Mon, Sep 06, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Al-Sadr's Iranian mentor withdraws his support

SHIITE LEADERSHIP An Iranian cleric has broken off his relationship with Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, and is now appealing for peace in Iraq

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , QUM, IRAN

The Shiite cleric based in Iran who was the mentor of the rebel Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has in recent weeks publicly broken with al-Sadr and withdrawn his support.

The cleric, Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, had once encouraged armed opposition by al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, against both Saddam Hussein and US-led forces in Iraq. But Haeri, who has ties to some high-level conservative clerics in Iran, began distancing himself from his protege a year ago and is now directly appealing for peace.

"I condemn the events in Iraq and advise the two groups, the interim government and Mahdi Army, to resolve their differences without the interference of others," he said in a statement after the standoff between al-Sadr's militia and US forces flared last month in the Iraqi city of Najaf.

Haeri, an Iraqi who came to Qum for religious studies in 1973, had appointed al-Sadr to be his representative and Friday Prayer leader in the city of Kufa after the fall of Saddam.

"Moqtada is not his representative anymore," the ayatollah's brother, Mustafa Haeri, who is also the director of his brother's office in Qum, said late last month.

On his Web site, alhaeri.org, Ayatollah Haeri denies supporting al-Sadr and says that he has stripped him of his position.

"The formation of Mahdi Army was not by our order," the Web site states.

The first evidence of Ayatollah Haeri's change of heart toward al-Sadr came in August last year, when he told Alireza Shaker, an analyst and journalist in Tehran, that although he opposed the presence of American forces in Iraq, he was concerned over "the timing and the location" of al-Sadr's revolt.

"He felt that his support for al-Sadr may tarnish his reputation in the Shiite world," Shaker said in an interview.

"He wants to be able to play a role in the future of Iraq, and so wants to keep a good name for himself."

Shaker said that when he had visited Haeri last year at his office, a group of al-Sadr's supporters, who had come from Iraq, were causing a commotion at his office, apparently in response to his effort to distance himself from al-Sadr. "You are traitor," Shaker said one Iraqi kept shouting.

There is heavy security at Haeri's office, on a narrow alley off the main street of Qum. He cautiously drives into the backyard of the office with his bodyguard, who is a member of Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guard, and refuses to meet with journalists.

Haeri, 68, defected to Iran after Saddam's government began expelling Iraqis who were of Iranian origin. It is unclear whether he was born in Iran or Iraq, but his grandfather was Iranian. He taught religious studies at his school in Qum for many years, and is the author of several books on Islamic law. But he became better known publicly after al-Sadr began his revolt in Iraq.

Haeri is a supporter of an Islamic state in Iraq, unlike Iraq's most revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who favors separation of state and religion.

Haeri favored armed opposition to Saddam, and his religious decrees were collected in a book, The Case For Armed Opposition. His office now refuses to give out copies of his book.

"The book is irrelevant now that Mr. Hussein has been toppled," Mustafa Haeri said.

Ayatollah Haeri has developed close ties with Iranian officials over the years and is a member of the board that approves the religious credentials of candidates running for the Council of Experts, which is responsible for supervising the conduct of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is also a member of the hard-line Association of Teachers in Qum.

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