We looked at the situation in Fallujah and the necessity of operating from a position of strength here.
Now, who is Moqtada Al Sadr and what is he trying to do? Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy gives some background:
- One of the great success stories in Iraq thus far has been the absence of any large-scale armed Shi’i challenge. This success seemed on the verge of evaporating in October 2003, as Sadr’s supporters became involved in a number of violent incidents with coalition forces, including a deliberate ambush of a U.S. military police element. In fact, Sadr went to the brink of armed conflict with the coalition, risking the suppression of his faction. He chose to draw back, however, and the coalition chose not to push further. These decisions postponed what was perhaps the inevitable, and the events of the past week have finally carried Sadr over the brink.
….Unlike Iraqi Sunni resistance elements, Sadr operates within a political framework, displaying overt leadership, an articulated organizational structure, and a unified militia force. He also has property, financial resources, and the name of his father (a prominent Shi’i cleric killed by the Saddam regime in 1999) at his disposal. All of these factors make him a complex challenge that the coalition cannot take lightly.
Over the past week, Sadr became openly confrontational. After the coalition shut down a Sadr-linked newspaper on March 28, thousands of Sadr supporters took to the streets in protest. In an April 2 sermon in Kufa, Sadr crossed a line that he had carefully treaded since October by instructing his followers to fight “the occupiers” and to “strike them where you meet them.” On April 3, the Mahdi Army marched in Baghdad and, the next day, Sadr’s supporters initiated coordinated attacks on Iraqi police stations in that city while staging violent demonstrations in Najaf, Kufa, Nasiriyah, Amarah, and Basra.
Larry Diamond looks at Sadr in the Wall Street Journal [subscription required]:
- we are locked in a confrontation with a ruthless young thug, Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads an Iranian-backed, fascist political movement that spouts a shallow mix of Islamist and nationalist slogans in a bid to conquer power.
Among most Shiites — including, crucially, Iraq’s most widely revered religious leader, Ayatollah Sistani — Sadr is a reviled figure. A crude man with no religious qualifications or positive political program, he has used coercion and intimidation as a substitute for genuine religious authority. Yet since the coalition began a crackdown on his organization 10 days ago, Sadr has maneuvered brilliantly to portray himself as the leader of a broader nationalist and Islamist insurgency.
….Sadr knows how to mobilize and intimidate, and in recent months, his militia — the al-Mahdi Army — has been growing alarmingly in size, muscle and daring. They have seized public buildings, beaten up professors, taken over classrooms, forced women to wear the hijab, and set up illegal sharia courts and imposed their own brutal penalties. All of this street action and thuggery is meant to create the sense of an unstoppable force, and to strike absolute fear into the hearts of people who would be so naïve as to think they could shape public policy and power relations by peaceful, democratic means.
In recent weeks, Sadr’s propaganda, both in his oral statements and through his weekly newspaper, Hawza, have become increasingly incendiary, propagating the most outrageous lies (for example, that the U.S. was responsible for recent deadly bombings) deliberately designed to provoke popular violence. On March 28, after months of costly delay, the coalition finally began to move against him. Ambassador Paul Bremer ordered the closure of Hawza, and Sadr reacted by ordering his followers to rise up violently. Perhaps in response, the coalition ordered the arrest on April 4 of a senior Sadr aide, Mustafa al-Yacoubi, and 24 others — including Sadr himself — for the murder last year of an ayatollah, Abdel Majid al-Khoei.
So what now?
- Now there is no turning back. If any kind of decent, democratic and peaceful political order is to be possible in Iraq, the coalition will need to arrest Sadr, crush his attempt to seize power by force, and dismantle his Mahdi army.
We are now embarked on a dangerous and bloody campaign in which, tragically, many more American, other coalition, and Iraqi lives will be lost. But if we do not confront this military challenge now — while we work to rebuild a broader consensus among Iraqi political forces on the rules of the game and the shape of the new political system — we will lose the second war for Iraq, with frightening implications not only for the peace and stability of that country and the wider region, but for our own national security.
White comes to the same conclusion:
- Unless the coalition takes strong action now, Muqtada al-Sadr and his faction will only become more dangerous over time. Although any such action will carry substantial risk, now may be the best time to suppress Sadr, while a strong U.S. military presence is in the country and with several
weeks remaining before June 30.
- U.S. troops drove into Kut before dawn Friday, pushing out members of the militia headed by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that had seized the southern textile and farming center this week after Ukrainian troops abandoned the city under heavy attack.
A U.S. helicopter struck al-Sadr’s main office in Kut, killing two people, witnesses said. Americans were patrolling the streets during daylight hours.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said he expected the operation to retake Kut from al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army militia would be finished by Saturday morning.
“We are fairly comfortable that the town of al-Kut is well on its way to coming back under coalition control,” he said.
The Kut operation represented a major foray by the American military in a region where U.S. allies have struggled to deal with the uprising.
….Al-Sadr forces kept control of Kufa and the center of the nearby holy city of Najaf, despite a vow by U.S. commanders Wednesday to crush the militia.
Any U.S. operation to oust the militiamen would be hampered by the hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims who are in southern cities and roads this weekend for al-Arbaeen, which commemorates the end of the period of mourning for a 7th-century martyred saint.
Al-Sadr on Friday demanded U.S. forces leave Iraq, saying they now face “a civil revolt.”
“I direct my speech to my enemy Bush and I tell him that if your excuse was that you are fighting Saddam, then this thing is a past and now you are fighting the entire Iraqi people,” al-Sadr said in a sermon, delivered by one of his deputies at the Imam Ali Shrine, Shiite Islam’s holiest site, in Najaf. [AP]
Well, no, although that is exactly what he wants us to believe. We are fighting a specific, illegitimate branch of political, fascist Shiites led by Sadr.
We must be very careful to not be perceived as fighting the Shiites in general, or the “entire Iraqi people” as the lying, self-aggrandizing propagandist and thug Sadr would like all to believe.
We must distinguish Sadr from Sistani:
- Sistani is the most important figure in Iraqi Shiism, but that position isn’t immutable. As Juan Cole observed to the Los Angeles Times in February, “Shiism has a strong populist component, so [Sistani] could face a stampede to other [religious] figures if he loses the street.” Sadr’s apparent push into Najaf therefore poses a challenge to Sistani: Even if Sadr is “martyred” by the United States, Shia Iraqis may subsequently ask why their grand ayatollah didn’t challenge the U.S. as forcefully. Then there’s the fact that Sistani and Sadr are charting two separate courses for the Shia. In addition to the political differences between the two men–Sistani’s patient challenges to the occupation versus Sadr’s violence–their theological differences are irreconcilable: Sadr and Sistani espouse opposing interpretations of the role of the Islamic clergy in governance, with Sadr pushing Iranian-style “guardianship of the jurisprudent” (vilayat-i faqih) and Sistani rejecting it. Sistani is said to be singularly focused on ensuring that the Shia don’t repeat the mistakes of 1920, when a violent and futile revolt against the British occupation paved the way to Sunni domination and Shia subjugation. Sadr appears to be leading the Shia down precisely this path. [New Republic]
We must carefully and publicly distinguish Sadr from Sistani, fascist Islamist from moderate, and encourage Sistani to assert his prominence while crushing the Sadr rebellion, which is nothing more than an opportunist’s power play.