When the revered head of Iraq's largest Shiite opposition group was assassinated in 1999, the mantle of leadership passed to an unexpected...

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NAJAF, Iraq —

When the revered head of Iraq’s largest Shiite opposition group was assassinated in 1999, the mantle of leadership passed to an unexpected heir: Muqtada al-Sadr, then a 25-year-old video-game aficionado who oversaw the movement’s security forces.

Al-Sadr, now 34, has since emerged as an ardent nationalist who commands the support of hundreds of thousands of devotees and the scorn of those who see him as a thuggish militia leader. He has lately sought to reposition himself as a more mainstream figure amid increasing pressure from Iraq’s Shiite-led government.

His decision last week to allow the Iraqi army to enter the capital’s al-Sadr City district, his base of power, was the latest in a series of calming edicts that began last summer. In August 2007, he ordered his militia, which had been responsible for some of the most horrific sectarian violence in the country, to lay down its weapons.

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The freeze prompted senior U.S. military officials to begin praising the young cleric, despite his steady opposition to the American presence in Iraq.

But a reminder of his unpredictability came Tuesday when al-Sadr urged his followers to stage weekly protests to denounce a long-term security pact being negotiated between the United States and the Iraqi government to set the conditions for an extended American presence in Iraq after the withdrawal of the major portion of U.S. forces.

In another sign that al-Sadr has his eye on the future, he has spent the past year studying in Iran under a politically influential cleric who runs the country’s judicial system, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, according to several top-ranking al-Sadr aides.

Al-Sadr’s effort to burnish his theological credentials may offer some insight into his ambitions, since he is descended from a line of clerics who endorse “wilayat al-faqih,” the theory that high-ranking Shiite clerics should oversee affairs of state.

Interviews in Najaf with more than a dozen of the cleric’s top aides, friends and family members provide a rare glimpse into his attempt to convert himself from a maligned, overshadowed son into a religious and political icon as potent as his martyred father.

“I think now that the big bad ideas about Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr — that he is filled with violence and is a shallow man — have changed so much, even in the West,” said Salah al-Obaidi, one of his top advisers, using the honorific signifying Al-Sadr’s descent from the Prophet Muhammad. “We want people to know who Sayyid Muqtada really is.”

The escalating battle between al-Sadr and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has provided the sharpest test yet of what type of leader al-Sadr will become.

Many of his younger aides are urging him to end the cease-fire and open a broad front against government troops, whom they see as loyal to his Shiite rivals, while older clerics endorse continued restraint.

Friends say al-Sadr, who was unexpectedly thrust into the leadership of the movement, struggles with what he sees as his responsibility to help define his country’s future.

“He feels that he does not own himself anymore,” said Ahmed al-Shaibani, another top aide and close friend. “As Sayyid Muqtada always says: My lot in life is that I found the burdens of the world lying right in front of me and then decided to carry them.”

Family history

Al-Sadr, the third of four sons, was born in Najaf into one of the most revered clerical families in Shiite Islam. His father’s cousin, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, was an adored religious figure who founded a school of thought that became the al-Sadrist movement, which argued that the clergy should actively engage in politics to aid the downtrodden Shiite masses. When he was tortured and killed in 1980 by Saddam Hussein’s government, Muqtada’s father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, also a grand ayatollah, took his place as the head of the movement and became a chief opponent of Saddam’s rule.

Muqtada at first attended public schools, but around ninth grade he switched to the hawza, the seminary in Najaf that is the center of Shiite learning, in part because he struggled with his studies, neighbors said. He earned the nickname Muqtada Atari because of his love of video games.

“His brain was thick,” said Abu Hawra, 47, a merchant in the Hannaneh neighborhood, where al-Sadr grew up, who would not give his full name. “His father used to complain a lot about his attendance at school. Muqtada was the source of great concern and discomfort for his father.”

Two brothers, Mustafa and Muammal, were considered the heirs apparent to the family legacy. “His father used to consider them his right and left arm,” Abu Hawra said. Another son, Murtada, reportedly has medical problems.

Al-Sadr, known in his youth for stuffing himself with as many as a dozen falafel at a time, has always been a prankster. Once, he made a big show of offering a 7-Up to a student, who was then surprised to learn that al-Sadr had filled the bottle with water. In a more recent incident, he anonymously sent Shaibani, the aide, text messages threatening to kill him, only to reveal later with laughter that it was all a practical joke.

