WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- Senior Pentagon and coalition military officials believe the young Shiite cleric who has drawn worldwide attention for his anti-American rhetoric may not be as serious a threat to U.S. presence in Iraq as projected by the media.
But they agree Moqtada al-Sadr, who is linked to last week's armed clashes in the holy Shiite city of Karbala, could undermine the fitful march toward peace and democracy in post-Saddam Iraq. The officials are looking to Shiite religious authorities and the Iraqi Governing Council to help neutralize him.
"The senior Shiite leadership is trying to decide what to do with him," a coalition official told United Press International. "They know there is some foreign influence supporting Moqtada, they know that he has a political agenda that he is attempting to advance by using their religion, and they don't like it," he said.
Coalition officials believe Sadr has around 10,000 followers, most of them from the massive Shiite slum in Baghdad named for his father, Sadr City. Of those, about 1,000 are considered to be active supporters "who will march, and take some risks" in his name.
About half of them are believed to be part of a ragtag militia who may, "on a bold day," carry weapons, according to a coalition official closely following the matter. They are regarded less as a religiously motivated army than as a gang of thugs, the official said.
The ongoing campaign to defuse Sadr led Tuesday to a pre-dawn raid on a mosque in Karbala that his armed followers had occupied. Iraqi police and soldiers in tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles from the U.S. 1st Armored Division advanced on the mosque. Two of Sadr's followers surrendered. The Iraqi police gave them loudspeakers and they talked 19 more inside the mosque into surrendering as well, according to a coalition official.
The men were arrested for violating coalition rules on carrying arms, shooting at coalition members, advocating violence, and stockpiling weapons inside the mosque, the official said.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers hinted at Tuesday's raid at a press conference last week.
"Our problem with Sadr ... is that anybody that incites violence against the coalition, that's not proper or legal," Myers said. "Anyone who does that will be subject to some sort of action."
Behind the scenes Sadr has been regarded as more of a pest than a threat but that is beginning to change, a senior Pentagon official told UPI Friday.
"I think he has made himself into something bigger," the official said.
Direct action to contain him, however, is unlikely to come from U.S. forces in Iraq. Instead, officials said, the United States military is looking to Iraqi police and established Shiite authorities to handle him.
If U.S. military forces come down on Sadr, they run the risk of adding to his self-styled reputation as a champion for disenfranchised Shiites. They do not want to inadvertently contribute to his martyr status or render him a hero making him the focus of a U.S. military operation.
Sadr is widely viewed by U.S. authorities as trying to circumvent the traditional path to influence the Shiite community - age, scholarship, a focused study of Muslim theology, and wisdom - by employing a coarser and seemingly more direct route to power: thuggery, and demagoguery.
"Sadr's followers are significantly less influential than a lot of the media are giving him credit for," the coalition official said.
"He is a firebrand, he has not gained cleric status though advertises he has; he appeals to a small percentage through radical charisma, and he has a functioning information operations cell.
"But the majority of Shiite clerics and most of the Shiite followers see him as an aberration to his religion and the advancement of their cause in the newly forming government of Iraq," the official told UPI.
U.S. officials contend last week's shoot-outs in Karbala were not religiously motivated Shiite on Shiite violence but simple criminal behavior.
At least three U.S. soldiers and 12 Iraqis have been killed by gun battles there over the last 10 days. Dozens more have been injured. Karbala is one of the three holiest cities for Shiites as it holds the tomb of an ancient Shiite leader whose death cleaved Islam into two main sects, Sunni and Shiite.
Sadr is the son of the highly respected Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah
Mohammed Al Sadr who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein's men in 1999. The elder Sadr was succeeded by the reclusive but beloved Sayyed Ali Sestani, who remains in power today and who is the primary tempering influence in another Shiite holy city of Najaf.
Moqtada Sadr, the son of the slain ayatollah, returned from exile in Qum, Iran, in April and usually preaches at the mosque in Kufa, near Najaf, a major religious center south of Karbala. He regularly draws well more than 5,000 congregants to Friday services. Many are bussed down from Sadr City at his expense.
"But (the major clerics in Najaf) aren't sure how to best temper Sadr's actions. The religious leaders are trying to deal with him, while still respecting his father's name," the coalition official said. "Sestani could squash it but his nature is to remain a quiet, religious personality and to let the situation evolve," the coalition official said.
Sadr, whose age is variously reported as 22 and 30 years old, appears to have more political than religious aspirations. Last week he created a shadow cabinet to challenge the legitimacy of the U.S. appointed Iraqi governing council, and called for a demonstration in support of his leadership. There has been very little response, and he has in recent days struck a more conciliatory tone.
Sadr "is a thug who is posturing himself as a young revolutionary trying to exploit a perceived power vacuum for personal political gain," a U.S. military official said.
Sadr has walked a careful line since midsummer, stopping just short of calling outright for violence. He backs down when challenged by senior Shiite clerics who reluctantly get involved when he is acting up, according to U.S. officials.
With the international spotlight increasingly on him as a growing threat in Iraq, Sadr may be changing his tune in the 11th hour.
In a sermon Friday, al-Sadr said he would support Iraqi Governing Council if Paul Bremer, the American administrator of Iraq, relinquished his veto power over governing council decisions and if the 25-member panel was changed to include more parties.
At the same time, however, he also demanded the adoption of Sharia or Islamic law rather than secular law for all of Iraq, and the exclusion of women from the Iraqi Governing Council and other advisory councils at the local, city or district level, according to the coalition official.
"All of these views are unacceptable," the coalition official told UPI.