Not really all that popular?
If this story is true, it suggests that Al-Sadr could be in a position like Lenin’s in 1917 Russia, when he was supported only by a small minority, but was ruthless and persistent enough to carry the day anyway. If these people complaining about him are too frightened even to give their full names, it’s unlikely they’ll be rising up and throwing him out anytime soon. From the Washington Times, :
NAJAF, Iraq — With a massive U.S. military force blocking the main roads, the residents of this holy Shi’ite city have begun to voice strong criticism of Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, the young cleric whose uprising has brought the threat of an attack.
“Najaf people want peace and quiet,” said Haidar, 39, who owns a small deli near the Imam Ali Mosque in the city. “Al-Sadr must get out of the city. This is not the time now to be against Americans even though I don’t agree with the U.S. policy.”
All the people interviewed during a visit insisted their full names not be used, for fear of repercussions.
The firebrand cleric, who controls a large militia force, meanwhile struck a defiant note during a sermon yesterday at the main mosque in neighboring Kufa yesterday.
“We will not allow the forces of occupation to enter Najaf and the holy sites because they are forbidden places for them,” he thundered and called on the faithful to support his tough stance and fight.
The Kufa mosque has been ringed with machine-gun emplacements, razor wire and young militiamen digging trenches. Gun-toting militiamen also peer down from the high surrounding walls and turrets.
“It is martyrdom that I am yearning for, so support me and know that this is a war on Shi’ites,” he said.
But three days spent inside Najaf — within a stone’s throw of the golden-domed Imam Ali Mosque and Sheik al-Sadr’s well-guarded headquarters — revealed almost no backing from residents for the 30-year-old cleric’s armed confrontation with coalition forces.
Off a narrow alley diagonally opposite one of the main exits to the great mosque, Sheik al-Sadr is holding out behind a green door bearing his portrait.
Inside, men pray five times a day on carpets, while in the next room Sheik al-Sadr sits on cushions on the floor, receiving a steady stream of supporters — and occasional would-be or actual mediators.
But in the rest of the city, many expressed fears that Sheik al-Sadr was leading them not only into bloody and inevitably losing clashes with the U.S. forces, but also toward a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war or clashes between different armed Shi’ite factions.
A man who gave his name as Suid, said he had been one of Sheik al-Sadr’s spokesmen and keen supporters until recently. “Al-Sadr has no brains, he’s not mature enough to lead the Shi’ites,” he said this week. “I witnessed many criminal acts. He gave people arms and money.”
Suid said funding for Sheik al-Sadr came partly from Iran and partly from money and gold that he had taken from the charity collections of pilgrims to the holy mosques. He said he would be willing to testify in court against the cleric.
Ahmed, in his 40s, runs a spare-parts shop for cars, and runs two families with one wife supervising nine children and the other wife looking after four.
He claimed to have been a witness when Sheik al-Sadr’s supporters killed a local imam.
“Al-Sadr is a criminal. … I want him out. We want peace and quiet. We don’t deserve another Saddam,” he said.
A man identified as a close relative of the slain imam vowed to take revenge against the cleric one day. “I respected his father — but I despise him,” said the man who did not want to be identified.
Sheik al-Sadr’s father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and two brothers were killed in 1999 — apparently on orders from Saddam after the ayatollah’s sermons became increasingly critical of the regime’s excesses.
All over the poorer areas of the city, and in many shops of the bazaar, portraits of the slain ayatollah are shown, often alongside those of the son. Sermons and speeches of both men are available everywhere in the city on CDs with both men’s faces on the covers.
Most shops in the city remain open and there are no obvious food shortages. Hotels, however, have taken advantage of the situation by charging exorbitant prices. Najaf Land, the hotel nearest to Sheik al-Sadr’s headquarters, raised its prices overnight from a few dollars to $450 per room. “Take it or leave it,” the receptionist told a prospective guest.
At the Najaf Girls Primary School, only nine of the 28 students in one class turned up — the rest were too afraid to come. The class teacher said she does not care about politics, but only wants food and a normal life.
“Even during the Saddam time we had freedom to teach,” she said, “but now I don’t know what kind of schooling there will be if al-Sadr were to take control.”
Rumors abound in the city, and many of them appeared aimed at discrediting Sheik al-Sadr. It was suggested that after his offices were closed in the teeming Shi’ite slums of Sadr City in Baghdad some weeks ago, the cleric headed for Iran and returned with orders to launch his anticoalition violence — and presumably with extra funds.
Najaf residents said most of the cleric’s closest militia leaders and advisers are from Sadr City and not from either of the Shi’ite holy cities, Najaf and Karbala.
Many houses in Najaf, especially close to the central mosque area, have been inhabited by Iranians. While busloads of Iranian pilgrims visit the holy cities frequently, there also has been a large flow of illegal entrants who gravitate to the holy Shi’ite cities.
After his father’s death, Sheik al-Sadr was educated in the Iranian holy city of Qom by Ayatollah Kazem al-Husseini al-Hairi. But in recent days, the ayatollah distanced himself from his former protege, issuing a statement declaring that the national Iraqi police should retake control of all public buildings. Last Monday, the Mahdi’s Army of the cleric pulled out of police stations and other public buildings they had occupied.
Reports from Qom quoting Ayatollah al-Hairi’s spokesman say the Iranian disowned Sheik al-Sadr several months ago.