Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Front Page
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Deeper into the quagmire

The Shia Intifada represents the greatest challenge yet faced by the US-led occupation and its plans for Iraq. Graham Usher reports from Sadr City in Baghdad

A masked Iraqi carries his Kalashnikov rifle in front of the offices of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the Baghdad suburb of Al Sadr City April 7, 2004. Photo Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

On the surface it is a battle of two political wills: the US- led occupation forces ranged against a seditious young cleric, whose brand of radical Islam, historical grievance and thwarted nationalism strikes deep cords among the young urban poor of Iraq's central and southern cities.

The fires sparked by this long awaited collision have already lit the most sustained revolt against the occupation since it began a year ago this week. But it has also raised the spectre of a future the US had tried everything to avoid: the threat of a Shia Muslim uprising joining forces with what so far has been a Sunni dominated insurgency.

While confrontations were flaring between the Shia and the US on one side, American Marines and Iraqi guerrillas fought a Jenin-like attrition war for Falluja, one week after four US security contractors were savaged by a mob in the city. Code-named "Operation Vigilant Resolve", the fighting in Falluja and Ramadi brought the number of US soldiers killed since the beginning of the Iraq campaign to 637, with 3,466 wounded, according to US Central Command.

In the case of Falluja, confrontations may simply be a cycle of retribution and revenge. But with regard to the Shia it is unclear who most wanted this fight -- the Americans or Muqtada Al-Sadr.

It is clear how it started. On 28 March American soldiers closed Al-Sadr's Al-Hawza newspaper (circulation a minimal 10,000) for incitement to violence, including, among other articles, one that in February said American missiles had killed 50 Iraqi police. Five days later they arrested Al-Sadr's main ally in Najaf, Mustafa Yaqoubi, for the killing, exactly a year ago, of Abdul-Majid Khoei, a moderate Shia cleric who had returned from exile in the wake of the war.

Unsurprisingly, Al-Sadr viewed both actions -- and especially their timing -- as preludes to a crackdown, mobilising his Al-Mehdi Army to march in martial but non- violent demonstrations. On 4 April peaceful protests became armed war, after Al-Sadr's militiamen tried to storm a garrison manned by Spanish troops near Najaf. Over the next three days similar battles over the institutions and symbols of power raged in the southern cities of Kufa, Amara, Kut, Nasseriyah, Karbala, Basra and the Baghdad districts of Sadr City, Kadamiya and Al-Shoala, leaving over 100 dead, the vast majority of them Iraqis.

Did Al-Sadr light the blaze? He did nothing to douse it. "There is no use for demonstrations, as your enemy loves to terrify and suppress opinions, and despises peoples." Instead "intimidate your enemy, as we cannot remain silent over his violations," he told his followers on 4 April.

"We have a group under Muqtada Al-Sadr that has basically placed itself outside the legal authorities, the coalition and Iraqi officials," said Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. "Effectively he is attempting to establish his authority in the place of the legitimate authority. We will not tolerate this."

Within hours an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Al-Sadr for the murder of Al-Khoei. Al-Sadr shrugged off the charge, issuing a few of his own. The uprising would continue, he said on 6 April, "until our cities are free of the occupiers and our prisoners are released". He then moved from his mosque in Kufa to his office in Najaf, the heart of a Shia religious establishment he disdains but whose protection he will now seek and whose quiescent stance to the occupation challenge. Meanwhile, his followers took over most of the public institutions in the city.

How true is Bremer's charge? There is little doubt that Al-Sadr and his supporters have engaged in a conscious, confrontational struggle for political power with CPA- appointed authorities in places like Sadr City. He has swelled his Al-Mehdi Army from a force mustering barely 500 last August to one now commanding 10,000, armed with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and light weapons.

But he is hardly alone. Take a trip through any of the Shia dominated southern cities and you will find militias belonging to one or other of the main Shia clerics and religious political parties in an open power play with each other and the Iraqi police and occupation soldiers, not to speak of the armed Sunni nationalist, Islamist and Jihadist groups that rule in places like Falluja. Go to the north and it is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdish Democratic Party and their peshmerga guerrillas that hold sway.

