Militant Cleric Discussing Plan for Iraq Politics

By DEXTER FILKINS

New York Times

October 3, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 2 - The Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr has begun laying the groundwork to enter Iraq's nascent democratic process, telling Iraqi leaders that he is planning to disband his militia and possibly field candidates for office.

After weeks of watching his militia wither before American military attacks, Mr. Sadr has sent emissaries to some of Iraq's major political parties and religious groups to discuss the possibility of involving himself in the campaign for nationwide elections, according to a senior aide to Mr. Sadr and several Iraqi leaders who have met with him.

According to these Iraqis, Mr. Sadr says he intends to disband his militia, the Mahdi Army, and endorse the holding of elections. And while Mr. Sadr has made promises to end his armed resistance and then disappointed, some Iraqi officials believe that he may be serious this time, especially given the toll of the American attacks on his forces.

Mr. Sadr's aides say his political intentions have been endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most powerful Shiite religious leader, who has long tried to tame what he believes is Mr. Sadr's destructive influence on the chances of Iraq's Shiite community to win a majority in the elections scheduled for January.

In recent weeks, Mr. Sadr's chief aide, Ali Smesim, has met with some of the country's most important political leaders, including members of the Association of Muslim Scholars, the powerful Sunni organization; leaders of the country's Kurdish community; Christians and other Shiite leaders. Mr. Sadr appears to be particularly interested in cultivating disaffected political groups that did not cooperate with the American occupation and which are not now part of the interim Iraqi government. Those smaller parties, in turn, are keenly interested in tapping the vast support enjoyed by the 31-year-old cleric among Iraq's poor.

"We are ready to enter the democratic process, under certain conditions," Mr. Smesim said in an interview. "We will have a program. And if Moktada comes in, he will be the biggest in Iraq."

Mr. Smesim said Mr. Sadr's two major conditions were the involvement of the United Nations, which is already assisting in the elections here, and the absence of any interference from American and British military forces in the electoral process.

Mr. Sadr's overtures toward the political mainstream, if they develop into a full-blown commitment, would represent a significant victory for the American-led enterprise here, just a few months before nationwide elections are to be held in January. Mr. Sadr, who commands a vast following among Iraq's poor, has long posed one of the most difficult threats to the efforts to implant a democratic process in Iraq. Twice before, Mr. Sadr has called for armed uprisings against the Americans that took weeks and hundreds of Iraqi and American lives to suppress. More than once, Mr. Sadr has promised to disband his militia, only to keep on fighting.

Indeed, Mr. Sadr's steps, though clear and various, are still tentative, with no definitive public declaration from the man himself. With an Iraqi murder warrant still issued for his arrest, Mr. Sadr has not been seen in public in weeks. The informal talks to persuade Mr. Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, to disband, have so far yielded little.

Nonetheless, Iraqi officials say they are encouraged by Mr. Sadr's recent overtures, and some believe that this time Mr. Sadr might be serious. The reason, they say, is the political and military defeat that Mr. Sadr suffered in Najaf, where the Mahdi Army was badly mauled by American forces and where Mr. Sadr himself was ordered to capitulate by Ayatollah Sistani.

Mr. Smesim said Mr. Sadr was in the process of trying to form a political coalition, putting out feelers for Iraqis willing to join him. He has even floated a name for a new party - the Patriotic Alliance.

According to the same Iraqis, Mr. Sadr's aides have begun to work closely with Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who was once a favorite of the Bush administration but who has since fallen out of favor. In recent weeks, Mr. Chalabi has been advising Mr. Sadr's aides in their search for allies, and he has encouraged members of the Shiite Council, a political alliance that he is a part of, to join with Mr. Sadr.

Mr. Chalabi and his allies appear to be interested in tapping the vast support that Mr. Sadr enjoys among Iraqis poor and lower-class Shiites, and they say they are working toward a political accommodation that could benefit them both.

It was in Najaf in late August that Mr. Sadr, meeting with Ayatollah Sistani, pledged in a cease-fire to enter the democratic process.

Since then, the pressure on Mr. Sadr has only intensified. With his forces routed from Najaf, the American military has been attacking almost daily in Sadr City, the sprawling district of two million in northeastern Baghdad that is named after Mr. Sadr's father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a beloved Shiite hierarch who was killed by Saddam Hussein's government in 1999.

