A year ago no one outside of Najaf had heard of Moqtada Sadr. Today in Iraq he is Enemy No. 1.
Search the newspaper databases and you won't find one article on the 30-year-old Shiite demagogue before April last year. No one outside the cloistered clerical circles of Najaf knew much about either pedigree or ambition of the black-turbaned cult figure who calls the 9/11 attacks "a miracle of God." Yet a year later he has raised an army, taken over the Shiites' most holy city, challenged the longtime spiritual leadership of Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and successfully mounted attacks on U.S. forces.
With fierce fighting afoot in the south and tensions high in Fallujah, coalition strategists are looking hard at Mr. Sadr's rapid rise. In a country where clerics are respected for the gray hairs in their beard, how did this young maverick so quickly win fear and a following?
Most likely with the help of Iran.
Observers say it is an open secret that Iran is supporting insurgency militias with dinars as well as dogma. Hardliners in Iran's 25-year-old fundamentalist theocracy see poetic justice in the rise of a radical of their own in Najaf, where the founder of their own revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, once studied.
Mr. Sadr receives orders directly from Iran's head of state, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to a briefing prepared by Italian intelligence and defense forces for the Italian parliament earlier this month. (At least four Italians have been kidnapped in southern Iraq, one killed.) The report said Mr. Sadr could not have mounted simultaneous attacks in the past month-from Baghdad to Basrah-without political, military, and financial support from the ayatollah.
Agents from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards have infiltrated Iraq in recent months to arm and organize Mr. Sadr's troops, working under cover of Islamic charity groups in Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf, and Kufa. The Italians say Ayatollah Khameini's government is spending $70 million a month to prop up the front organizations. Coordinating the efforts is Iranian cleric Mohammad-Hossein Haeri, an ally to Mr. Khamenei.
British intelligence agents say they also have evidence of Iran's role in the most recent fighting: documents from two Iranian intelligence agents who recently defected in London.
What is puzzling is why U.S. forces have not done more to secure Iraq's vast border with Iran, where as many as 10,000 Iranians cross per day. Also baffling is why the Bush administration is negotiating with Iranian leaders-summoning Iran's deputy foreign minister from Tehran to Washington-to negotiate a deal to capture Mr. Sadr.
The Bush administration may believe it can play hardliners against moderates in Iran, but there is no question whose side Iranian leaders are on. Not surprisingly, the diplomatic effort failed-just as they would like the overall U.S. campaign in Iraq to fail.
Mr. Sadr's fighters, known as the Mehdi Army, are behind repeated attacks on U.S. forces in Sadr City, a dusty enclave of donkey carts and open sewage in Baghdad. There the Shiite slumlord recruited a militia of as many as 1 million men, mostly by promising welfare on the cheap through Tehran-backed charities.
Saddam Hussein, who executed Mr. Sadr's father in 1999, punished his Shiite opponents by impoverishing them. At night Sadr City is a lampless void from which businesses have fled but crime flourishes. Now every young jobless man's anger has turned to America.
"A year ago, I killed the Italian soldier who owned this rifle," a guard boasted to British reporters outside Mr. Sadr's headquarters in Najaf, 110 miles south of Baghdad, where Mr. Sadr and much of his militia preside. "If God is willing, I shall use it to finish off the Americans in Iraq."
After skirmishes in Fallujah and the string of car bombings in Basrah, U.S. forces expect a battle in Najaf. But they are showing unusual restraint in the face of Sadr militants, putting up a strong show of force only outside the city. "If the Americans invade Najaf, it won't only be Moqtada Sadr's people who fight-all the people will fight," Dawa Party leader Walid Hilli told the BBC. "Najaf doesn't belong to Moqtada Sadr. It doesn't even belong to the Shias. It belongs to all Muslims. It is like invading the Vatican," he said.
Sadr-inspired threats finally persuaded Spanish forces in southern Iraq to an early but not unexpected exit from Iraq. Honduran troops followed. If Mr. Sadr knows he is vulnerable to U.S. seizure, in the alleyways of southern Iraq he has appeared to be Teflon-coated.
But Mr. Sadr is not assured of popular support among Iraqi Shiites and is rejected by most Shiite leaders as too youthful and uneducated. In fact, he has used similar guerrilla tactics on Shiite rivals as on coalition forces. Last October he surrounded the Najaf mosque controlled by Mr. Sistani and a shrine in Karbala, incursions thwarted by U.S. forces. Iraqi authorities have a warrant for his arrest in the assassination of another Shiite leader, Ayatollah Abu Qasem Khoie, and he is suspected in the murder of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.
Shiites hold a slight majority in Iraq (60 percent), while they have near-complete dominance (93 percent) in Iran. Long disenfranchised from Iraqi politics, Shiite clerics see the current instability as a rare opportunity to expand political control in the region. To accomplish it, they will need help from Tehran.
But in the wider Muslim world Shiites are a decided minority. Known as the dissenters, they broke with more traditional Sunni Muslims in the years following the prophet Muhammad's death over how to choose his successor. Sunnis favored choosing by consensus while Shiites demanded a successor from the family line. To this day Shiites favor debate and revolution over consensus politics. For every three Shiites, one observation goes, come six opinions.
That may be the best way to explain the Bush administration's frustrated diplomacy over the latest fighting and terrorism. But it doesn't move Iraqis closer to prospects for a stable handover, or ease mounting coalition casualties while Mr. Sadr is on the loose.