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April 16, 2004



See continuing coverage of the fallout of the war in Iraq on the Fight for Iraq3 page, including an interactive map4 of the latest violence.

Strange Bedfellows in Iraq

Complex Web of Shiite Politics

Helps and Hinders U.S. Efforts



April 16, 2004; Page A8

SADR CITY, Iraq -- Seyed Shakir Dinenawi, the custodian of the Qamar Bani-Hashem mosque here, picked up his mobile phone and dialed Najaf, the southern holy city now besieged by U.S. troops. Outside, angry men toting AK-47s roamed the alleys of this crowded slum, positioned rocket-propelled grenade launchers and took up sniper positions. Muqtada al Sadr, the young militant Shiite holed up in Najaf, had declared jihad against the U.S. army pursuing him, and these gunmen were among the thousands rallying to their leader's call.

Mr. Dinenawi, a cleric who is the sole representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City -- an area named in honor of Mr. Sadr's father and predominantly inhabited by the son's supporters was hoping the ayatollah's office in Najaf would have some good advice.

It did. According to Mr. Dinenawi, the orders from Najaf -- delivered first by telephone and then in writing -- were an urgent appeal for calm, but more importantly, they instructed Mr. Dinenawi to divert people from joining the rebellion by carefully undermining Mr. Sadr's credibility as a political leader.



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The standoff in Najaf, which U.S. officials say still could lead to a military confrontation between the U.S. and Mr. Sadr's legions, has been mediated from the beginning by an unlikely American ally: The Iranian-born Mr. Sistani, who until a month ago was giving occupation officials grief with his demand for direct elections. For now, at least, his efforts to counter Mr. Sadr's agitation have defused a potentially disastrous showdown. But the difficulty in dealing with the ambitious firebrand vividly illustrates the complex Iraqi politics that are impeding the U.S. effort to impose stability and hand sovereignty back to the Iraqis.

At Mr. Sistani's behest, the soft-spoken Mr. Dinenawi has delivered a speech every day during noon prayers that is more political than his usual spiritual sermons. "You should all remember that in Islam, only a marja [Grand Ayatollah] can call for a jihad," Mr. Dinenawi pronounced. "Ayatollah Sistani is the highest authority in the Shiite world, and he doesn't want you to fight. He wants all the good Muslims to remain calm and be patient. Politics is the concern of the marjaiyat, not young clerics who are still studying" -- an unmistakable reference to Mr. Sadr.

While Ayatollah Sistani and other senior clerics are determined to avoid bloodshed and chaos in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, they -- like the Americans -- have had a troubled relationship with Mr. Sadr since Saddam Hussein's ouster. The complex web of rivalries and family relationships that define the Shiite clergy have been both a help and a hindrance in efforts to neutralize Mr. Sadr; though many among the Shiite hierarchy in Najaf consider him a rogue player, Mr. Sadr -- the 31-year-old scion of a well-respected clerical family -- has support among the Shiite poor in Sadr City and beyond.

Supporters of Muqtada al Sadr rallied at their Sadr City headquarters last week, when dozens of Iraqis were killed in clashes with U.S. troops. The situation has evolved into a standoff while Iraqi and Iranian senior clerics try to convince Mr. Sadr to refrain from instigating armed resistance.

The U.S. deemed Mr. Sadr a "marked man" after an Iraqi court this month implicated him in last year's murder of a rival cleric. At first, Mr. Sadr responded with the fervor of a raging rebel, and declared he would die a martyr before giving into the demands of Americans. The hawza -- the leading clerics of Najaf -- had long kept Mr. Sadr at arm's length, dismissing him as a hotheaded kid with no religious clout or legitimacy. Until this week, when a delegation of representatives of the Shiites' Grand Ayatollahs met with Mr. Sadr, his requests for face time with them had been ignored.

For months, observers suspected that Mr. Sadr had links to Iran, which is ruled by a Shiite theocracy, and last week rumors flared that Iran may have played a role in his call to fight the Americans. Iran has denied any involvement, and as a conciliatory gesture sent a delegation from its foreign ministry to Iraq to negotiate a possible surrender by Mr. Sadr. While the delegation traveled to Najaf yesterday, gunmen assassinated a senior Iranian diplomat, Khalil Naimi, as he was driving to the Iranian embassy in Baghdad. It was unclear whether the ambush was a random act or related to Iran's role in the mediation.

The senior clerics knew that unless they stepped in, Mr. Sadr's popularity might grow and embolden his defiance. They are especially wary that a wrong move by the U.S. could elevate his status from junior cleric to martyr, the ultimate symbol of Shiite suffering in Iraq. This notion doesn't sit well with any of the ayatollahs in Najaf, according to Mr. Dinenawi. They fear their own grip on power in the Shiite hierarchy could be jeopardized if the masses throw their loyalty behind an extremist such as Mr. Sadr.

"Let's just say the senior clerics never agreed with Muqtada and are very unhappy about what has happened," said Shanshul Faraj, a 54-year-old university professor on Sadr City's city council who attends Mr. Dinenawi's sermons every day. "They have told him they will ask the Americans to back off only if Muqtada steps away from politics and focuses on his studies, like the sons of all the other ayatollahs."

The ayatollahs appear to be making progress with their rival. A Shiite member of the Iraqi Governing Council, Ibrahim Jaffari, said the Najaf crisis is nearly resolved. He said Mr. Sadr had agreed to disarm his militia -- estimated at 6,000 to 10,000 fighters -- if the Americans backed off on arresting him. A senior coalition official in Baghdad said that the Americans aren't engaged in any negotiations with Mr. Sadr, and that they stand firm on their demands for the rule of law to be upheld. Coalition officials here declined to comment further on the situation.

Write to Farnaz Fassihi at farnaz.fassihi@wsj.com5

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