Who is Muqtada al-Sadr? 

Don't Panic! ... Your war questions answered

Although I'm as giddy as a little girl in a basket of cotton clouds and unicorns that the American news media have suddenly decided to worry about angry, irrational religious leaders and the corrosive effect they have on politics, I'm concerned the media are focusing their attention on the wrong religious leader.

Rev. Jeremiah Wright is fun for about five minutes, but the temperamental cleric about whom America should be twisting its collective panty into a knot isn't Wright. It's Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sadr is Iraq's most powerful independent politician. By independent, I mean his power is genuinely his. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could be considered more powerful, but only because he can rely on the U.S. military for backing. Without our patronage, he's as capable as a puppet without a hand up its butt.

Sadr doesn't blog, so the intimate details of his upbringing, philosophies and what he ate for lunch yesterday are not widely known.

From what little we do know, he comes from a long line of Shi'a religious scholars and is of Lebanese descent. He's the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr. Papa Sadr was an outspoken opponent of Saddam Hussein's repression of Shi'a citizens and religious leaders. In 1999, Papa Sadr was gunned down in Baghdad, along with one of his sons, probably by Saddam Hussein's goons. Mookie was in the car with his father and brother, but escaped unkilled and probably went into exile.

Although Mookie has had some formal religious education, he did not complete his studies. Not a joke – his nickname in seminary was reportedly Mullah Atari because he was more interested in playing video games in school than he was in studying.

Funny nickname aside, this is an important detail. It means Mookie is not able to issue fatwas (aka religious edicts). Instead, he derives his power from the chain of religious charitable institutions in Iraq built up by his family that he inherited after they were all gunned down.

After Saddam's removal, Mookie began to distribute food and water in the large, poor Shi'ite section of Baghdad known as Sadr City. Formerly known as Saddam City, it was renamed Sadr City in honor of Mookie's assassinated dad shortly after Saddam was toppled. Poor Shi'ites are Mookie's political constituency.

Mookie wasn't much known outside Iraq until that time. We didn't pay attention to him for the humanitarian work he was doing. We became interested with his outspoken criticism of Paul Bremer, the notoriously incompetent man appointed by President Bush to ruin Iraq after the toppling of Saddam.

Did I say ruin? I meant run. My finger must have slipped.

Mookie's critique of Bremer and Bush was largely nationalistic. He was violently opposed to foreign domination of Iraq. And I mean violent. His supporters, many of whom are active in the militia known as the Mahdi Army, frequently battled U.S. forces. In early 2004, Bremer ordered one of Mookie's newspapers shut down, sparking a violent backlash from Mookie's supporters.

After weeks of fighting, Mookie and the United States reached a truce of sorts – with Mookie's stature elevated considerably. He had resisted the Americans and survived. He was such a powerful player, in fact, that in 2005 his party won the biggest block of seats in Iraq's Parliament.

The United States paints him as a stooge of neighboring Iran, but he is in fact less beholden to Iran than any other Shi'ite leader in Iraq. Remember, he's a nationalist. Just as he bemoans U.S. influence in Iraq, he bemoans Iranian influence as well.

I want to be careful, however, not to confuse Mookie's success with goodness. By any humane definition, he is a bad man. His militias have slaughtered innocent Sunni Iraqis in large numbers.

Although Bush credits his so-called surge, much of the lull in sectarian violence in Iraq since late 2007 has been because Mookie reigned in his militias. When he lets them loose to battle Iraqi government forces and their American cohorts, violence in Iraq spikes. That's what happened in April, when U.S. deaths in Iraq reached their highest point since last summer.

Mookie's the religious leader whose speeches we need to be replaying – not Jeremiah Wright.

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