Variously described as a kingmaker, a radical cleric and a violent militia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr could well be all of them. What's clear is that over the last three years, Sadr has emerged as one of the most potent political forces in Iraq. His support was key in securing Ibrahim al-Jaafari's nomination for prime minister--and then for the ensuing four and a half months of political gridlock that followed. Integrating his Mahdi Army militia members, who have been accused of some of the worst sectarian killings in recent weeks, into the Iraqi police and armed forces will be one of the key challenges of the new government. Last week Sadr responded to a NEWSWEEK interview request, addressing in writing questions about his surprising and troubling rise to power. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Back in 2003, the Americans and even various Iraqi parties described you as a young troublemaker but not a significant political force. Clearly no one would say that now.
SADR: At the beginning, I think they didn't have complete information about me, and the clergy in Iraq. Time elapsed; things became clear and resulted in the Sadr trend--a powerful, loyal political and military force. It will have impact locally and internationally. And I hope that it will take Iraq to safety. At the same time, I reach out my hand [to the political parties] to cooperate to make peace in Iraq, to drive away the shadow of the armies of darkness. The occupation is the creator of all problems. I pray to Allah to take away the problems and their creator.
What in your view changed on the Iraqi political scene that led to an increasingly important role for you and your followers?
There were three stages: the peaceful resistance, like speeches and demonstrations; the military resistance, which was represented by two uprisings all over Iraq, and the political resistance, which we attained by reaching political posts and demanding a timetable for the departure of U.S troops.
Do you recall that at one point the U.S military and political spokesmen said it was their aim to "kill or capture" you? Your reaction now?
It is still valid, their threats are still on, and my life is cheap as a price for the service of Islam. America is baring its teeth against Shiite mosques and sanctuaries.
It is said that you have made some contacts with Sunni resistance figures in certain circles. Do you still have such relationships with them in the wake of the [attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra]?
There is no Sunni or Shia resistance; there is an Iraqi Islamic resistance. But I address the Sunnis through NEWSWEEK. One, they should specify their stance toward attacks on civilians. After the attack in Samarra, the Sunnis didn't have a clear stance. Two, their stance toward Takfiris [a name for followers of the extremist ideology espoused by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi] is not clear. Three, they should specify their stance toward the Shia. Are we Muslims or not? We will not be satisfied with anything less than that. Four, they should demand the execution of Saddam Hussein. And five, they should specify their stance toward [returning] families who have been displaced [by sectarian violence].
You blamed the Samarra bombing on the Americans, in part. Can you explain your thinking?
There is only an incomplete sovereignty in Iraq, which means that the occupation is the decision maker. Any attack is their responsibility. The U.S ambassador and [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld have ignited the sectarian crisis here.
The Mahdi Army is supposedly the only faction that hasn't signed on to an agreement to incorporate militias into governing bodies. Can you explain why?
The Mahdi Army is not a militia. You can't describe it or specify it as a militia. I issued a statement recently limiting the Mahdi Army personnel to cultural, social and religious acts. Normally, time is capable of integrating people [into society] if they obey Allah.
Many people claim that Mahdi Army members have been responsible for sectarian attacks in recent weeks. Others say they're simply defending their neighborhoods that the government cannot defend. What do you say?
The Mahdi Army personnel are not sinless. But they are integrating themselves despite the harsh circumstances they live in.
Do you think that some people dressed as or appearing like Mahdi Army members have carried out reprisal or vengeance attacks of a sectarian nature?
And what are the clothes of the Mahdi Army? So that I can distinguish them from others. They don't have a specific uniform. They are people gathered by love, and faith is their weapon.
You've become part of the political establishment now. Have you changed your views on how to bring about change?
Every Iraqi is part of the political process. Everyone builds his Iraq the way he sees fit. The most important issue is the timetable for the U.S. withdrawal. Politics is working to achieve justice. We know there will be no justice under occupation, at any time and any place. In fact, there will be no stability for anyone, since Iraq defines the destiny of the world, including for the American people. You can see the families of U.S. soldiers waiting for their sons, brothers, men to return home peace-fully. Where is the distribution of justice and peace there? If there is someone who feels safe, it's only [U.S. President George W.] Bush, but the American people are suffering due to the floundering, reckless policy of their president.
Your partners in the ruling coalition are very much against insisting that the Americans leave immediately from Iraq, that it would be a disaster. I am still in favor of the independence of my country and the departure of the occupier. We want to build our country by our own hands. I demand a timetable. Even if it is for a long time, it doesn't mean it isn't possible to have a timetable for it. I collected more than 2 million signatures of people who support the departure of U.S. troops. I collected the signatures of more than 130 National Assembly members.
Isn't it true that American advisers are not allowed into the ministries you control?
Yes, it is forbidden, and it is prohibited for anyone to deal with them. Otherwise he will be disobedient to God and I will have no relation with him.
Can you tell us something about yourself personally? Married? Children?
I am married; I have no children. I was 25 when my father was assassinated [by suspected Saddam agents in 1999]. If he was alive, the U.S. would never have been able to come to Iraq. My father once said, "If I pass I will go with a comfortable conscience. My death will bring happiness to Israel and America."
Do you feel Sharia [Islamic religious law] should be more explicitly a part of the Iraqi Constitution, and Iraq should be an Islamic republic more along Iranian lines?
We want an Islamic society, in which we live in peace and Islam.