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Standoff bolstered Sadr's support

Interviews with Iraqi Shiite clerics reveal that moderates are increasingly supporting Sadr's anti-US campaign.

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Six months ago, Sheikh Jawad al-Khalasi was what most would consider an Iraqi Shiite moderate. Critical of the militant ideas of fellow Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Mr. Khalasi preached a more cooperative approach toward the Americans and the interim Iraqi government.

Then, last Thursday, when Iraqi snipers opened fire on him and thousands of demonstrators converging on Najaf, hoping to end the siege there and protect the shrine, Khalasi changed his mind. Now he's a radical, a troubling sign that Mr. Sadr has grown stronger from a three-week-long standoff that the Iraqi government once hoped might reduce Sadr to irrelevance.

Sadr and his forces agreed on Friday to put down their weapons and withdraw from the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites. But interviews in Baghdad suggest that Sadr is walking away from the standoff with a widening base and supporters who are more militant than before.

"This is the beginning of the end for the Americans," says Khalasi, speaking from his home in Baghdad's upper-class Shiite district of Kadhimiya. "What will happen now is that all the political parties will unite to kick the Americans out of Iraq. You have seen even the Sunni people starting to support Moqtada. All this will encourage people to be united."

The Najaf standoff was meant to be a turning point for the legitimacy of the new interim Iraqi government, showing its strength and will to defeat rebellious militias, not just in Najaf but around the country. But that turning point now looks like a wrong turn. While Khalasi's influence may be rather small - dwarfed by more powerful Shiite leaders like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who brokered the Najaf truce - he appears to be a part of a growing disenchantment among Shiite clerics, and a weakening of Baghdad's ability to reach out to Iraq's largest religious group.

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