Media-savvy saviour of Iraqis or a defiant, dangerous hothead

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For Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Iraq, and for many Shia, the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is a dangerous hothead.

But to his young, radical followers, the 30-year old Shia firebrand is an inspired leader who has dared to challenge the American occupation.

Mr Sadr is the only surviving son of the Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Mohamed Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam's agents in 1999 along with two sons for his defiant stand against the regime.

Baghdad's Shia district, Saddam City, was renamed Sadr City after the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator. The slum in northeastern Baghdad has become Mr Sadr's power base, patrolled by his militia, the Mehdi army.

Sadr junior, who was last night under threat of arrest by the US military and branded an outlaw, took up a bellicose position from the moment the American occupation began.

In his Friday sermons in Kufa, he dons a white shroud as a symbol of mourning. In every sermon, participants repeat after him: "No, No to Israel, No, No to America, No, No to terrorism."

The media-savvy leader is aware of the benefits of his father's image, which is brandished at every protest rally. His positions were given wider currency through his ownership of the weekly newspaper al-Hawza al-Natiqa, which recently accused Mr Bremer of following Saddam by persecuting the Shia majority.

But Mr Sadr's views in his paper were not representative of the Shia community. The most influential cleric is the elderly Grand Ayatollah Sistani, a cautious leader of the conservative mainstream, and whose low political profile has angered radicals.

Mr Sadr's supporters were accused of mounting a siege of Ayatollah Sistani's home in Najaf, only days after the killing of a moderate Shia leader, Ayatollah Abdel-Majid al-Khoei, who had just returned from exile in Britain in April last year. The cleric was hacked to death at a meeting with Sistani on whether to co-operate with the invaders.

Mr Bremer may have unwittingly played into Mr Sadr's hands last week, by ordering his newspaper to be temporarily closed, on the grounds that it was inciting violence against coalition forces.

The protests by Mr Sadr's supporters turned violent at the weekend, and left 52 people dead.