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Sadr plays to power of martyrdom

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"Iraqi and US forces are making final preparations as we get ready to finish this fight that the Moqtada militia started," said Colonel Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Najaf.

As US troops continue their assault on Najaf, there is some sign of rising anger among Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite believers, who make up some 60 percent of the population. Seventeen months after American troops overthrew their arch enemy, Saddam Hussein - who saw Shiites as potential sympathizers with neighboring Shiite Iran - many Shiites now say that America is turning its back on them.

While the country's new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, is himself a Shiite, he is a secular one, and none of the prominent Shiite clerics have been included in the new interim government. Instead, Mr. Allawi has invited former members of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party to take up key positions, a fact that leads many Shiites to believe that their political voice will never be heard. Instead, they are turning to violent movements, such as Sadr's Mahdi Army.

If the siege of Najaf ends up being the spark that sets the countryside ablaze, then it is Sadr (and not Al Qaeda operative Abul Musab al-Zarqawi) who is fanning the flames. While Sadr is not a high-level cleric in the Shiite hierarchy, his ability to tap into religious and cultural forces may vault him over the heads of higher-level Shiite leaders such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. And his chief cultural tool is the concept of martyrdom.

A poll, conducted by the Coalition Provisional Authority in April, showed that Sadr's popularity had increased as a result of standing up to the Americans. Some 68 percent of Iraqis approved of Sadr in May, compared with 10 percent for the US military. That said, only 2 percent of Iraqis wanted to see Sadr as a presidential candidate.

Sadr is only the latest of his family members to toy with martyrdom. His father was killed by Hussein in 1999 for giving speeches against Hussein from the pulpit. Sadr's grandfather was also killed in 1980 for the same reason.

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