Nearly every night, the sound of American AC-130 gunships can be heard hovering above Sadr City, the low hum of their engines broken only by the sound of their cannon fire.

American and Iraqi officials have long said that Mr. Sadr could be given a place in the country's budding democratic system as long as he renounces violence. But it is not clear just how far they are willing to let him go. There is still a great wariness about Mr. Sadr, whose fiery sermons often include promises to expel the Americans from the country.

Among those most concerned about Mr. Sadr's potential entry into democratic politics are the mainstream Shiite parties, like Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or Sciri. Both parties are well organized and well financed, yet each has suffered some loss of popularity for cooperating with the American occupation.

In the interview, Mr. Smesim accused the leaders of those two parties of pressing the Americans and the government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to exclude them from the political process at whatever cost, lest Mr. Sadr undercut the two big Shiite parties. Even so, Mr. Smesim recently met the leaders of each of the big Shiite parties to tell them of Mr. Sadr's plan.

The leaders of the two main Shiite parties say they would welcome Mr. Sadr's entry into the political fray but say he overestimates his popularity.

"He has no support," said Adil Abdul Madhi, the Iraqi finance minister and a leader of Sciri. "You will see that when his hold is broken in these neighborhoods, he will have no support."

And then there is the problem of the Mahdi Army, the loosely organized guerrilla group that is thought to number in the thousands. In informal talks that have unfolded over the past several weeks, the government of Dr. Allawi has insisted that any normalization of relations with Mr. Sadr must start with a surrender of the group's heavy weapons, like mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The group would still be allowed to keep most of its automatic weapons.

Until the group turns over its heavy weapons, Iraqi and American leaders say, they will keep up the military pressure.

"The government has made clear that it can accommodate all trends in Iraqi society," said Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister. "But we cannot accept the presence of any armed militias."

Mr. Sadr, who has broken several earlier promises to disarm, does not inspire much trust among the American military either.

"My daddy taught me, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me," a senior American military commander said. "I don't trust him."

Indeed, there are some indications that Mr. Sadr intends to test the political waters first before giving up his guns. Asked about the group's heavy weapons, Mr. Smesim turned evasive, indicating that most of the weapons were the property of individual Iraqis who comprised the Mahdi Army who were not likely to listen to Mr. Sadr's orders to turn them over.

"They are personal weapons, personal R.P.G.'s," he said.

Yet for all reservations about Mr. Sadr, many of the Iraqi leaders who have met with his representatives say they are impressed with their seriousness.

Faoud Masoon, chairman of the National Assembly and a senior leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said he was not surprised by Mr. Sadr's change of heart, given the decimation of his army. He met with Mr. Smesim two weeks ago.

"Every man is free to change his mind," Mr. Masoon said. "I think Moktada is being cautious, so he is sending his people out, testing the waters."

"We would welcome him into the democratic process," he said.

Mr. Sadr appears to be cultivating a number of groups, like his own, that are outside the political mainstream. One is the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni Arab group that is opposed to the occupation and has decided, for now, to sit out the elections.

Abdul Salam al-Qubaisi, a senior member of the group, said talks with Mr. Smesim were planned for next week. Despite the religious differences, Mr. Qubaisi said he saw a natural confluence of interests between the groups.

"We represent the Sunni resistance, and Sadr represents the Shiite resistance," Mr. Qubaisi said. "We think there can be a coordination of responses for the elections."

Of all those encouraging Mr. Sadr to jump into the political arena, one of the most surprising is Mr. Chalabi, who has been advising Mr. Smesim on political strategy. Mr. Chalabi, an exile with little popular support, has recently tried to position himself as a populist Shiite leader much like Mr. Sadr is. In an interview, Mr. Chalabi acknowledged that he was trying to coax Mr. Sadr into the mainstream.

"Our real business is to persuade everybody that Sadr is better inside than outside," Mr. Chalabi said, "and to provide some measure of comfort to the middle class that he is not going to eat them up."

In recent weeks, Mr. Smesim has met at least 10 times with members of the Shiite Council, an alliance of about 40 political parties that includes Mr. Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress.

The big question surrounding Mr. Sadr and the Mahdi Army is how much authority he really has. Among many Iraqis, there is some worry that if Mr. Sadr jumps to the political mainstream, some of the hard-liners in his organization, like Abdul Hadi Daraji, would keep fighting.

"Most of them would give up if Moktada told them to,'' Mr. Masoon said. "A few of them would go with the terrorists."