The always tense relationship between the Sadrist
movement among Iraqi Shiites and the US and its Coalition partners has taken
a dramatic turn for the worse. Perhaps a third of Iraqi Shiites are sympathetic
to the radical, Khomeini-like ideology of Sadrism, and some analysts with long
experience in Iraq put it at 50%. Earlier Muqtada Al-Sadr, the movement leader,
had called on his forces to avoid violence against Coalition forces. As of Saturday
and Sunday, he appeared to have feared that the Coalition meant permanently
to exclude his group from power, and had decided to launch an uprising. This
uprising involved taking over police stations in Kufa, Najaf, Baghdad and possibly
elsehwere. The Sadrist militia now controls Kufa, according
to the New York Times, and probably controls much of Sadr City or the slums
of East Baghdad, as well, though it has been expelled from the police stations
it had occupied there. Muqtada seemed to back off later on Sunday, calling on
his followers to cease fighting, and vowing to protest by withdrawing to his
mosque for a lengthy retreat with his followers. It is too soon to tell if this
retreat (in both senses) will satisfy the Bush administration, or whether they
will now feel impelled to arrest Muqtada. If they do, it seems likely to me
that it will cause no end of trouble in coming months.
In Najaf, Sadrist crowds some 5000 strong protested outside the Spanish garrison.
Firing began between the two sides, leading to a 3-hour gun battle that left
1 American and 1 Salvadoran soldier dead [initial reports had said 4 Salvadorans
were dead] and fourteen Salvadorans wounded, 24 Iraqi civilians dead, and more
than 130 persons wounded, according
to AP and the
Washington Post. Spanish troops also fought. (Spain's new Socialist government
had pledged to withdraw Spanish troops this summer). AP reports that Sadrist
militiamen took over the police station in nearby Kufa, and that police had
disappeared from Kufa streets.
There were also large protests in central Baghdad, and it is reported that
3 Sadrist protesters threw themselves under American tanks, so as to become
"martyrs." AP said, "In central Baghdad's Firdaus Square, police fired
warning shots during a protest by hundreds of al-Sadr supporters against al-Yacoubi's
arrest. At least two protesters were injured, witnesses said." Meanwhile,
US troops assaulted the office of Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad.
In Sadr City, gunfire was heard all afternoon and into the evening on Sunday,
and early on, two US military jeeps were set on fire. az-Zaman reports
that there was an exchange of fire between US troops in a Humvee with Army of
the Mahdi militiamen in the Suq Muridi quarter of central Sadr City. The Army
of the Mahdi briefly occupied at least three police stations in Sadr City, expelling
the local police. The US sent in tanks, retaking the police stations, but suffered
7 US soldiers killed and 24 wounded, according to CNN at 5 pm EST. The AP report
is now on line at The
In Amara, The Scotsman
reports of Sadrist demonstrations in Amara, "The Ministry of Defence
said that the soldiers returned fire after coming under attack from a 'criminal
element' in the crowd armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
No British troops were injured in the incident although a MoD spokeswoman said
that there were a number of Iraqi casualties. It was not immediately known if
any of the Iraqis were killed."
In Nasiriyah, according to US cable television news, demonstrators set an
Italian tank afire. AP
says that "In the southern city of Nasiriyah, Italian troops traded
fire with militiamen demonstrating against the arrest of al-Yacoubi, said Lt.
Col. Pierluigi Monteduro, chief of staff of Italian troops in the region. One
Italian officer was wounded in the leg."
az-Zaman also reports Sadrist demonstrations in Kirkuk (where Muqtada
has Turkmen and Arab followers) and Basra, where 600 protesters assembled near
the British HQ.
So far, about 60% of clashes with Coalition troops had occurred in the Sunni
heartland of Iraq. But the violent clashes in Najaf, Baghdad, Amara and Nasiriyah
may signal the beginning of a second phase, in which the US faces a two-front
war, against both Sunni radicals in the center-north and Shiite militias in
the South. The clashes come at a pivotal moment, since on Friday April 9, the
Shiite festival of Araba'in will take place, coinciding this year with the anniversary
of the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The protests on Saturday and Sunday were sparked by the Coalition arrest on
Saturday of Sadrist cleric Mustafa Yaqubi, the head of the Najaf office of Muqtada
al-Sadr. Initially the Spanish denied the arrest, which provoked large demonstrations
in Baghdad on Saturday led by Muhammad al-Tabatabai, a key aide of Muqtada al-Sadr
there. But AP now says that the Coalition Provisional Authority admits that
it has indeed arrested Yaqubi. Sadrist spokesmen in Baghdad complained that
no reason was given for the arrest, and promised to reply "with every means
necessary," according to ash-Sharq al-Awsat..
It seems to me possible that the Americans swooped into Najaf and arrested
Mustafa Yaqubi, and that the Spanish did not even know about it to begin with.
That would explain their initial denial. If so, in a sense, the US set the Spanish
up for a confrontation with the Sadrists. Why would the US arrest Yaqubi? AP
now says that he was taken into custody in connection with the murder on
April 10, 2003, of Abdul Majid al-Khoei in Najaf, and that they intended to
charge some 28 persons. It is frankly odd that the CPA is pursuing this case
at this time, and one suspects that it is an attempt to weaken Muqtada's organization
before they return sovereignty to the Iraqis and move to elections (Muqtada's
forces could well be a pivotal group in parliament).
