The scion of one of Iraq's
most powerful Shiite clerical families, Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged
as one of the most potent political and military leaders in post-Saddam
Hussein Iraq and as one of the most vocal critics of the U.S. occupation.
Al-Sadr is in many
ways a paradox, preaching a largely nonviolent message while heading
the al-Mahdi Army, an armed militia that has repeatedly clashed with
U.S. and Iraqi government forces.
Believed to be in
his early thirties, al-Sadr's hails from the holy Shiite city of Najaf.
Although he lacks the decades-long religious training required of the
highest-ranking Shiite authorities, based on his lineage, leadership
of the rebellion and popular support al-Sadr has established himself
as one of the top religious leaders in the war-torn nation. His followers
have begun to say he is a hujjat al-Islam -- a "Sign of Islam,"
or a "Proof of Islam," the third rank from the top in the
Shiite clerical hierarchy and he often wraps himself in a white funeral
shroud, showing he is ready for death.
But for an al-Sadr
to achieve such a following and play such an influential role is nothing
new. His father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was the
most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq before he was assassinated along
with his other two sons in 1999 by agents presumed to be working for
Already a popular
figure at the time of his death, the murder of Grand Ayatollah al-Sadr
transformed him into one of the major symbols of Shia resistance to
the former regime.
But the al-Sadr
family had been a target of Saddam's government for years. Muqtada al-Sadr's
uncle, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, was another Shiite leader executed
by Saddam's forces in 1980.
Following an attempt
on his life in February 1999, Muqtada al-Sadr went underground. In the
wake of his father's death, al-Sadr inherited a network of schools and
charities built by his father, along with the allegiance of many of
the elder Sadr's followers.
Muqtada al-Sadr commands the loyalty of some 3 million to 5 million
Shiites across the country; a following that has swelled with each confrontation
with the United States. Many of his supporters live in Sadr City, a
vast Baghdad slum of 2 million previously called Saddam City and renamed
for the senior Sadr after Saddam's fall. Sadr also has strong support
in Najaf, the holy city where the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet
Mohammed, Ali ibn Abi Talib, is buried.
claim his al-Mahdi Army numbers 10,000 men, although some reports place
the number between 1,500 and 3,000. Some experts say there also are
hundreds of thousands of additional Iraqis who are "passive"
al-Sadr supporters, who admire his outspoken opposition to the U.S.
role in Iraq, respect his heritage and benefit from the services his
social network provides but are not willing to stand up to the Americans
on his behalf.
From the outset
of the American occupation, al-Sadr has called for their withdrawal.
He rejected the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and has advocated
a so-called "faithfully Islamic government".
On March 28, 2004,
the U.S. occupation authorities ordered the closure of al-Hawza newspaper,
published by al-Sadr, alleging it was inciting violence. Declaring that
peaceful protests had become useless, al-Sadr urged his followers days
later to "terrorize" their enemy.
Seen as the worst
outbreak of Shia resistance in the year-old U.S.-led occupation of Iraq,
al-Sadr's backers demanded the reopening of their newspaper. In the
fighting hundred of Shiite fighters and dozens of Americans died in
more than a week of combat.
Iraqi interim Prime
Minister Iyad Allawi issued a decree the following July to restart the
The cleric started
a campaign for unity among Muslims following an explosion of the Shiite
Golden Mosque in Samarra in late February 2006, which sparked a wave
of reprisal attacks against Sunnis.
Iraq's enemies of fomenting sectarian strife.
"I call upon
all believers, Sunnis and Shiites, to unite. All Iraqis should be brothers
to each other," he said.
At the same time,
reports emerged that his militias were conducting revenge attacks on
Sunnis opposed to a Shiite dominated government.
Although he lacks
the religious education required under Shia law to be a cleric, he has
set himself up as a major force in the country's Shiite community by
radical rhetoric and control of the al-Mahdi militia.