Wednesday, the US military said its forces were preparing for a major offensive in Najaf.
Whatever one thinks of his politics, Moqtada al-Sadr is a man who understands the power of symbols.
By holing up inside the Shrine of Imam Ali - tomb of the Shiite faith's supreme leader after the prophet Muhammad - and promising to fight until his very last drop of blood, Mr. Sadr is trying to position himself in a long line of powerful populist Shiite martyrs. When he gives sermons at the mosque in nearby Kufa, he always dresses in white, a color that Muslims bury their dead in. It's as if he's saying, "I'm already dead."
Now, Sadr may have put himself into a classic win-win scenario. If he is killed while fighting in such a holy site, he would become a martyr, drawing thousands of Shiites to his cause. If American and Iraqi forces pull back from a final assault on Najaf - and indeed, intense negotiations have been conducted since the beginning - and create another truce with Sadr, Sadr may be seen by many as a man who stood up to the Americans.
Experts say it's a strategy that plays on the deepest cultural urges of Shiite Islam's traditions. And it just might work.
"He's a shrewd politician, because he knows that the Americans will never enter the holy tomb of Najaf," says Amatzia Baram, a noted scholar on Shiite Islam at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington. "The Americans will never do it. The Iraqi government might send in troops, but that's not a simple decision to make. So Sadr is pretending to be a martyr."
Mr. Baram laughs: "He gets to be a martyr without much chance of dying."
Across southern Iraq, fighters aligned with Sadr have fought sporadic battles in the oil-terminal town of Basra, as well as in Amara, Nasiriya, Kufa, Karbala, Najaf, and in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.
In Najaf, US marines say they are preparing for a final assault on militiamen within and around the shrine. One Iraqi official, Ibrahim Jaafari, called for US forces to withdraw from Najaf and leave the fighting to Iraqi forces, but US marine commanding officer Col. Anthony Haslam said that his marines would honor last week's request from the Najaf governor and root out the Mahdi Army once and for all.
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