BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Much of the giant square where followers of Moqtada al-Sadr gather in their thousands on Fridays to pray is now taken up by an Iraqi army base, surrounded by concrete blast walls and watchtowers.
For perhaps the first time since the fiery cleric burst onto the political scene by leading two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, it is now possible to imagine a future for Iraq in which he plays only a limited political role.
On a weekday, the square in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum is empty. An Iraqi soldier peers from a spot next to an armored vehicle, parked beneath the gun turrets of the new base, just opposite the headquarters of the young cleric’s movement.
Inside the building from which they once wielded unrivalled sway over the slum’s 2 million people, Sadr’s followers gripe about the government troops who arrived six months ago.
“They lied to us,” bemoans Abu Ammar al-Saadi, a tribal leader whose family holds senior positions in the movement.
“The government said ‘We just want to enter to arrest some wanted people.’ Not to establish bases. And after that they came and built bases in Sadr City.”
Six months after U.S. and Iraqi government forces drove Sadr’s once-feared Mehdi Army militia fighters off the streets in Sadr City and south Iraq, the cleric’s movement is hemmed in.
Sadr himself has not appeared in public for months and is widely believed to have decamped to Iran.
Last year he pulled his cabinet members from the ruling coalition. This year he largely disbanded his Mehdi Army. Together, the two developments mean he now wields neither a share of national political power nor might on the streets.
With the signing last week of a pact requiring U.S. forces to leave within three years, the government is now claiming to have achieved Sadr’s signature political objective without him.
“There is certainly less room” in Iraqi politics for Sadr, said Reidar Visser, a Norwegian historian and expert on southern Iraq’s Shi’ite communities. “It does seem as if Sadr is struggling in keeping control of his movement right now.”
The cleric still inspires passionate reverence, especially among the impoverished, displaced southern Shi’ite tribespeople who crowd the rubbish-choked slum, where graffiti denounces the U.S. “occupation” and promises victory of the Mehdi Army.
Sadr’s young, black-bearded face glares down from countless posters, alongside his white-bearded father and grey-bearded great uncle — both Shi’ite ayatollahs who became widely adulated martyrs when they were killed under Saddam Hussein.
Black flags hang everywhere, marking the recent anniversary of his father’s death, proof of devotion for his family name.
The isolation and social exclusion that fed Sadr’s rapid rise are easily visible in the slum, which is less a district than a separate city that sprang up on the capital’s outskirts to house displaced rural tribal people from the Shi’ite south.
Sadr City has virtually no link to the urbane middle-class life that evolved next door in oil-boom Baghdad. Its rural roots are visible in the tribal tattoos on the faces of elderly women. Sheep graze on rotting garbage piles that fill its alleyways.
Its poverty is evident. At the jam-packed Mareidi market, sellers hawk broken furniture, heaps of random electrical cables, TV parts and loose disposable razors. Families are crammed into low-rise apartments. Schools teem with raw sewage.
Sadr’s uncle Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr and father Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr both drew on feelings of isolation to develop huge followings as spokesmen for the downtrodden. Their followers rallied around the younger Sadr after U.S. forces toppled Saddam in 2003.
His passionate anti-Americanism was popular among poor Shi’ites resentful of wealthy exiles who assumed positions of power in the U.S.-backed government, and still draws crowds.
Thousands of his followers marched last week against the U.S. troops pact, burning an effigy of President George W. Bush in the square where the Americans once toppled Saddam’s statue.
But his efforts to turn his popularity into conventional political power have been mixed. After veering between armed insurrection and peaceful politics, Sadr allied himself in 2005 with more established Shi’ite parties, helping ensure victory for a coalition that installed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Maliki rewarded the Sadrists with several cabinet seats, and Sadr seemed headed toward the political mainstream.
But last year he pulled his followers from the government, which he accused of failing to set a timetable for U.S. troops to leave. His confrontation with Maliki came to a head in March this year when the prime minister ordered troops to drive Sadr’s armed followers off the streets of Basra in the south.
Sadr City was besieged for weeks by U.S. and Iraqi forces. U.S. Apache helicopters launched daily missile strikes on Mehdi Army fighters who pounded the Green Zone compound with rockets. At night, loudspeakers blared Mehdi Army calls to battle.
The fighting ended in May with a truce allowing government forces to move into the slum, while U.S. troops entered only its southern sector. Months later, Sadr announced the Mehdi Army would be largely disbanded and replaced with an educational charity that so far has had little public profile.
The U.S. military says the March-May battle was a victory.
“My assessment right now of that particular part of the insurgency is that it is severely disrupted,” Colonel John Hort, commander of U.S. forces in Sadr City told reporters this month.
He estimates half the commanders fled and 800 of about 2,000 fighters were killed or severely wounded. Those returning find their faces on giant billboards offering rewards for their capture, which U.S. forces have posted at Sadr City’s entrances.
Military officials say they have deprived the Sadrists of their main source of income in Sadr City, by walling off the giant Jamila market where fighters once extorted money.
In the walled-off south section, Iraqi and U.S. forces have cleaned up, and streets are less filthy than elsewhere.
Sadr’s followers are now politically isolated: parliament’s only big group excluded from both the cabinet and the national security council, a decision-making body set up by Maliki.
“We made Maliki. They used our votes for their parties, but they didn’t give us anything,” said Abu Zahra, the Sadrist media adviser who chaperoned Reuters around Sadr City.
“That mistake will not be repeated.”
The Sadrists have not formed a formal national political party, giving them little proper infrastructure to compete in provincial elections scheduled for January 31. Sadrist candidates are expected to run as independents or members of small parties.
Maliki, meanwhile, has begun pitching his own Dawa Party — founded by Sadr’s uncle in the 1970s — as the true heirs of Sadrist Shi’ite populism. With control of the central budget, Maliki can make promises Sadr followers can hardly match.
“Maliki is clearly trying to eat into Sadr’s support base by speaking the language of Iraqi nationalism,” said Visser.
By signing the pact setting a date for U.S. troops to leave, Maliki has adopted Sadr’s signature issue. Sadrists oppose the pact, but Maliki ridicules them for offering no alternative.
For ordinary people, details of the pact may matter little compared with security and jobs. Sajjad, a boy of 12 idling with friends on the empty square in front of the Sadr office, said Sadr City is quieter since government troops came.
“If there’s any trouble, the soldiers can get between the people and stop the fighting,” he said. “We just want security. We just want to return to the way things were before 2003.”
Additional reporting by Wisam Mohammed in Baghdad and David Morgan in Washington; Editing by Sara Ledwith