Friday, May 25, 2007

Shiite Cleric Resurfaces With Anti-U.S. Sermon


Published: May 25, 2007

BAGHDAD, May 25 — The populist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr appeared in public for the first time in months on Friday, delivering a fiercely anti-American sermon and offering himself in a new guise as a nationalist intent on bridging the divide between Iraq’s warring communities of Shiites and Sunnis.

Flanked by bodyguards and hailed by weeping loyalists, the 33-year-old Mr.

Sadr made his reappearance at the mosque in Kufa, a Shiite holy city 100 miles south of Baghdad, where he made his last public appearance in October. In the months since, American officials say Mr. Sadr had taken refuge in Iran.

The Kufa mosque has been the cleric’s favorite redoubt since he emerged early in the Iraqi conflict as the leader of the Mahdi Army, a powerful anti-American militia that has made Mr. Sadr a crucial player in the struggle for power in Iraq.

“No, no, no to Satan! No, no, no to America! No, no, no to occupation! No, no, no to Israel!” Mr. Sadr told about 1,000 worshippers, frequently mopping his brow in the 110-degree heat of Iraq’s early summer.

He renewed earlier demands for a timetable for an American troop withdrawal, saying the Iraqi government “should not extend the occupation even for a single day.” But he avoided setting a deadline, perhaps because of widespread fears among Iraqi Shiites that the country’s new Shiite-dominated army and police were far from ready to stand alone against the Qaeda groups and Baathist diehards who have driven the Sunni insurgency.

Mr. Sadr coupled his call for an American pullout with an offer of a new alliance with Iraq’s minority Sunnis, thousands of whom have been killed or driven from their homes over the past year by Shiite death squads. Many of these have been offshoots of the Mahdi Army, who have struck in revenge for a relentless Sunni insurgent campaign of bombings aimed at Shiite civilians gathering at markets, mosques, weddings and other gatherings.

In this, too, Mr. Sadr found a new opening for an attack on the Americans, saying “the invader has separated us,” Shiites and Sunnis, and that “unity is power and division is weakness.” Casting aside for the moment his oft-stated claim to be the only Shiite leader capable of offering Shiites protection against Sunni insurgents, he said he was “extending his hand” to Sunnis, and to Iraqi Christians, a small and scattered community that has seen thousands of families join the wave of Iraqis seeking refuge from the war by fleeing abroad.

He said he had ordered the Mahdi Army not to attack Sunnis, and to end clashes with the Iraqi army and police, which he described, in reference to the Shiite predominance in their ranks, as “our brothers.” But his strongest appeal was for a new alliance between Shiites, Sunnis and Christians. “I want to say now that the blood of Sunnis is forbidden to everyone, they are our brothers in religion and in nationality,” he said.

“And let our Christian brothers know that Islam is a friend to our minorities and to other faiths, and seeks dialogue with them.”

According to American officials familiar with intelligence reports, Mr. Sadr fled Iraq in January for sanctuary in Iran, which has been a major source of arms and finance for the Mahdi Army. The Americans, who said earlier this week that Mr. Sadr had slipped back into Iraq about a week ago, suggested that the cleric, in fear of arrest or assassination, may have sought refuge in Iran ahead of the American troop buildup ordered in January by President Bush.

The cleric has matched his rare public appearances in the four years since the American-led invasion with an elusive politics, juggling alliances and enmities in a way that has made him a formidable but unpredictable force.

The pattern was evident again on Friday, when he left political opponents guessing as to why he chose to resurface in Iraq now, just as the influx of nearly 30,000 additional American troops is moving to its peak and American commanders are reviewing long-deferred plans for a broad sweep into Sadr City, the vast Baghdad slum that has been the base for much of Mr. Sadr’s political support.

One theory that has gained widespread currency is Baghdad is that Mr. Sadr, during his absence in Iran, saw his power in Iraq eroding. In his months away — always denied by his spokesmen in Iraq, who insisted today that he had remained in Iraq all along — Shiites in Sadr City and elsewhere have suffered ceaseless suicide bombings, some of them claiming scores of victims. Inevitably, the cleric’s absence led to talk among Shiites of his having chosen personal safety over his responsibilities to the people he claims to lead.

Allied to this has been the gradual dismemberment of key parts of the Mahdi Army as American and Iraqi forces have staged raid after raid on Mahdi Army cells, especially in Sadr City. The raids have had an opaque dimension, politically, with American commanders and senior officials in the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who is a political ally of Mr. Sadr’s, claiming that most if not all of the dozens of “terrorist leaders” killed and captured in the raids have been from “rogue” and “criminal” groups that have broken with Mr. Sadr.

These claims have had the benefit for Mr. Maliki of avoiding the appearance of declaring war on a political partner, Mr. Sadr, whose 30-member parliamentary bloc provided Mr. Maliki with the margin of votes he needed to become prime minister a year ago. For Mr. Sadr, the formula has had a face-saving quality, and, American commanders say, has helped eliminate elements of the Mahdi Army that were beyond the cleric’s control and posed the threat of future challenges to his leadership.

Other elements in the shifting political landscape in Iraq may have helped bring Mr. Sadr back. With mounting pressures in Congress and public opinion in the United States for an American troop withdrawal, Iraq’s feuding political parties have begun to look beyond the time when the American military presence will be the decisive element in the quest for political power. Mr. Sadr, some Iraqi politicians believe, may have seen this as the moment to make his claim as a nationalist leader, something he has made moves towards before, only to have the attacks on Sunni civilians by Mahdi Army death squads define him, at least in minds of many Sunnis, as a mercilessly sectarian figure.At about the same time he was delivering his sermon, Iraqi special forces killed a top leader of the Mahdi Army in the southern city of Basra, according to Reuters.

Abu Qader and at least one aide were shot after leaving Mr. Sadr’s office in the center of the city, the British military said. British troops have stepped up operations against Shiite militias as they prepare to hand over Basra to Iraqi security forces later this year.

Mr. Sadr’s appearance came as the American military announced today that six more soldiers had died in Iraq, five on Thursday and one on Tuesday, according to Reuters. April was the worst month this year for the American military since the invasion, with 104 soldiers killed. About 90 have been killed in May so far.