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Sectarian crisis propels firebrand cleric to fore
THE bombing and bloodshed that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war have propelled anti-American firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr to the forefront of Iraqi politics.
The young Shiite cleric who twice defied the US in 2004 has emerged as a major threat to US plans for Iraq.
Sheikh Sadr had already carved out a strong position in Iraqi politics. His followers won 30 of the 275 parliamentary seats in the December elections, and his support enabled Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to win the nomination of the Shiite bloc for a second term. But the outbreak of violence after the bombing of Samarra's Golden Mosque presented Sheikh Sadr with an opportunity he was quick the exploit.
An increase in his stature is an ominous development for the US given his opposition to American influence, his links to radical groups and regimes in the Middle East and his militia that undermines state authority.
Through skilful use of intimidation, first, and then concessions, Sheikh Sadr, 31, has profited more than any other Iraqi figure from the unrest that swept the country after last Wednesday's bombing of the Shiite shrine, which triggered reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics.
Many of those reprisal attacks were believed to be the work of Sheikh Sadr's own Mahdi Army militia.
But Sheikh Sadr, who was in Lebanon when the bombing occurred, denied any role in the violence. He quickly joined moderate Shiite clerics in public appeals to halt the attacks.
That the worst violence ended after the clerics' appeal added to Sheikh Sadr's prestige.
The message was clear: Sheikh Sadr controls the streets in much of the country and no agreement to restore order has a chance of success without his approval. No major Shiite figure, including the country's top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, would at this point challenge Sheikh Sadr openly.
In effect, Sheikh Sadr's followers stirred up trouble and then took credit for stopping it.
Even the Americans, who battled Sheikh Sadr's militia in his two major uprisings, appeared unsure how to deal with the cleric.
At the weekend, US Major-General Rick Lynch said sectarian unrest provided the Government with "an opportunity to get rid of the militias".
Then he suggested the time was not right for a showdown and that getting rid of the militias will take "a period of time".
Having showed its power in the streets, Sheikh Sadr's movement moved quickly to solidify its political position and broaden its influence among Iraqis.
Sheikh Sadr, menacing face of Shiite street power, became Sheikh Sadr, voice of religious brotherhood and Iraqi pride.
Returning home to Najaf yesterday, Sheikh Sadr told his followers: "There is no such thing as Sunni or Shiite mosques. The mosques are for all Iraqi people and for all Muslims."