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Sadr, a defiant ‘Robin Hood’
Iraqi Shiite cleric turns into cult hero for anti-US stance, helping the poor.
By Sam Dagher - NAJAF, Iraq
For many of his followers, radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr has taken on the persona of a Robin Hood or a David fighting Goliath as he defiantly stands up to the US-led coalition.
Posters of the plump and bearded 30-something cleric are big sellers on the dusty streets of this holy city, where Sadr and hundreds of his mainly young followers, the so-called Mehdi Army, have been holed up since early April.
His stern round face is plastered on store fronts, lamp posts and even on the walls of the city's Imam Ali mausoleum, one of the most sacred shrines for Shiite Muslims.
He is portrayed in the company of revered religious figures like Imam Ali and his son Hussein, or Imam Mehdi, the last of the 12 Shiite Imams who some expect to return to save the world.
Mehdi, after whom Sadr's militia is named, is shown faceless.
The latest poster combines the portrait of Sadr with a veiled Mehdi Army militiamen brandishing a rocket propelled grenade launcher above the caption: "The Mehdi Army will lead the way to a just state."
There is even a billboard at the entrance of Najaf captioned "These are true men," showing Sadr with his father and great-uncle, both killed by Saddam Hussein's henchmen for their opposition to the ousted leader’s regime.
Sadr mania does not stop here. Compact disks of his Friday sermons or tuneless rap-like chants praising his virtues have turned into best sellers in Najaf and elsewhere in Iraq's poor Shiite south.
On Zein al-Abideen street leading to the mausoleum, young men swarm around kiosks playing video footage of Sadr's sermons at the grand mosque in nearby Kufa.
The Shaker brothers who own one of these kiosks say they sell on average 300 Sadr CDs a day at 750 dinars each (50 cents).
"He is my kind of hero because he stood up to the Americans and because he helps the weak and the poor," said Ali Shaker, 19.
His bother Hussein, 21, says Sadr represents "true Iraqi virtues."
The current hit CD is "Sadr Carnivals," according to Karar Aziz, 20, another kiosk owner.
The trance-like verse speaks of "Moqtada's benevolent rule," and the "desire of his followers to die for him," as Sadr is shown among his supporters in some sort of a parade in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City.
"Moqtada is amazing. He is walking on the righteous path and we are all behind him," says a passer-by.
His main supporters are poor young men from Baghdad and the south of Iraq.
Sadr, a scion of a prominent religious family, launched an uprising in early April after US-appointed Iraqi authorities charged him over the alleged murder of a rival cleric last year.
The Mehdi Army quickly captured key areas of mainly Shiite cities south of Baghdad, but hundreds of Sadr's militiamen have since died in clashes with coalition forces.
US officials insist they are not negotiating with Sadr.
He has now been holed up in Najaf for more than 40 days and claims he would rather die a "martyr" than submit to the occupiers.
Efforts from moderate Iraqi religious and political leaders to defuse his insurgency have failed and many residents quietly wish he would leave their city and allow life to return to normal.
Every Friday, the Muslim holy day, he ventures out to Kufa, 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the northeast of Najaf, to deliver a weekly sermon in which he rails against the occupation of Iraq and the alleged crimes of coalition troops.
He receives a hero's welcome and dons a white cloak, alluding to the sheets in which Muslims wrap their dead -- a symbol of his quest for martyrdom.
His appearances are accompanied by frenzied shouts of "Long live Sadr!" and denunciations of the "atheist" occupiers.