In the late 1990s, al-Sadr’s father sent him to oversee the administration of the newly opened al-Sadr Religious University.

He married a daughter of Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr during his 20s; the couple have no children.

Al-Sadr took responsibility for the security of his father and for those attending Friday prayers.

Then, on Feb. 19, 1999, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr and his two sons, Mustafa and Muammal, were assassinated by machine-gun-toting men. Muqtada was propelled into the leadership of the movement.

After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, most American officials were unaware of al-Sadr’s massive following and the hatred many of his devotees harbored toward the U.S. government. He was quickly seen as the polar opposite of Abdul Majeed al-Khoei, a rival Shiite cleric and supporter of the American invasion, who was hacked to death in Najaf in April 2003. Al-Sadr was accused of ordering the killing; his aides have denied his involvement.

Al-Sadr began speaking out against the occupation and formed the Mahdi Army militia in mid-2003. The Mahdi Army took part in two major uprisings against the U.S. military in 2004, making al-Sadr popular as a resistance figure and showing how formidable his fighters were. But the battles also engendered anger from Iraqis who saw him as a hooligan.

The reputation of the Mahdi Army as a militia of killers was cemented after Sunni insurgents destroyed the golden-domed Samarra mosque in 2006 and al-Sadrists retaliated by killing and torturing thousands of Sunnis. The cycle of revenge triggered paroxysms of sectarian cleansing that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

By 2007, his aides said, al-Sadr had decided he needed to take steps to change the direction of the movement, prodded in part by older, more moderate clerics who had studied with his father. After giving a speech at his mosque in Kufa in the spring, al-Sadr disappeared from public view, al-Obaidi said.

After a battle in late August between al-Sadrists and government forces in the Shiite holy city of Karbala that left dozens dead, the public image of the al-Sadrists was further tarnished. Al-Sadr ordered a freeze on violence, despite the objections of close aides who thought it would be viewed as a sign of weakness.

Study in Iran

Around this time, al-Sadr decided to devote himself to religious scholarship.

He has studied for the past year under Shahroudi, the head of the Iranian judiciary, according to Abdul Razzaq al-Nidawi, Abdul Hadi al-Mohammadawi and Hazim al-Araji, three of al-Sadr’s top aides and leaders of the al-Sadrist movement. Nidawi and Mohammadawi added that al-Sadr has been studying in Qom, Iran, though Araji, like many other top aides, said he did not want to discuss al-Sadr’s whereabouts for security reasons.

The choice of an Iranian cleric as a teacher is sensitive politically, since al-Sadr espouses a nationalist philosophy and because of the U.S. military’s assertions that Iran is supplying weapons and support to militiamen affiliated with al-Sadr.

But aides said al-Sadr chose Shahroudi because he is one of the two most highly regarded disciples of Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr. Shahroudi, a native of Najaf who has run the judicial system since 1999, is seen as a relative moderate in Iran, perhaps best known for speaking out against torture and ordering a sometimes-ignored moratorium on stoning six years ago. Shahroudi’s office in Tehran did not respond to a request for comment.

Al-Sadr has said that he is at the third level of clerical study, known as external research, which precedes becoming a mushtahid, a cleric who can issue fatwas, or religious edicts, on his own authority. Achieving this status normally takes many years of study, but several of al-Sadr’s followers, including Nidawi, said they believe that al-Sadr will be certified as a mushtahid within the next year.

Many clerics in Najaf say al-Sadr is a theological lightweight. When asked to describe al-Sadr’s religious stature, Ali Basheer al-Najafi, the son of a grand ayatollah, said: “What stature? He’s studying abroad. I have nothing to say about him.”

Ghayth Shubbar, a cleric who is close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s pre-eminent Shiite cleric, said al-Sadr’s certification from Qom is unlikely to be accepted in Najaf. “He is a student with no distinction. He was not famous for his scholarship,” said Shubbar, who added that the real measure of a cleric’s stature is how many academics attend his lectures.

How many showed up to al-Sadr’s?

“As many as the fingers on a single hand,” Shubbar replied.

Even al-Sadr’s closest aides say it is impossible to know what path he will choose for the movement. But they said he will not be pressured into a hasty decision.

“He is not the kind of man,” al-Obaidi said, “who plucks the fruit before it is ripe.”

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