The charge that Al-Sadr is attempting to "establish his authority in the place of the legitimate authority" cuts little slack with most Iraqis, if only because in large swathes of Iraq there is no legitimate national authority to replace. Rather the decision to crush Al-Sadr appears driven less by the threat he poses to the new Iraqi order than to a wounded American self-image.

"I think the Americans felt humiliated and insulted in Falluja, but took their action elsewhere. They were looking for a soft target. It could be a dangerous choice. Muqtada Al-Sadr represents a small faction among the Shia, but he has the support of the unemployed and deprived -- and there are masses of these in Iraq," says Hamid Al- Bayati, spokesperson for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose Badr militia also commands a force of 10,000 men.

The cost of this show of strength is potentially huge, not only in lending Al-Sadr a political stature he never had, especially compared to the moderating influence wielded by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. It also risks the "smooth passage to Iraqi sovereignty" the Americans -- above all other considerations -- had hoped to accomplish by 1 July.

The first casualty may be the central contract the Americans had forged with the Shia in Iraq, underwritten by Al-Sistani and maintained by SCIRI and the other mainstream Shia religious parties. This held that in exchange for democratic elections -- and whatever the growing discontent felt by Iraq's majority Shia community about the occupation -- protest would be confined to "negotiation and peaceful means", in the words of Al-Bayati. He admits that contract is going to be harder to sustain the longer foreign occupiers go on killing Shia civilians at rate of 30 a day.

Second, by taking the war to Al-Sadr the Americans have exposed the Iraqi face of their rule as a frail mask, not least to Iraqis. In Sadr City on 4 April Al-Mehdi fighters took over six Iraqi police stations to resist incoming American tanks. The Iraqi police melted away, less in support of the conquest than in fear of the charge of collaboration. It was a flight repeated in other cities. "What do you expect? The police have brothers in the Al-Sadr movement. How could they fight them?" asks Habib Karim, a community worker in Sadr City.

Third, by issuing a warrant for Al-Sadr's arrest the Americans appear to have closed the door on any kind of honourable exit. Al-Bayati thinks the chances of Al-Sadr and his followers submitting meekly to the order are slim. But he sees no more wisdom among the Americans. "They are not listening to us, even when it is in their interest. I am sure we could have saved many Iraqi and American lives. Maybe because they feel they are a superpower they know better than anyone else, I don't know," he shrugs.

Two days before the religious ceremony of Arbayeen the prospect rears of the bloodiest of fights in the Shia's holiest of cities.

Finally, there is the possibility of the two anti- occupation fronts becoming one. Prior to the crisis, Al- Sadr -- in the name of Iraqi, Arab and Islamic unity -- had reached out to Sunni Muslim movements like the Muslim Scholars Union (MSU), known to have influence with the insurgency. On 5 April delegations from Sadr City and Falluja swapped communiqués, vowing mutual support.

Few Iraqis believe this marriage is anything other than convenient, since Al-Sadr seeks a Shia Islamic state and groups like the MSU do not (they do not even want elections). But the American offensive has created the conditions for a tactical and armed alliance, cemented by a shared imagery of Arab nationalism, political Islam and the Palestinian Intifada.

The Americans appear to have decided that the eradication of Al-Sadr and the Sunni resistance is now necessary for the success of their project of the "new Iraq". For just about everyone else the resort to military might masks a failure of politics. For Habib Karim, it is "an old film with a new enemy" as he drives through a Sadr City again governed by tanks, fortified mosques and dozens of wake houses.

"When the Americans entered Sadr City they cut the electricity. This is what Saddam used to do. When he killed Muqtada's father [Mohamed Mohamed Al-Sadr] in 1999 people went to the mosques, knowing they would be slaughtered -- but they still went. If the Americans try to arrest Muqtada, the same thing will happen. It won't be just his supporters. We will all be with him if he is attacked by the Americans." (seepp.5,6&7)

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