamiyah neighborhood; residents complained the wall would divide Sunnis and Shiites.
"Didn't we see and hear of our beloveds in Adhamiyah while they were chanting, 'No, no, to sectarianism'?" Obaidi thundered at the crowd. "We will stand, as one hand, to demonstrate with them and defend our sacred lands everywhere."
The day after the sermon, Obaidi sat inside Sadr's compound in Najaf, where a green Islamic flag fluttered between two Iraqi national flags.
Three months ago, Obaidi was released from Camp Cropper, a U.S. military detention center, where he had been held for five months. In near-perfect English, he said the American military officers set him free because they view him as a moderate who could help neutralize the radicals in Sadr's fold.
"I can give him good advice," Obaidi added with a smile.
Shaibani, the cleric, was released in March after U.S. military officials determined that he "could play a potentially important role in helping to moderate extremism and foster reconciliation in Iraq," the military said in a statement at the time.
U.S. generals are now differentiating between "irreconcilable" rogue members of the Mahdi Army and "reconcilable" ones they can engage.
Still, U.S. policy toward Sadr often appears contradictory. American soldiers are more cautious in conducting raids, understanding the movement's social dimensions and popular roots. U.S. military leaders no longer cite Shiite militias as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability, emphasizing the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq instead.
At the same time, the military is attempting to contain Sadr. U.S. military leaders say they are preparing to increase the number of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers patrolling the streets of Sadr City, the cleric's stronghold in Baghdad.
"Sadr clearly has some influence," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands U.S. forces south of Baghdad and in southern Iraq. "But it's simplistic to say this guy is in charge of all Jaish al-Mahdi, that when he says, 'Go left,' they all go left. We're not seeing that."
But Sadr's aides say the fact that the Mahdi Army has not risen up yet is proof that the cleric is in control.
U.S. officials have publicly claimed the cleric is in Iran, which undermines Sadr's homegrown credentials and his hopes to woo Sunnis, who are wary of Iran's growing influence. The officials have also alleged that groups in Iran are training and funneling weapons to Shiite militants.
"The Americans are trying to picture the Mahdi Army as being a tool of Iran," said Karim Abu Ali, a Sadr spokesman in Baghdad. "It is baseless."
Altering such perceptions was part of Sadr's reason for cooperating with the current Baghdad security plan, Obaidi said. Violence now is largely being perpetrated by Sunni insurgents deploying car bombs and suicide attacks.
"We have been accused that we're not cooperating to bring security," Obaidi said. "Now, we've shown that we are not the source of the problems."
Sadr's cooperation with the plan, his aides said, is based partly on political battles over Iraq policy in Washington -- a sign, he believes, that the occupation is in its final stages. His aides say he is open to meeting U.S. politicians who are not part of the Bush administration, particularly those calling for a U.S. withdrawal.
"We are not anti-American. We think the Americans have an important role in rebuilding Iraq, but as companies, not as an army," Obaidi said. "We can open a new channel with the Democrats, even some of the Republicans." Vow to Weaken Al-Qaeda
Shaibani, Sadr's spokesman in Najaf during the confrontation with U.S. troops in 2004, spent more than two years inside U.S. detention centers. Sidelined from an increasingly sectarian war, he befriended Sunni insurgents instead of killing them, earning a credibility few in Sadr's movement can claim today.
Sadr is now dispatching Shaibani to speak with Sunni religious leaders in Syria, Egypt and across the Persian Gulf to seek their help in approaching Sunnis inside Iraq.
Sadr senses an opportunity in recent moves by Sunni insurgent groups to break away from militants influenced by al-Qaeda, and in the threats by the largest Sunni political bloc to leave the government, which opens the possibility for a new cross-sectarian political alliance, his aides said.
If the sectarian war can be stopped, if the Mahdi Army and Sunni insurgent groups can join hands and break al-Qaeda in Iraq, there will be less reason for U.S. forces to stay, said Shaibani, wearing a black dishdasha, a traditional loose-fitting tunic, and clutching a Nokia cellphone during an interview in late April. "The American argument is we can't have a timetable because of al-Qaeda," he said. "So we're going to weaken al-Qaeda for you."
