Wed, Sep 01, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Al-Sadr eyeing political career

ELECTORAL MANEUVERS The Shiite cleric is clearly angling for a wider -- and more popular -- role in Iraq, but he may have difficulty overcoming tribal politics

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BAGHDAD, IRAQ

The rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is considering a future in politics rather than warfare, one of his top aides said Monday, as the American-backed Iraqi government and al-Sadr's representatives continued talks on the future of his militia.

Talks between government officials and al-Sadr's aides continued late in the night Monday, and the focus was a peace plan for the vast, explosive Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. If achieved, a settlement for the district would set an important precedent and might open al-Sadr's way to electoral politics.

At the same time, a top assistant to al-Sadr said that the cleric was developing a political program and that he had instructed his militia fighters around the country to hold their fire for now.

"We call on all members of the Mahdi Army to cease fire except in self-defense, and to be patient until the political program which Sadr's followers are planning is revealed," reporters quoted the aide, Sheik Ali Smeisim, as telling a Lebanese television station.

Three weeks of ferocious combat between al-Sadr's supporters and American troops in Najaf ended last week when al-Sadr agreed that his fighters would leave that holy city. But a central remaining question facing Iraq, and the country's divided Shiite majority, is whether al-Sadr will now join in the nation's emerging electoral politics or keep fighting the Americans and the interim government with his ragtag army of militant and well-armed followers.

The cleric's cease-fire order appeared to be holding in Sadr City on Monday despite an intrusion by US soldiers. After a day's respite, a force from the 1st Cavalry Division pushed back into the district, with an Abrams tank and four Bradley fighting vehicles sitting ominously on the central avenue as dozens of Army marksmen peered from adjacent rooftops.

But the streets still bustled, and the militias did not fire rocket-propelled grenades or blow roadside bombs, as they often have. Young men who said they were occasional fighters instead spent the day directing traffic. They had been instructed by leaders not to attack the Americans, despite what they regarded as a severe provocation.

Al-Sadr's ability to forge a new path may well depend on the outcome of the talks that began here on Sunday, centering on the disposition of Mahdi Army fighters and weapons in Sadr City, which is home to 2.5 million Shiite Muslims and has been a scene of frequent deadly clashes.

"The Americans come in here shooting and it has made the people want revenge," said Sheik Jadoa Abdul al-Masary, a clan leader in the northeast corner of Sadr City.

"My basic advice to the Americans is to leave this area," he said, furiously fingering a string of plastic beads. "There's no oil, no gold, just poor families. What's the reason for coming in here and making trouble?"

Sheik Jowad Maawi al-Maham, the elderly tribal head of a nearby neighborhood, said: "Our people were happy to see Saddam go. But after they entered Iraq, the Americans changed the deal."

"They used excessive force and called the Iraqi people terrorists," he said. "We haven't seen security or democracy or reconstruction."

He fully understood, he said, why young men from his neighborhood rushed to Najaf in recent weeks to fight the invaders and defend al-Sadr.

But as the sheik walked foreign visitors to their car, a telling exchange occurred, perhaps a hint of power-jostling to come in Sadr City and other Shiite parts of Iraq.

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