NAJAF, Iraq — By the standards of Iraq and its Shiite Muslim majority, Sayyid Muqtada Sadr is a blue blood.
He wears a black turban, signifying his privileged descent from the prophet Muhammad. For a century, his family has given Iraq its most revered clergy, men whose very word, blessed by God, goes unquestioned by their followers. Like a badge of honor, he bears the deep scars of ousted president Saddam Hussein’s government, which assassinated his father and two brothers in 1999 in Najaf, one of the most sacred cities in Shiite Islam.
Now, by birth and choice, the 30-year-old Sadr, his hands soft from a life of religious study, has inherited his family’s mantle of leadership.
In the void left by the precipitous fall of Hussein’s government after a U.S.-led invasion, Sadr and his followers have overseen checkpoints to end looting and moved, with the force of arms and power of persuasion, to restore authority in the streets. They have kept a distance from U.S. forces, suspicious of their motives. Sadr and his men are cognizant that their authority derives from their independence. With little hesitation, Sadr has reached out to Iraq’s powerful tribes for support and rallied his followers from the pulpit of Friday sermons.
In words lacking the usual subtlety of religious discourse, Sadr’s message is clear: He is both a political and religious leader, carrying the still-resonant banner of the Sadr name. The future of Iraq, he insists, is in the hands of the Shiite majority he hopes to represent.
“I accept the burden and the responsibility,” he said in a rare interview this week while in hiding here, fearful of conflicts with others in the Shiite community. “We are with God and God is with us.”
Sadr and other clerics stand at the center of the most decisive moment for Shiite Muslims in Iraq’s modern history. It is a revival from both the streets and the seminaries that will most likely shape the destiny of a postwar Iraq.
In the streets, the end of Hussein’s rule has unleashed a sweeping and boisterous celebration of faith, from Baghdad to Basra, as Shiites embrace traditions repressed for decades. In politics, the prominence of clergy — the major institution to survive the repression of Hussein’s powerful Baath Party — has signaled that in coming years, power may be reflected through a religious prism. And for Shiite populations abroad — including in Iran — the community’s newfound freedom may reestablish the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala as centers of religion and politics, recasting an arc of Shiite activism that began with the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
But the community is already struggling with the challenges that will deepen as a new government is formulated. How will they interact with a United States that has done little to engage them? Will they relinquish the power they have seized to a more representative government, one that also includes Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, Christians and Kurds? And how will they reconcile the deepening rivalries of personality and vision within the community that are already tearing away at the unity that the clergy so desire?