When the revered head of Iraq's largest Shiite opposition group was assassinated in 1999, the mantle of leadership passed to an unexpected heir: Moqtada al-Sadr, then a 25-year-old video game aficionado who oversaw the movement's security forces.
Sadr, now 34, has since emerged as an ardent nationalist who commands the support of hundreds of thousands of devotees and the scorn of those who see him as a thuggish militia leader of limited intellect. He has lately sought to reposition himself as a more mainstream figure, even in the face of increasing pressure from Iraq's Shiite-led government.
His decision last week to allow the Iraqi army to enter the capital's Sadr City district, his base of power, was the latest in a series of calming edicts that began last summer. In August 2007, he ordered his militia, which had been responsible for some of the most horrific sectarian violence in the country, to lay down its weapons. The freeze prompted senior U.S. military officials to begin praising the young cleric, despite his steady opposition to the American presence in Iraq.
Sadr has spent the past year studying in Iran under a politically influential cleric who runs the country's judicial system, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, according to several top-ranking Sadr aides. Sadr's effort to burnish his theological credentials may offer some insight into his ambitions, since he is descended from a line of clerics who endorse "wilayat al-faqih," the theory that high-ranking Shiite clerics should oversee affairs of state.
Interviews in Najaf with more than a dozen of the cleric's top aides, friends and family members provide a rare glimpse into his attempt to convert himself from a maligned, overshadowed son into a religious and political icon as potent as his martyred father.
"I think now that the big bad ideas about Sayyid Moqtada Sadr -- that he is filled with violence and is a shallow man -- have changed so much, even in the West," said Salah al-Obaidi, one of his top advisers, using the honorific signifying Sadr's descent from the prophet Muhammad. "We want people to know who Sayyid Moqtada really is."
For many Iraqis, Sadr's image remains negative. "Most people do not approve of what Moqtada is doing," said Dhirgham, 20, a clerk in a women's clothing shop in Najaf who feared he would be killed if his last name were used. "He destroyed Iraq. He put us one century backwards."
The escalating battle between Sadr and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has provided the sharpest test yet of what type of leader Sadr will become. Many of his younger aides are urging him to end the cease-fire and open a broad front against government troops, whom they see as loyal to his Shiite rivals, while older clerics endorse continued restraint.
Friends say Sadr, a notorious practical joker who was unexpectedly thrust into the leadership of the movement, struggles with what he sees as his responsibility to help define his country's future.
"He feels that he does not own himself anymore," said Ahmed al-Shaibani, another top aide and close friend. "As Sayyid Moqtada always says: My lot in life is that I found the burdens of the world lying right in front of me and then decided to carry them."
'Moqtada is my bravery'
Sadr, the third of four sons, was born in Najaf into one of the most revered clerical families in Shiite Islam. His father's cousin, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, was an adored religious figure who founded a school of thought that became the Sadrist movement, which argued that the clergy should actively engage in politics to aid the downtrodden Shiite masses. When he was tortured and killed in 1980 by Saddam Hussein's government, Moqtada's father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, also a grand ayatollah, took his place as the head of the movement and became a chief opponent of Hussein's rule.
Moqtada at first attended public schools, but around ninth grade he switched to the hawza, the seminary in Najaf that is the center of Shiite learning, in part because he struggled with his studies, neighbors said. He earned the nickname Moqtada Atari because of his love of video games.
"His brain was thick," said Abu Hawra, 47, a merchant in the Hannaneh neighborhood, where Sadr grew up, who would not give his full name. "His father used to complain a lot about his attendance at school. Moqtada was the source of great concern and discomfort for his father."
Two brothers, Mustafa and Muammal, were considered the heirs apparent to the family legacy. "His father used to consider them his right and left arm," Abu Hawra said. Another son, Murtada, reportedly suffers from long-standing medical problems.
Moqtada, his friends said, has always been a prankster, in ways both innocuous and macabre. Once, he made a big show of offering a 7-Up to a student, who was then surprised to learn that Sadr had filled the bottle with water. In a more recent incident, he anonymously sent Shaibani, the aide, text messages threatening to kill him, only to reveal later with laughter that it was all a practical joke.
Sadr, known in his youth for stuffing himself with as many as a dozen falafel at a time, was treated no differently than other students in the seminary, according to neighbors. In the late 1990s, Sadr's father sent him to oversee the administration of the newly opened Sadr Religious University.
He married a daughter of Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr during his 20s; the couple have no children.
Sadr took responsibility for the security of his father and for those attending Friday prayers, according to Dhirgham Bakr al-Zubaidi, who studied with both Sadr and his father and now heads the Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr Islamic Foundation in the city of Kufa, near Najaf. Zubaidi and others recalled Sadr once standing in front of the cars of Hussein's agents, who were trying to block his father's motorcade.
"I heard the martyr Sadr say: 'Moqtada is my bravery,' " Zubaidi said.
Then, on Feb. 19, 1999, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr and his two sons, Mustafa and Muammal, were assassinated by machine-gun-toting men. Moqtada was propelled into the leadership of the movement.