Sadr's political followers have had informal talks with Sunni politicians and insurgent groups in the past month. "We think there is some possibility to have a closer relationship," said Hussein al-Falluji, a legislator in the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc.
Abu Aja Naemi, a commander in the 1920 Revolution Brigades, said Sadr's representatives have had informal discussions with his group.
The Sadrists, like most Sunnis, are against the idea of creating autonomous regions. They share concerns over the fate of the contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk, division of oil revenue and the need for Iraq's constitution to be amended.
Their differences, though, are numerous. Some Sunnis fear that a premature U.S. withdrawal could endanger their community. Sunnis and Sadrists disagree over allowing thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to government jobs.
"If national reconciliation is at the expense of the return of the assassin Baathists, then we will reject such reconciliation," said Falah Hassan Shanshal, a Sadr legislator and chairman of the parliament's de-Baathification committee.
Sadr's Shiite rivals inside Maliki's coalition say it is unlikely the Sadrists will unite with the Sunnis. "Now, it is very difficult," said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a senior legislator with the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq, the party formerly known as SCIRI and the largest within Maliki's ruling coalition. "Between them, there's a gap made of blood. After Samarra, there is no possibility for reconciliation." Sunnis Distrustful
This month, Mahdi Army militiamen in the Hurriyah area of Baghdad chased several Sunni families from their homes. Sadr, who wants to protect his militia's image as a guardian of Shiites, acted swiftly.
A committee based in Najaf created to deal with rogue elements dismissed 30 militiamen in the area, said Haider Salaam, a senior Mahdi Army commander in Hurriyah.
Across Baghdad, at least 600 fighters have been forced out of the militia over the past three months, Sadr officials said. Their misdeeds included murder and using Sadr's name to gain undue influence.
In the Kadhimiyah neighborhood, militiamen who engaged in a firefight with U.S. forces near a mosque were also dismissed.
"Yes, this was self-defense, but they exceeded the orders of the commander," Salaam said. "Any breach of the security operations will be blamed on the Mahdi Army."
But it is hard to get rid of the militiamen. "Some of those who are dismissed still go around and say they are members of Mahdi Army," said Abu Ali, the Sadr spokesman.
"We sent people to talk to them, to inform them of Moqtada Sadr's instructions and abide by them, but they refused," Salaam said. "We now consider them a splinter group. They don't belong in the Mahdi Army."
A few days later, the fighters attacked the Sadr office in Hurriyah with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, killing two bystanders, including a child.
Even as Sadr struggles to reform his militia, mistrust runs deep on the streets. Khulood Habib, 45, a Sunni seamstress and mother of four, lives in Baghdad's Risala neighborhood, where tensions are growing after recent bomb attacks on Shiite areas. In the last week of April, gunmen kidnapped two Sunni men near Habib's apartment. The next day, their bodies were found mutilated and tortured -- a signature practice of Shiite militias.
Two days later, Habib received an envelope containing a bullet and a letter signed by the Mahdi Army that ordered her to leave within 24 hours. The next afternoon, gunmen began to drive out the Sunnis in her building. Soon, they were in front of her apartment.
"They broke the door down. It fell on my little boy's leg and broke it," Habib recalled, round-faced with light brown hair peeking from underneath her black head scarf. "He was screaming. I was screaming."
Cursing Sunnis as apostates, the men ordered the family to leave the neighborhood. Within an hour, they fled to the home of Habib's parents in the Adil neighborhood. Today, she's too afraid to return.
"Moqtada is saying something, but on the ground they are doing something else," Habib said, tossing a glance at Ibrahim, 6, his left leg in a cast. Sadr's call to reconcile with Sunnis is "all nonsense," she continued. "They want to know who the Sunnis are, so they can start butchering people at their own pace."