Sadr modeling Mahdi Army on Hezbollah
Firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is working behind the scenes to maintain his armed militant wing and portray it as a social movement, a step that would make him one of Iraq's most powerful figures if it succeeds, U.S. officials and Iraqi politicians say.

American officials think that al-Sadr, who already controls the largest bloc of votes in the National Assembly, is modeling himself after Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim movement born during that country's civil war in the 1980s. Although it began largely as an armed group, it eventually became a powerful political force with a large social-service component.

Some U.S. and Iraq officials think that al-Sadr's shift is a symptom of a growing rift within the powerful Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, which has dominated Iraq's two parliamentary elections. That split pits al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia against members of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq to be the voice of all Iraqi Shiites.

"It's a struggle for power," said Adnan Pachachi, a secularist and member of parliament.

A successful move by al-Sadr would be a major transformation for the 30-something scion of a clan of revered Shiite religious figures. Once derided as ill-educated and undisciplined, al-Sadr has been on the verge of defeat twice at the hands of the American military and once was charged by an Iraqi court with murdering two prominent Shiite clerics.

But he's maintained his role in Iraq, joining the United Iraqi Alliance while maintaining his Mahdi Army, which controls Sadr City, Baghdad's largest Shiite neighborhood, named for al-Sadr's father.

Now al-Sadr is working to expand his influence, building regional offices in major Shiite communities to help widows, workers, children and the sick with services the Iraqi government can't yet provide, such as health care and potable water.

Al-Sadr also is insisting in talks to form a new government that his followers, who hold 32 of the assembly's 275 seats, lead key service ministries such as education and health.

Sheik Yousif al-Nasseri, an al-Sadr supporter and the head of al-Shaheedin, an al-Sadr-oriented research center, embraced the comparison between al-Sadr's movement and Lebanon's Hezbollah, particularly if it means that the populace sees al-Sadr as representing the people.

The State Department lists Hezbollah as among the Middle East's "active extremist and terrorist groups."

American officials also take a dim view of al-Sadr, whom they hold chiefly responsible for attacks on Sunni Muslim mosques after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya shrine, a Shiite holy site, in the mostly Sunni city of Samarra. In the aftermath of those attacks, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said militias were a greater threat to Iraq than the country's Sunni insurgency.

Not everyone thinks al-Sadr will be successful. They note that in contrast to Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasralla, who's considered one of the most charismatic figures in the Middle East, al-Sadr often appears awkward and indecisive in his public appearances.

But they agree there's a vacuum for someone to fill, because the government is weak and residents are frustrated by the religious and ethnic discord and the lack of services.
Posted by: Dan Darling 2006-05-08