IRAQ Al-Sadr's image takes a beating

The violence he caused has turned many Najaf residents against him.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged from a bloody, two-week showdown with U.S. forces with his militia intact but his heroic image in question.
Now that the fighting is over, some Shiites are criticizing al-Sadr as a dangerous maverick who threatened one of their faith's most-cherished shrines.
Battles between al-Sadr supporters and American troops erupted in Najaf on Aug. 5 but eased substantially Friday as al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia withdrew its weapons from the holy city's Imam Ali Shrine, which they used as a refuge for launching attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Al-Sadr -- young and street-smart -- was never popular in Najaf, where older clerics including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, hold sway.
Now, after devastating violence that killed scores of civilians and chipped a wall surrounding the beloved, gold-domed shrine, the firebrand cleric is liked even less.
"Najaf ... now serves as an example of war and destruction. This is all because of Muqtada and his followers," said 37-year-old Najaf resident Mohammed Saad. "They have brought us destruction. We hope they'll leave the city as soon as possible."
During the standoff, Iraq's interim government threatened to raid the shrine compound and destroy al-Sadr's militia as an example to other insurgents throughout the country.
But such a raid would have been risky; any serious damage would infuriate the world's 120 million Shiite Muslims and could turn even moderate, middle-class Shiites who shun the radical cleric against the government.
Beloved by the poor
But al-Sadr is a legend among impoverished Shiites who see him as a champion of the underdog. His star shines brightest in the slums of Baghdad's Sadr City -- named for his late father -- and in poor areas of the Shiite south.
His survival after a second bout with U.S. forces -- he led a two-month uprising in the spring -- could only increase his following.
"Without any doubt, it's making him a hero," Juan Cole, a University of Michigan expert on Iraqi Shiites. "He's become a symbol of opposition to the continuing American occupation of Iraq."
But even in Sadr City, support for al-Sadr may be slipping.
Backed by helicopter gunships, U.S. forces have battled Mahdi Army fighters in the district for nearly two weeks in fighting that has left dozens dead and cut off most electricity.
"His followers are hiding among our houses and causing a lot of damage by their random shooting," said Jassim Mohammed, a 27-year-old college student. "Nobody respects him now."
Still in shrine
So far at least, al-Sadr has managed to keep his militia intact, despite a government ban. And by late Friday, his militants remained in the shrine -- though reportedly without weapons.
Al-Sadr's uprising has proved to be a serious thorn in the interim government's side, but National Security Adviser Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie told CNN the government didn't view al-Sadr as a strategic threat or a terrorist on a level with Sunni insurgents waging a guerrilla campaign since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
Al-Rubaie reiterated the government's long-standing demand that al-Sadr disband his militia and fight his battles in the political arena.
"The political process and democracy in Iraq is so accommodating that it can and will accommodate even the most extremist group, including Muqtada al-Sadr," he said.
Al-Sadr's rebellion began after the U.S.-led occupation authority closed his newspaper, arrested a key aide and announced a warrant for his arrest in the April 2003 murder of a moderate cleric in Najaf.
U.S. commanders who once vowed to "capture or kill" al-Sadr have tacitly agreed to let Iraqi authorities deal with the cleric and Iraq has made no move to arrest him. Al-Rubaie said he was not aware of any outstanding warrant against al-Sadr.
A previous uprising led by al-Sadr in the spring ended with a series of truces that kept his militia intact to fight in a new round of violence that started Aug. 5. The government and the U.S. military have said any resolution to the fighting should ensure there is no third round.

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