A Radical Cleric Gets Religion

It wasn't so long ago that U.S. commanders considered Moqtada al-Sadr to be the greatest threat to stability in Iraq. Now the Shiite firebrand's stock among the Americans may be rising. Since declaring a ceasefire for his Mahdi Army militia last August, Sadr has effectively disappeared from public life, designating five trusted aides to speak on his behalf. NEWSWEEK has learned that some of those deputies have been secretly meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to discuss cooperation on improving security, according to two sources who declined to be identified because of the subject's sensitivity. The general's spokesman, Col. Steven Boylan, qualified that assertion, explaining that while Petraeus has not met with Sadr, "the command has indeed had direct engagements with some of his people within the [Sadr] organization … to assist with reconciliation efforts." Boylan also says the military "applauded" Sadr's ceasefire.

U.S. commanders say that the Mahdi Army's quiescence is a significant factor behind the recent drop in attacks in Baghdad—by a third compared with six months ago, according to one estimate. And they say they now share a common enemy: rogue Mahdi Army units, known as "special groups" and allegedly funded by Iran, who have declared they will not obey the ceasefire. Sadr loyalists have formed an elite unit called the "golden battalion" to go after these rebels; the Americans are hoping to encourage the more moderate leaders to distance the Mahdi Army even further from its "irreconcilable" wing. "Those elements, such as the special-group, extremist elements, have in fact dishonored Sadr's pledge of honor," says Boylan.

While U.S. forces have brokered local agreements between Sunni sheiks and Mahdi Army commanders in Baghdad, Sadr himself is staying above the fray. (A Sadr deputy, Sheik Salah al-Ubaidy, denies that any Sadrist officials have met with the Americans.) U.S. commanders think the 36-year-old cleric has temporarily relocated to Iran. But a source in the Shiite holy city of Najaf who also asked to remain anonymous says Sadr's gone underground there. He claims that Sadr is cracking the books, hoping to elevate himself to the level of hojat ol Islam—one step below ayatollah. Some in the Shiite howza, the clerical elite that surrounds Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, scoff at the attempt. "His mentality does not allow him to reach higher levels of study," says one high-ranking howza scholar. But Sadr's instructors are thought to be followers of his assassinated father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and they might be inclined toward grade inflation. In any event, U.S. commanders are just glad most of Sadr's gunmen are laying as low as Sadr is.