When the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr reemerged from seclusion in the spring to give a sermon denouncing the U.S. presence, reporters struggled as always for shorthand ways to describe this complex man. While the militant cleric has instigated two insurgencies with a simple command, he is also a political powerbroker, whose support in parliament is critical. In speeches, the firebrand Sadr denounces the U.S. presence; he has called America “the great Satan.” But he has also quietly backed the U.S. troop surge and even allowed American forces to set up base inside his stronghold neighborhood Sadr City.

“I think there are two or three, or possibly six, Muqtada al-Sadrs,” says John F. Burns, the senior foreign correspondent for The New York Times, but “to simply define him as a ‘Shiite cleric’ without qualifiers is inadequate.”

But which qualifier? Ever since Sadr emerged on the scene in 2003, most reporters have chosen to use some adjective in first reference to this young cleric, who derives much of his influence from the fact that Saddam martyred both his father and uncle. “Editors in New York are uneasy with some of the adjectives,” admits Burns.

An analysis of first-reference descriptors since 2003 shows radical to be the most popular, used in more than a quarter of all references to Sadr. But, “I think radical—although I admit I’ve used it myself—is a meaningless term,” says Burns. Terms like firebrand and militant are used about half as often as they were in 2003, while rebel went from 19 percent of all first references in newspapers in 2004 to 1 percent this year.

Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who runs a popular blog on Iraq and was one of the first to note Sadr’s influence, says he no longer uses the term radical, ever since polls show the majority of Iraqis agree with Sadr’s key position that the U.S. should leave. “In a way, the rest of Iraq has caught up with Muqtada’s views,” says Cole, adding a historical comparison: “In 1915, Vladimir Lenin was radical. But by 1920 he wasn’t.” For a while, “I started calling Muqtada a Shiite nationalist” Cole says, “and got beat up for that by the Sunnis,” since many members of the minority sect do not want Iraq to be characterized in sectarian terms.

Last year was a turning point, when Sadr’s political support was seen as critical to the appointment of Nouri al-Malaki as prime minister. Terms like influential and powerful, which accounted for less than 1 percent of descriptors in the past, now make up 7 percent of first references. For his part, Burns says he has been using populist. “It’s a sort of minimalist word. Trying to find a way for short-form description that is not incendiary,” he says, “is not easy.” Cole too likes populist, and says it would have worked all along since Sadr has had grassroots support since the beginning of the invasion.

“There is no single word that works. We should probably have a sentence or two with each reference to express who he is,” says Burns. “It’s a work in progress.”

 

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Peter Klein is a longtime producer at 60 Minutes, and a professor of journalism at The University of British Columbia.