Anti-American cleric faces challenge to power in Iraq

Dissident faction of Sadr's group gaining support

Followers of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, seen on a poster at center, attended prayers in Baghdad yesterday. Followers of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, seen on a poster at center, attended prayers in Baghdad yesterday. (KARIM KADIM/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
By Qassim Abdul-Zahra
Associated Press / February 21, 2009
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BAGHDAD - The firebrand anti-American cleric whose militia battled US troops for years is facing a strong challenge for leadership of Iraq's poor, urban Shiites from a small, well-organized faction with loose links to Iran, senior figures within his movement say.

The split within Moqtada al-Sadr's organization has widened as Shiite groups weigh the outcome of last month's provincial elections and prepare for a national ballot this year that will determine the leadership in Baghdad.

The dissident faction is expected to mount a campaign to become a rival force appealing to Sadr's base among poor Shiites, senior officials close to the cleric said in interviews this week. This would offer greater openings for Tehran's influence in Iraq and give political cover to the so-called "special groups" of Sadrists that have continued attacks on US-led forces.

For Sadr, the internal battle may become a crucial test of his credibility and resilience after being weakened by crackdowns on his once-powerful and now disbanded militia, the Mahdi Army.

"Iraq has turned a new page after [the provincial] elections," said a statement attributed to Sadr that was read yesterday at prayers in the Sadr City district, his group's stronghold in Baghdad.

"It marks a gate for liberation; a gate to serve Iraqis and not to keep occupiers to divide Iraqis," the statement said.

Results from the Jan. 31 balloting, announced Thursday, had Sadr's loyalists gaining a handful of seats on influential provincial councils across Iraq's Shiite south. This was seen as a sign that Sadr is politically wounded, although he is considered still capable of staging a comeback.

The splinter group within the movement wants to take on that role, however, and is angling to supplant Sadr amid wider political jockeying among Iraq's Shiite majority.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a more secular-oriented Shiite, saw his allies make strong showings across the south in the provincial races, giving the government the early advantage against an expected challenge in national elections from the largest Shiite political group, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which also has close ties to Iran.

Sadr's sharp rhetoric against the US-led invasion in 2003 and his militia's later battles with American forces catapulted him from relative obscurity to a position of power, particularly among poor and powerless Shiites.

But his standing began to erode after Sadr lost control of longtime strongholds in Basra, Baghdad, and Amarah after Maliki launched offensives against Shiite militias last year.

At the same time, the splinter "special groups" set their own course, pushing on with attacks on US-led forces even after the young cleric declared a unilateral cease-fire in 2007 and then dissolved the Mahdi Army last year.

Now the breakaway faction with ties to the armed groups is planning to field candidates in the elections for the Iraqi Parliament, with the apparent goal of

transforming parts of Iraq into a Shiite state modeled after Iran.

Some key figures in the breakaway groups include former close aides to Sadr's late father, a revered cleric who founded the Sadrist movement and was believed to have been assassinated by Saddam Hussein's agents in 1999.

The breakaway leaders complain about what they say were the younger Sadr's missteps, including dismantling the Mahdi Army, once Iraq's biggest and most feared Shiite militia.

Two senior Sadrists , estimated the breakaway factions represent 30 percent of the movement and say it is better organized and funded than Sadr's camp.

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