BAGHDAD, Iraq – The political views of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) are still murky. His academic pedigree is shaky and his oratorical skills are rough. But the 30-year-old cleric whose supporters turned to violence Sunday has a family lineage that earns him respect and adulation among his anti-U.S. supporters.
Moreover, his movement's mix of religion, politics and community work provides a welcome platform of self-assertion for poor Shiites in Baghdad and Shiite-dominated cities in Iraq's impoverished south.
Al-Sadr's father was Iraq's top Shiite cleric and was gunned down by suspected agents of Saddam Hussein in 1999. His son rose to prominence soon after the Iraqi leader's ouster in nearly a year ago, thanks largely to the swift steps he and his lieutenants took to fill the power vacuum in Shiite-dominated areas across the country.
He is backed by hundreds of young and energetic seminary students whose organizational skills and devotion to the memory of his father underpin his movement. They have consistently been able to mobilize supporters at short notice, earning the movement and al-Sadr a significant place in the political landscape.
Over the past year, the Shiite community has buzzed with energy and activism after decades of oppression under Saddam and his predecessors.
Clerics often use their Friday sermons to call for better garbage disposal or public health, subjects that are rarely touched by the more orthodox Sunni clerics.
Al-Sadr's supporters have been celebrating their newfound position of power as members of Iraq's majority, wearing their Shiism on their sleeves and flaunting the distinctive nature of their rituals.
Portraits of Al-Sadr's father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr (search), are hoisted at every gathering by the movement and displayed in its offices. The late al-Sadr's sayings are often cited by the younger al-Sadr to show the family's proven record in the struggle against Saddam's tyranny.
The younger al-Sadr is a "hojat al-Islam," a clerical rank that is some 10 years of scholarly work removed from that of an "ayatollah," or theological expert.
During sermons, his delivery is wooden compared to more seasoned preachers. He reads from a prepared text in a monotonous voice and rarely looks at his congregation.
Al-Sadr's relatively young age, his lack of clerical credentials and inconsistent political pronouncements have stood between him and winning over educated middle-class Shiites in Baghdad and other cities.
His supporters, however, show him unusual devotion because of his uncompromising anti-American stand — a contrast with what they see as tolerance toward the Americans by other Shiite clerics.
Al-Sadr claims descent from Islam's 7th century Prophet Muhammad, a matter of distinction among Muslims. As such, he is referred to as "al-sayed," or master, by fellow Shiites, and wears the black turban reserved for descendents of the Prophet.
At rallies, his supporters often chant their readiness to die for him.
Supporter Ali Hussein, a 21-year-old from the Shiite holy city of Najaf (search) south of Baghdad, said he also was ready to give up his life for al-Sadr Sunday after a gun battle with coalition troops in Najaf in which he was wounded in the arm by a gunshot.
"I am happy to die for al-Sayed," he said as a car drove him to a hospital. At least 20 Iraqis, one U.S. soldier and another from Salvador, were killed and 140 injured in the clash.
Al-Sadr encourages devotion with frequent statements of concern toward his supporters.
"I feel for you my beloved demonstrators and find that you tire yourself greatly," he said in a statement he issued Sunday to call off street protests that began Wednesday. "I am with you in heart and body and will never leave you to face difficulties alone."
Demonstrations by his supporters, including those held in recent days to protest the closure of the movement's newspaper and the arrest of a senior al-Sadr aide, have been the largest in post-Saddam Iraq.
The latest violence will likely place al-Sadr back under the scrutiny of the U.S.-led occupation authorities. The coalition has long suspected his supporters of involvement in criminal acts, including the gruesome murder of a senior Shiite cleric last year in Najaf and a deadly ambush of U.S. troops last year in Baghdad.
On Sunday, a senior coalition official said Mustafa al-Yacoubi (search), a senior al-Sadr aide arrested Saturday, will face murder charges in connection with the April 10 killing of Abdel-Majid al-Khoei (search), a Shiite cleric.
Al-Sadr has not called for armed resistance against U.S. forces, but in his latest Friday sermon he said he wanted to be the "striking arm" in Iraq of Hamas, a militant Palestinian group whose suicide bombings have killed hundreds of Israelis.