Creating the militia
Sadrists flocked to Moqtada as the inheritor of his father's legacy. "People understand that Moqtada is the closest to the light of martyr Sadr. So they follow him because of that," Obaidi said.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, most American officials were unaware of Sadr's massive following and the hatred many of his devotees harbored toward the U.S. government. He was quickly seen as the polar opposite of Abdul Majeed al-Khoei, a rival Shiite cleric and supporter of the American invasion, who was hacked to death in Najaf in April 2003. Sadr was accused of ordering the killing; his aides have denied his involvement.
Sadr began speaking out against the occupation and formed the Mahdi Army militia in mid-2003. The militia was grounded in a theological concept developed by Sadr's father, who said that an army of believers would be led by the Imam Mahdi, a messianic figure who Shiites believe will redeem mankind.
The Mahdi Army took part in two major uprisings against the U.S. military in 2004, making Sadr popular as a resistance figure and showing how formidable his fighters were. But the battles also engendered anger from Iraqis who saw him as a hooligan.
The reputation of the Mahdi Army as a militia of killers was cemented after Sunni insurgents destroyed the golden-domed Samarra mosque in 2006 and Sadrists retaliated by killing and torturing thousands of Sunnis. The cycle of revenge triggered paroxysms of sectarian cleansing that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
Several of Sadr's top aides said many of the atrocities were committed by Shiites pretending to be Sadrists, but they also acknowledged that Mahdi Army members were involved in the sectarian killings.
Quieting the militia
By 2007, his aides said, Sadr had decided he needed to take steps to change the direction of the movement, prodded in part by older, more moderate clerics who had studied with his father. After giving a speech at his mosque in Kufa in the spring, Sadr disappeared from public view, Obaidi said.
Over the summer he began discussing a radical idea with his aides: ordering the Mahdi Army to lay down its weapons. Obaidi said he advised Sadr to declare a freeze on violence in exchange for commitments from the government to stop raids and mass arrests of its followers.
But Sadr refused. "He knew that if we rely on the government that they would break their promise, and we would be forced to end the freeze," Obaidi said.
After a battle in late August between Sadrists and government forces in the Shiite holy city of Karbala that left dozens dead, the public image of the Sadrists was further tarnished. Sadr ordered the freeze, despite the objections of close aides such as Shaibani, who thought it would be viewed as a sign of weakness.
Though the precise timing is unclear, it was around this period that Sadr decided to devote himself to religious scholarship.
He has studied for the past year under Shahroudi, the head of the Iranian judiciary, according to Abdul Razzaq al-Nidawi, Abdul Hadi al-Mohammadawi and Hazim al-Araji, three of Sadr's top aides and leaders of the Sadrist movement. Nidawi and Mohammadawi added that Sadr has been studying in Qom, Iran, though Araji, like many other top aides, said he did not want to discuss Sadr's whereabouts for security reasons.
The choice of an Iranian cleric as a teacher is sensitive politically, since Sadr espouses a nationalist philosophy and because of the U.S. military's assertions that Iran is supplying weapons and support to militiamen affiliated with Sadr.
But aides said Sadr chose Shahroudi because he is one of the two most highly regarded disciples of Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr. Shahroudi, a native of Najaf who has run the judicial system since 1999, is seen as a relative moderate in Iran, perhaps best known for speaking out against torture and ordering a sometimes-ignored moratorium on stoning six years ago. Shahroudi's office in Tehran did not respond to a request for comment.
Sadr has said that he is at the third level of clerical study, known as external research, which precedes becoming a mushtahid, a cleric who can issue fatwas, or religious edicts, on his own authority. Achieving this status normally takes many years of study, but several of Sadr's followers, including Nidawi, said they believe that Sadr will be certified as a mushtahid within the next year.
Many clerics in Najaf say Sadr is a theological lightweight. When asked to describe Sadr's religious stature, Ali Basheer al-Najafi, the son of a grand ayatollah, said: "What stature? He's studying abroad. I have nothing to say about him."
Ghayth Shubbar, a cleric who is close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's preeminent Shiite cleric, said Sadr's certification from Qom is unlikely to be accepted in Najaf. "He is a student with no distinction. He was not famous for his scholarship," said Shubbar, who added that the real measure of a cleric's stature is how many academics attend his lectures.
How many showed up to Sadr's?
"As many as the fingers on a single hand," Shubbar replied.
Starting last summer, Sadr decided to communicate officially only through three or four aides, who are switched every few months, Obaidi said, adding that he no longer speaks directly to Sadr. Obaidi learned of an interview Sadr had given al-Jazeera television only after it occurred. "He tries to make filters so he does not face the direct pressure of the people," Obaidi said.
As the government has stepped up its campaign against the Sadrists, pressure has mounted from his followers to end the freeze. Three of his senior aides -- Shaibani, 36, Nidawi, 40, and Araji, 38 -- said in interviews that they supported an end to the freeze.
But Obaidi, 38, and older clerics such as Mohammadawi, 50, the head of the Sadr office in Karbala, favor extending the freeze.
"Mostly the young men are more aggressive and push forward," Mohammadawi said. "The ones who, like me, are pushing more on the peaceful path first have more experience and a relationship with Mohammed Sadiq Sadr. So Sayyid Moqtada relies mostly on the people who are experienced and of an elderly age."
Even Sadr's closest aides say it is impossible to know what path he will choose for the movement. But they said he will not be pressured into a hasty decision.
"He is not the kind of man," Obaidi said, "who plucks the fruit before it is ripe."
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan and Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.