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Wednesday, April 14

Young Shiite cleric poses big problems for U.S.

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - Is a menace worse than a martyr?

That question frames the debate U.S. commanders in Iraq must now grapple with as they decide how to deal with a radical young Shiite cleric eluding arrest in a mosque, surrounded by his loyal militia.

The fiercely anti-American Muqtada al-Sadr, who is wanted in connection with the murder of a rival cleric last year, was the force behind the recent Shiite uprising in southern Iraq. Recent rebellions across Iraq have claimed the lives of at least 83 U.S. troops, making the first two weeks of April among the bloodiest stretches since the war began March 19, 2003.

Al-Sadr, who has gained militant support from young poor Iraqis, could trip a second wave of violence with a command to his troops to fight. Or more violence could also occur if he is killed by U.S. troops ordered to ``capture or kill him.''

Al-Sadr has told Arab television he will not surrender alive and has commanded his followers to fight on after his death.

Some 2,500 U.S. troops have surrounded the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, where Sadr is holed up, waiting for orders. Military officials have said the force is engaged only in ``preparatory operations.''

The options for dealing with Sadr range from bad to worse, say experts.

``If you kill al-Sadr, you martyr him,'' said Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Carter. ``Let him escape, and he'll lead the Iraqi underground. Catch him, and you have to deal with him.''

Al-Sadr commands a well-armed 3,000-man militia called the Mahdi army. These forces recently attacked Iraqi police installations and U.S. forces across Shiite-dominated Southern Iraq and in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum named for his father, a highly revered cleric.

Al-Sadr has risen from rabble-rouser to a potentially explosive force in Iraq in recent months.

Analysts differ on the size of his core support now, but they agree it's growing as he plays on the instability and the frustration of Iraq's poor and unemployed.

``What has grown considerably are other people who are looking at Muqtada al-Sadr simply as the great voice of resistance against the United States ... and that is deeply troubling,'' said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst and Iraq expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.

A potential confrontation with al-Sadr comes at a particularly delicate time for U.S. troops and the Bush administration.

Another fierce battle could plunge U.S. troops back into the cauldron of chaos they only now are starting to climb out of.

The recent flare-up has been largely responsible for the decision to keep as many as 20,000 U.S. troops, scheduled to return home, in Iraq for several months longer. President Bush also said in a news conference Tuesday night that he is willing to send more forces if commanders request them.A second Shiite uprising also could do irreparable damage to U.S. relations with moderate Shiites.

Al-Sadr is believed to be hiding in the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the holiest sites in all of Shiite Islam.

An attack by U.S. troops likely would be seen by many of Iraq's majority Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, as an assault on their faith.

Killing al-Sadr in the process would leave a vacuum for another young leader to fill and designate a new martyr in the cause of rebellion against the United States.

If al-Sadr is allowed to remain at large and continues to keep the ear of young Iraqis, he could weaken the authority of the older moderate Shiite clerics, such as the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

The U.S. civil and military authorities in Iraq need these clerics to help stabilize the country for the upcoming transfer of sovereignty on June 30.