Alaa al-Marjani / AP
Hitting the Books: Clerics studying at a howza in Najaf, where Sadr is believed to be located
Nov 19, 2007 Issue It wasn’t so long ago that U.S. commanders considered Moqtada al-Sadr to be the greatest threat to stability in Iraq. Now the Shiite firebrand’s stock among the Americans may be rising. Since declaring a ceasefire for his Mahdi Army militia last August, Sadr has effectively disappeared from public life, designating five trusted aides to speak on his behalf. NEWSWEEK has learned that some of those deputies have been secretly meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to discuss cooperation on improving security, according to two sources who declined to be identified because of the subject’s sensitivity. The general’s spokesman, Col. Steven Boylan, qualified that assertion, explaining that while Petraeus has not met with Sadr, “the command has indeed had direct engagements with some of his people within the [Sadr] organization … to assist with reconciliation efforts.” Boylan also says the military “applauded” Sadr’s ceasefire.
U.S. commanders say that the Mahdi Army’s quiescence is a significant factor behind the recent drop in attacks in Baghdad—by a third compared with six months ago, according to one estimate. And they say they now share a common enemy: rogue Mahdi Army units, known as “special groups” and allegedly funded by Iran, who have declared they will not obey the ceasefire. Sadr loyalists have formed an elite unit called the “golden battalion” to go after these rebels; the Americans are hoping to encourage the more moderate leaders to distance the Mahdi Army even further from its “irreconcilable” wing. “Those elements, such as the special-group, extremist elements, have in fact dishonored Sadr’s pledge of honor,” says Boylan.
While U.S. forces have brokered local agreements between Sunni sheiks and Mahdi Army commanders in Baghdad, Sadr himself is staying above the fray. (A Sadr deputy, Sheik Salah al-Ubaidy, denies that any Sadrist officials have met with the Americans.) U.S. commanders think the 36-year-old cleric has temporarily relocated to Iran. But a source in the Shiite holy city of Najaf who also asked to remain anonymous says Sadr’s gone underground there. He claims that Sadr is cracking the books, hoping to elevate himself to the level of hojat olIslam—one step below ayatollah. Some in the Shiite howza, the clerical elite that surrounds Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, scoff at the attempt. “His mentality does not allow him to reach higher levels of study,” says one high-ranking howza scholar. But Sadr’s instructors are thought to be followers of his assassinated father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and they might be inclined toward grade inflation. In any event, U.S. commanders are just glad most of Sadr’s gunmen are laying as low as Sadr is.
with John Barry in Washington, Maziar Bahari in Tehran and Baghdad Bureau reports
Background Information from Wikipedia:
After the 4 June truce with the U.S. led coalition forces, al-Sadr claimed to take steps to disband the Mahdi army. The June settlement was broken after Iraqi policemen and U.S. troops surrounded al-Sadr’s home on 3 August, resulting in heavy gunfire, mortar shelling and grenade blasts. The apparent aim was to arrest al-Sadr and destroy his movement. The decision to extend a firefight into extended combat is reported to have been made by U.S. Marines, without the approval of the Pentagon or the Allawi government.
On August 25, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, arrived in Iraq and began travelling with a “peace convoy” towards Najaf “to stop the bloodshed.” By the next day, an agreement brokered by Sistani required the Mahdi resistance movement to disarm and leave Najaf and U.S. troops to withdraw from the city. Resistance men began handing in their weapons after al-Sadr asked them to do so and left the complex escorted by worshippers. The U.S. welcomed the agreement and vowed to respect a ceasefire. U.S. forces have stayed out of the center of Najaf since, and as of September 2004 the city was largely under the control of the Iraqi police.
It is however difficult to determine al-Sadr’s personal involvement (in death squads carrying out ethnic cleansing against sunnis living in Shia areas). His public statements have on occasion condemned violence against Sunnis as well as terrorist attacks directed against the Shia population. He has exhorted his followers not to fall into the trap of retaliation leading to civil war. He claims that America stands to gain the most from an Iraqi civil war which would require the continued presence of US troops and put the US in the role of political referee and powerbroker between the warring factions.
Following fourteen weeks of hiding, on 25 May 2007 Al-Sadr reemerged. Driving in a long motorcade from Najaf to Kufa, Al-Sadr proceeded to deliver a sermon to an estimated 6000 followers in the main mosque. Reiterating his usual condemnation of the United States presence in Iraq, Al-Sadr’s speech also contained calls for unity between Sunni and Shi’a. Many saw the speech as an effort to rein in his militia, which has broken into several factions since his departure. Several of these factions have been accused of violence against Sunnis. 
In a statement issued August 29, 2007, Muqtada al-Sadr announced that an order to stand down for six months had been distributed to his loyalists following the deaths of more than 50 Shia Muslim pilgrims during sectarian fighting in the holy city of Karbala the day before. The statement issued by Sadr’s office in Najaf said: “I direct the Mahdi army to suspend all its activities for six months until it is restructured in a way that helps honour the principles for which it is formed.” The intention behind the ceasefire was thought in part to be to allow al-Sadr reassert control over the movement, which is thought to have splintered. “We call on all Sadrists to observe self-restraint, to help security forces control the situation and arrest the perpetrators and sedition mongers, and urge them to end all forms of armament in the sacred city,” said the statement, referring to the August 28 clashes in Karbala. Asked if the unexpected order meant no attacks on American troops, as well as a ban on Shia infighting, a senior al-Sadr aide said: “All kinds of armed actions are to be frozen, without exception.” 
The al-Sadr family has a clear and distinct lineage that can be traced directly to Muhammad. The lineage is traced through Imam Jafar al-Sadiq and his son Imam Musa al-Kahdim the sixth and seventh Shi‘a Imams respectively. This direct and meticulously documented lineage is unprecedented even among the illustrious families in the Islamic world who claim such lineage. The Sayyid Muslims consider themselves the followers of Muhammad’s bloodline (through his daughter Fatima’s lineage), thus a great deal of respect and reverence is paid by the Shi’as to the Sayyids throughout Shi’a society.