Sunday Telegraph: Be it fighting the occupation, sectarian bloodletting, or internecine squabbling with his fellow Shia, the fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has waged war on almost every front in Iraq’s turbulent past five years. The Sunday Telegraph
By Kay Biouki in Tehran and Colin Freeman
Be it fighting the occupation, sectarian bloodletting, or internecine squabbling with his fellow Shia, the fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has waged war on almost every front in Iraq’s turbulent past five years.
Now, though, the leader of the Mehdi Army militia is far away from the battlefield, having swapped Iraq for the peace of a seminary in neighbouring Iran.
Sadr, who at 35 is still a relative novice in clerical terms, has begun studying in the holy City of Qom, a centre of religious authority for 500 years and one that has produced some of the Shia faith’s most revered – and feared – leaders.
It was within Qom’s gleaming mosques that Ayatollah Khomeini lived for 10 years after leading Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, and here that the cleric Hassan Nasrallah studied before heading the Lebanese militia, Hizbollah.
Coalition officials believe Sadr has been visiting Qom on and off for much of the past 12 months, commuting twice a week with his bodyguards from a wealthy Tehran suburb.
Neither Sadr’s followers nor the Iranian government have officially confirmed his presence there, but he has not been seen in public since May last year – a marked change from his previous leadership style in which he regularly said prayers before vast gatherings of followers.
While some claim he moved to Iran to escape either arrest by American forces or assassination by his many political enemies, others believe it marks a genuine attempt to consolidate his theological credentials.
He was born the son of Ayatollah Muhammed Sadeq al-Sadr, a greatly respected cleric from an influential Shia dynasty who was assassinated under Saddam Hussein.
When the regime collapsed, Moqtada al-Sadr inherited much of his father’s following, a constituency he has nurtured deftly through an aptitude for street politics.
But in the wider Shia hierarchy, where respect and power are directly related to the years spent studying the Koran, he has always been considered too inexperienced to be a convincing leader.
The course in Qom is designed to change that, elevating him from relative novice to fully-fledged ayatollah. It may take anything up to five years, although that, by Shia theological standards, is still just a crash course.
The recasting of Sadr as the pious man of books could not be further from his old role as warmongering militia-leader. Many hope it signals a move into more peaceful politics, a hunch supported by his continuing declaration of a ceasefire.
But should an Ayatallah Moqtada emerge from Qom, he will be a much more powerful figure than before, and a contender to take over from the Grand Ayatollah Ali-al Sistani as Iraq’s foremost Shia potentate. Nor will Sadr be the only one to benefit. In return for hosting him, Iran’s political leaders will be hoping that he always picks up the phone when they call.