BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -Arguably Iraq”s most popular Shiite group, followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have packed away their guns and now speak of "political resistance" rather than martyrdom in battle.
Once dismissed as an upstart, the portly al-Sadr has been transformed into a respectable political figure, commanding the loyalty of key lawmakers and several Cabinet ministers.
"We are growing stronger and our appeal is becoming wider," Ibrahim al-Jaberi, a senior official at al-Sadr”s office in Sadr City, said Saturday.
Sadr City is a sprawling Baghdad neighborhood that is home to some 2.5 million Shiites and the largest bastion of support for al-Sadr. It was named for the cleric”s father, the late Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed in 1999. The younger al-Sadr”s images are everywhere — on walls, shop widows, car windshields and even ice boxes used by street vendors selling sodas or ice cream.
In many ways, today”s "Sadrists" have changed since their heavily armed militia battled U.S. troops last fall, but their canny mix of politics, religious fervor and military capability make them the one group in postwar Iraq with the potential for rapid growth.
Since the fighting, al-Sadr has rebuilt ties with Iraq”s largest Shiite party, after months of tension threatened to escalate into violence. His aides have been mediating between a Shiite militia and a Sunni group after they exchanged charges of involvement in the killing of each other”s clerics.
Ahmad Chalabi, a former Washington insider who is now one of Iraq”s most senior Shiite politicians, has actively been courting al-Sadr in an effort to widen his support. A deputy prime minister, Chalabi is known to be lobbying for the release of hundreds of Sadrists in U.S. detention and rescinding an arrest warrant for al-Sadr”s alleged role in the 2003 killing of a rival cleric.
In turn, al-Sadr has turned down his rhetoric — although he has not stopped calling for the Americans to leave. He is also no longer contemptuous, as he once was, toward senior Shiite clerics and comparatively secular politicians like Chalabi.
Al-Sadr envoys also recently traveled to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq for talks with its leaders, long viewed as American stooges by the Sadrists.
Legislators have also traveled south down the insurgent-infested road to the holy city of Najaf to call on al-Sadr, whose relative youth — he”s believed to be in his early 30s — and lack of academic pedigree had led many to dismiss him.
In large part, the Sadrists” new strength is evident in the discipline and organization shown by their Imam al-Mahdi Army, the militia that battled U.S. forces last year. The militia has quietly been restructured since the fighting ended last fall.
It is widely suspected of having hidden most of its weapons after the fighting, while hundreds of militia commanders last week finished a 45-day course in discipline and religious indoctrination that among other things involved dawn-to-dusk fasts.
At least in public, the militia now resembles an outfit that is part relief organization and part neighborhood vigilante. The group has quietly taken control of security in Sadr City, making it by far the safest area in blood-soaked Baghdad.
The militia goes on public view on Fridays, when thousands of al-Sadr followers gather to perform weekly prayers — an event used since Saddam Hussein”s fall to project its message, reassert its devotion to al-Sadr and renew animosity toward the Americans.
On Friday, militiamen in brown pants, cream-colored shirts and baseball caps stood shoulder-to-shoulder under parasols and lined streets leading to the venue where prayers are held. They frisked worshippers, searched cars and directed traffic away.
"No, No to America," remains a routine chant during the Friday sermon.
Officially, al-Sadr”s movement did not participate in Iraq”s historic January election, arguing that there can never be a free vote while foreign troops remain in Iraq.
But al-Sadr indirectly joined the U.S.-sponsored political process when he allowed supporters to run as independents or in small alliances. That pretense has allowed the movement to retain its anti-Americanism, which finds resonance among supporters, and have the support of at least 20 legislators — although some of them are loyal to the ideological legacy al-Sadr”s late father, not him.
The Sadrists have their roots in the 1990s when the elder al-Sadr publicly defied Saddam. He was killed by suspected security agents in 1999. His supporters, mostly seminary students, resurfaced after Saddam”s fall, organizing local charities and vigilante groups in Shiite areas.
A series of street protests and the creation of the Mahdi army attracted the attention of the U.S. military, and it was not long before they were fighting street battles in Sadr City and in towns across central and southern Iraq.
The current strength and prestige of the Sadrists does not mean they have foregone the movement”s spiritual calling, primarily a narrative of suffering and mourning inspired by the events surrounding the birth of the faith in Islam”s early years.
"We offer the genuine Islamic alternative," said Abdul-Hadi al-Daraji, one of al-Sadr”s closest political advisers.