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Missing cleric roils Lebanons Shiites years later
Lebanon Vanished Im 5415649
Top Shiite imam Moussa al-Sadr pictured with a Lebanese flag, center left, is pasted on a wall in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 8, 2008. The country's top Shiite imam vanished during a mystery-shrouded trip to Libya on Aug. 31, 1978. Thirty years later his disappearance remains a burning issue for Lebanon's Shiites, including Hezbollah _ an indication of his potency as a symbol for a community that has become a major player but still insists it hasn't been given the say it deserves in Lebanon. - photo by Associated Press
    BEIRUT, Lebanon — For the rest of the world, the disappearance of the imam Moussa al-Sadr is probably at most a footnote in the checkered history of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. In 1978, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim religious leader flew to Tripoli for a week of talks with Libyan officials. He was never seen or heard from again.
    But in Lebanon, the mystery of the missing imam remains a burning issue for Shiites, including leaders of the powerful Hezbollah movement — an indication of al-Sadr’s potency as a symbol for a community that in 40 years has gone from a downtrodden, impoverished sect to a major political player.
    Al-Sadr is one of the pioneers of Shiite empowerment that has become a force across the Middle East, spurred by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Shiite Iran and more recently by the rise to leadership of Iraq’s majority Shiites after U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein and his Sunni Muslim-dominated regime.
    Framed photos of al-Sadr adorn the shops and homes of Lebanese Shiites, and the day he was last seen, on Aug. 31, 1978, is marked annually in Lebanon, with this year’s major ceremony planned in the southern town of Nabatiyeh.
    On Wednesday, Lebanese judicial officials said prosecutors had just charged Gadhafi and six other Libyan officials with ‘‘incitement to kidnap and withhold the freedom’’ of al-Sadr. The charge could carry the death penalty, but the officials, insisting on anonymity since they were not authorized to speak to the media, conceded it was unlikely Gadhafi would ever be tried.
    Most Lebanese presume al-Sadr is dead — he would be 80 if alive — but some cling to the belief he remains in a Libyan jail. It’s an appealing idea for Shiites; a major tenet of the faith is that a revered 9th century imam has been hidden by God and will return as mankind’s savior.
    In 1975, al-Sadr founded Amal, the first major militia and political force for Lebanon’s Shiites, who historically were under the thumb of Christians and Sunnis. At the time, Shiites were represented politically by feudal Shiite landowners who cared little for their peasant underlings.
    Al-Sadr was an impressive figure — well over six feet tall, he wore the black turban of a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and was a skilled orator, with an accent reflecting his Iranian past. Regarded as a moderate, he urged cooperation with other faiths. His biggest success may have been that his preaching for Shiite dignity changed the way the sect’s members thought of themselves.
    Amal and other organizations he founded became the model for a grass-roots Shiite political movement. Today, the Shiites are Lebanon’s largest sect, with an estimated 1.2 million of the 4 million population, led by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, or ‘‘the Party of God,’’ which was founded in 1982 as a guerrilla group and is now a political party as well.
    ‘‘Imam Moussa al-Sadr was a major turning point for Shiites in Lebanon. He moved them from isolation and marginalization to uprising,’’ said well-known Shiite lawyer Ali Kabalan. ‘‘All Shiite resistance groups and movements were triggered by Imam al-Sadr’s slogans.’’
    A member of a clan known for its religious scholars, al-Sadr is a distant relative of Iraq’s radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia has fought the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies.
    Born in the Iranian holy city of Qom, al-Sadr came to Lebanon in 1959 to work for the rights of Shiites in the southern city of Tyre. In 1974, a year before Lebanon’s 15-year civil war broke out, al-Sadr founded the Movement of the Deprived, attracting thousands of followers.
    ‘‘I will not rest until there is no deprived person or a deprived area in Lebanon,’’ al-Sadr told a massive rally in the eastern town of Baalbek.
    The following year, he established the military wing Amal — Arabic for ‘‘hope’’ and an acronym for the militia’s Arabic name, the Lebanese Resistance Brigades — which later fought in Lebanon’s civil war. Amal’s present leader, Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, lived briefly in Michigan in the 1970s, and a U.S. branch of the charitable Sadr Foundation is based in Dearborn outside Detroit.
    Since al-Sadr’s disappearance, Libya has always insisted the cleric and his two traveling companions left Tripoli on a flight to Rome and suggested he was a victim of a power struggle among Shiites.
    At the time, Italian authorities found no evidence al-Sadr ever arrived in Italy, and luggage belonging to him and his aides reportedly was found in a Tripoli hotel. However, his passport surfaced in Rome during a forgery trial in 2004, with some suggesting it had been altered.
    Most of al-Sadr’s followers are convinced Gadhafi ordered al-Sadr killed in a dispute over Libyan payments to Lebanese militias, but the imam’s family argues he could still be alive in a Libyan jail.
    ‘‘It is clear to the family and the law. It is a case of kidnapping, and until there is proof otherwise this stance remains the same,’’ the al-Sadr family lawyer, Chibli Mallat, told The Associated Press last week.
    While Lebanese Shiites are far more powerful than in al-Sadr’s day, political leaders still cite him as a symbol in the struggle for Shiite rights. In a July speech celebrating a prisoner swap with Israel that was seen as a victory in Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed to never forget ‘‘the imam of the resistance.’’
    ‘‘If the imam is alive bring him back to us with our thanks. If the imam is a martyr, inform us and give us his sacred body,’’ Nasrallah declared.

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