Since just after the American invasion of Iraq the same question has been asked repeatedly: "Who is Muktada al-Sadr?" The answer that followed usually posed even more questions.
This bearded, dark-eyed, never smiling, rotund, neophyte cleric inherited everything he has -- power, prestige and, to a certain extent, wealth. He is the remaining son of the al Sadr, an Arab family of powerful, Iraqi Shia clerics. His father, Ayatollah Sadeq al-Sadr, assassinated by order of Saddam Hussein in 1999, had created a network of charitable institutions that provided a financial and organizational basis for a resistance structure. This instrument was comprised of the Shia of the Baghdad slums, the provincial tribes south of the capital city, and the mullahs of the holy cities of Nawaz and Karbala.
The Americans took Baghdad and soon found in June '03 that a militia group had been formed known as the Mahdi Army. It has since grown to be one of the major military forces in Baghdad, primarily in the impoverished neighborhoods of what is now called Sadr City.
What is newly developing, however, is a recognition of the objective of Muktada al-Sadr's ambition. The rival Badr Militia, loyal to Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sayid al-Hakim, seek to control the southern provinces' oil producing areas along with a share of power in metropolitan Baghdad. Al-Sadr, on the other hand, appears to be willing to settle for nothing less than being the leader of all Iraq.
Behind the scenes Muktada al-Sadr has made sporadic covert attempts to reach out to willing Sunni tribal groupings wherever he might find them. As contradictory as this effort may appear, he has gone so far as to refer to his Badr militia rivals as "Persians," thus seeking to curry favor with Sunnis who use that term to revile those they hate. At the same time, al-Sadr appears to have been covering his other flank during the several months of the spring and summer when he was not seen in public but was rumored to be in Iran.
It has been suggested that last week's call by al-Sadr for a six-month moratorium on attacks by the Mahdi Army and their allies on fellow Iraqis, including Sunnis, is, in part, another ploy to gain political acceptance from the increasingly anti-al Qaeda Sunni tribes. Interestingly, this temporary cease-fire also is consistent with the timing of American "surge" objectives.
The political and denominational competition among the Shia militias, however, has not received the attention deserved by their ferocity, and it may be that Muktada al-Sadr's announced moratorium was aimed primarily at quelling that fratricide. In any case, al-Sadr's surprise declaration has brought attention back to him at a time when Iraq is contemplating the departure of the American forces.
From the beginning of the American occupation the ambition of the heir to the al-Sadr legacy, as relatively unknown and unaccomplished as he may have been, was focused on taking over the political leadership of Iraq that formerly had been held tightly within the Baathist structure of Saddam Hussein and the Sunni national minority.
Al-Sadr never has been in a position to challenge the religious power of the grand ayatollahs, Ali al-Sistani and Muhammad Said al-Hakim. In fact, the purported involvement of Sadr forces in the April '03 assassination of the reputedly pro-American Ayatollah Majid al-Khoei, in spite of his closeness to al-Sistani, created a schism between the young Sadr and the venerable grand ayatollah.
That Muktada al-Sadr is off on an independent and often duplicitous path to Iraqi leadership is seen also by his well-known break with his former spiritual mentor, the Iran-based ultra conservative Ayatollah Kadem al-Haeri. The interweaving relationships and long-standing rivalries within the Iraqi Shia structure are exemplified by the numerous local militias and their arcane allegiances. The young, thirtyish, al-Sadr appears to have a natural talent for the game of playing all sides to the middle.
Al-Sadr, however, first will have to pull together a majority of the historically fractious Shia in Iraq even to begin to gain the leverage to impress the key Sunni political elements he may wish to influence in his long-range political ambitions. It would appear that many Iraqis, both Shia and Sunni, are still asking the same question as the Americans. But this time it is, "Who really is Muktada al-Sadr â€¦ and what exactly is he doing?"