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04/06/2004 Archived Entry: "Sadr"
Here is my understanding of what is happening in Iraq re: Muqtada al-Sadr, an understanding which may well be imperfect but which may be useful nevertheless for those who are consuming news-lite from sources like CNN...
Al-Sadr is an anti-American Shiite cleric who is a major player in the internal jostling for power within the Shiite community -- which is the largest community of Iraq -- and, thus, al-Sadr is a major player within Iraq itself. Estimates of his popularity vary widely, with some reports in the Western press claiming that 1/3 of Shiites are sympathetic to the "Sadrists" but sympathy does not constitute hardcore allegiance. (Some of the sympathy may well come from his anti-US stand around which otherwise indifferent Shiites can rally,) Al-Sadr has a private army estimated from 1,500 to 10,000 strong. The slums of Baghdad -- East Baghdad -- is called Sadr City after his family and it forms a base of support for al-Sadr. (His father was a powerful Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr; his uncle was a renown Shiite activist; much of his family was killed by Saddam.) The coalition clearly wants to marginalize or to eliminate Sadr as a factor in the politics surrounding the faux transfer of power set for June 30th. (I say faux because the Iraqi authorities will be hand-picked by the Bush administration and US troops will remain to enforce order/supervise.) In an open and free democracy, the anti-US Sadrists might become sand in the wheels because many would be elected. Thus, on March 28th, on the direct order of Paul Bremer, the Sadrist newspaper Al Hawza in Baghdad was abruptly shut down on the grounds that it incited violence. Thousands protested its closure -- and continue to do so -- saying that Bremer was following Saddam in crushing freedom of the press. On April 3rd, Mustafa al-Yaqubi, a senior aide of al-Sadr was arrested by the Coalition for the murder of a Shia cleric who was a rival to Sadr. A similar warrant for Sadr's arrest had been apparently issued last summer but had been held, presumably to be served at a time most opportune to the States.
Sadr saw his newspaper (his voice) suppressed, his right-hand man arrested, andhis own arrest imminent. Then, on Sunday, the Coalition appointed a list of Iraqi ministers to whom they clearly intended to hand over the previously mentioned faux authority. No Sadrists were included. At that point, Sadr had nothing political to lose and, perhaps, little time to make a move. Never one to despise violence, he called for a de facto jihad against the American occupiers and violence erupted in at least six cities. Sadr himself is holed up in one of Iraqi's holiest mosques in one of its holiest cities, Kufa, surrounded by hundreds of his armed zealots. It remains to be seen whether the US military will be stupid or arrogant enough to assault the mosque in order to serve its arrest warrant. But the US has to do something. Sadr is a clear challenge to their authority and every other group in Iraq is watching. The US has painted itself into an interesting corner: by referring to Sadr as a murder suspect and issuing a warrant for his arrest, they have left themselves no room to negotiate with him. They have utterly cut off even the possibility of political or diplomatic options.
Bush warns that violence will grow. It seems clear that more US troops will be sent in to relieve the overstressed and over-extended military there. (BTW, the Sadrist revolt came at a time when US troops were undergoing a massive rotation out of the area -- a rotation home that may well be cancelled now. I've seen no confirmation of this latter possibility, however.) The latest news I've read comes from the New York Times, "On Monday evening, American troops appeared to be moving into the area around Kufa, where Mr. Sadr's followers have seized control and the cleric has taken refuge in a heavily guarded mosque. Mr. Sadr shot back a defiant message, saying he would "welcome" a showdown with the American forces he has pledged to drive out of Iraq.