The Spanish maintain that they were fired on from the crowd. I was initially
suspicious as to whether this was really true, since the inexperienced Central
American forces under their control could well have fired first. Az-Zaman
quotes sources maintaining that the Spanish fired first, in response to stone-throwing.
But one way or another, it is looking increasingly as though the Sadrists have
launched an uprising.
The problem began in some ways on Sunday March 28, when Paul Bremer decided
to close the main Sadrist newspaper, al-Hawza, purportedly for publishing
material that incited violence against Coalition troops. Many observers in Iraq
said that move was a mistake, since no specific violence could be traced to
the newspaper, and closing it was itself a provocation. As it turns out, it
seems clear that the newspaper closing played into Muqtada al-Sadr's apocalyptic
mindset. He became convinced that it meant the US planned to silence him and
destroy his movement, leaving him no choice but to launch an uprising. The Coalition,
which just closed a newspaper for 2 months, probably thought of it as a relatively
mild response to Sadr's own provocations. But Muqtada saw his father and brothers
cut down by Saddam and he is clearly a paranoid personality deeply traumatized
by Baath terror against Shiites, and he views the Americans as little different
from the Baathists. Saddam also sent warnings to Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, in
January of 1999, which were a prelude to Sadiq's assassination in February of
that year. Then the pursuit of the al-Khoei murder, which many in the CPA lay
at Muqtada's doorstep, even raise the specter that he will be arrested and executed
for it. In Muqtada's own mind, the Coalition 'warnings' were perceived as a
prelude to removing him. The US army appears to have seriously threatened him
with arrest or worse last October, so he has seen this phenomenon before. At
that time he backed down.
Why did the CPA take this risk? The US is aware that since it is turning over
sovereignty to an Iraqi government on June 30, indigenous Iraqi political forces
have begun jockeying for position in the post-occupation phase. Closing Muqtada's
newspaper and arresting a key aide in Najaf are probably actions aimed in part
at attempting to curb the influence of the Sadrists, who otherwise might well
sweep to power in an elected Iraqi parliament next January.
The outbreak of Shiite/Coalition violence is a dramatic challenge to US military
control of Iraq. The US is cycling out its forces in the country, bringing in
a lot of reserve and national guards units, but will go from 130,000 to only
110,000 troops. It is too small a number to really provide security in Iraq,
but the country has not fallen into chaos in part because the main attacks have
come in the Sunni heartland and because the Coalition has depended on Shiite
militias to police many southern cities. If the Shiites actively turn against
the US, the whole military and security situation could become untenable. The
US is already losing its Spanish coalition partner. The Japanese and Korean
contingents are explicitly not there to fight. The Thais may decamp. The coalition
partners probably provide a division altogether, and if they pulled out, the
US would have to find a division to replace them. It only has 10 itself, and
nobody else is going to come in under these circumstances – certainly not the
UN and probably not NATO.
(Mustafa Yaqubi, by the way, should not be confused with Muhammad Yaqubi,
also a Sadrist, but who leads a splinter Sadrist group called the Fudala' or
the Virtuous, which is something of a rival to Muqtada).
Serious readers who want a background on the Sadr Movement should see my article,
United States and Shi`ite Factions in Post-Baath Iraq" in The Middle
East Journal. Volume 57, Number 4, Autumn 2003, pp. 543-566.
Incompetence or Double-Dealing in Coalition Management of
The Coalition decision to provoke a fight with
Muqtada al-Sadr's movement only three months before the Coalition Provisional
Authority goes out of business has to be seen as a form of gross incompetence
in governance. How did the CPA get to the point where it has turned even Iraqi
Shiites, who were initially grateful for the removal of Saddam Hussein, against
the United States? Where it risks fighting dual Sunni Arab and Shiite insurgencies
simultaneously, at a time when US troops are rotating on a massive scale and
hoping to downsize their forces in country? At a time when the Spanish, Thai
and other contingents are already committed to leaving, and the UN is reluctant
to get involved?
One answer is that the Pentagon prevented the State Department from running
the CPA. State is the body with experience in international affairs and administration.
The civilians in the Department of Defense only know how to blow things up.
Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith staffed the CPA with Neoconservatives, most of
whom had no administrative experience, no Arabic, and no respect for Muslim
culture (or knowledge about it). They actively excluded State Department Iraq
hands like Tom Warrick. (Only recently have a few experienced State Department
Arabists been allowed in to try to begin mopping up the mess.) The Neocons in
the CPA have all sorts of ulterior motives and social experiments they want
to impose on the Iraqi people, including Polish-style economic shock therapy,
some sort of sweetheart deal for Israel, and maybe even breaking the country
up into three parts.
Washington Monthly's Who's Who of Neocons in Iraq helps explain the extreme
incompetence and possibly double-dealing of many in the CPA.
Sept. 11 Commission member Philip Zelikow, who is close to the Bush administration,
admitted on Sept. 10, 2002, that the ulterior motive of the Bush administration
for the Iraq War was to "protect Israel," according to the
I have long been a trenchant critic of the Sadrists. But they haven't been
up to anything extraordinary as far as I can see in recent weeks. Someone in
the CPA sat down and thought up ways to stir them up by closing their newspaper
and issuing 28 arrest warrants and taking in people like Yaqubi. This is either
gross incompetence or was done with dark ulterior motives that can scarcely
be guessed at.