Behind Iraq's Moqtada Intifada

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Murad Sezer/AP

A demonstrator holds a poster of Moqtada al-Sadr during a protest in Baghdad

As if Fallujah wasn't bad enough, the U.S. military in Iraq suddenly finds itself fighting on a second, far more dangerous front. Even as hundreds of Marines prepared to enter the restive Sunni triangle town where four U.S. security men were killed last week, a Shiite uprising over the weekend saw Coalition troops under fire in Baghdad, Najaf, Kufa, Nasiriyah, Amara and Basra. Eight Americans and one allied soldier were killed in the fighting and 36 were wounded; the death toll among Iraqis was almost 50, with hundreds wounded. Fighting raged on Monday in Baghdad as U.S. troops clashed with militiamen loyal to the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The new uprising would not be tolerated and would be suppressed, warned U.S. viceroy J. Paul Bremer on Monday. Hours later, the Coalition announced an arrest warrant had been issued for Sadr. But the cleric had already told his supporters that the time for peaceful protest had passed, urging them to "terrorize" the Americans and their allies.

This Shiite uprising is a disturbing development for the U.S. as it looks to turn over political control of Iraq on June 30. Until now, violence against U.S. troops and their allies had come almost exclusively from the country's Sunni Arab minority. But if the weekend's violence portends the onset of sustained resistance from the Shiite majority as well, U.S. authority Iraq may be in peril.

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The Shiite challenge is different from the Sunni insurgency. Instead of guerrillas attacking from the shadows and melting back into the civilian population, Moqtada al-Sadr has built a grassroots infrastructure for insurrection, with support structures in local mosques dotted around the country recruiting young men for his "Army of the Mahdi" militia. Following the arrest of one of his top aides on suspicion of involvement in the murder of a pro-U.S. cleric almost a year ago (the same incident for which Moqtada is now wanted) and the closure of his newspaper last week, the 30-year-old cleric appears to have ordered his supporters to rise up and seize control of their neighborhoods. Much of the weekend's violence came in clashes between Coalition troops and Sadr supporters who have occupied police stations and local council offices. Rather than hit-and-run attacks, the Sadrists have taken to the streets, combining mass protest with gunplay in scenes reminiscent of the opening weeks of the Palestinian intifada in the Fall of 2000. That association is far from coincidental — Moqtada has sought to stir up Shiite passions by likening the plight of Iraqis under occupation to that of the Palestinians, and he recently vowed to cooperate with Hamas and Hezbollah in avenging the death of the assassinated Gaza Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

A wild card

Sadr has long been the wild card factor facing the U.S. mission in Iraq. Neither the U.S. nor its Iraqi exile allies had reckoned with the strength of the underground organization the young radical cleric had built in Iraq under Saddam Hussein — a necessity since Moqtada was the inheritor of a distinguished line of militant Shiite clerics who had been assassinated for challenging the Baathist regime. When Baghdad fell on April 9, Sadr was first out of the blocks in the race to build a power base in the Shiite community. Within weeks, Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood had been renamed Sadr City, and clerics loyal to Moqtada had organized security, suppressing looting and restoring basic services.

Unlike Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites, Moqtada has only minor clerical status. But he has political muscle and influence derived from the heroic reputation of his forebears. Also unlike Sistani, Moqtada is a fervent advocate of the Khomeinist doctrine of "velayat al-faqi," or political rule by the clergy. His objective: to make himself the primary player in Iraqi politics.

Forcing the U.S. hand

Because the Shiites widely oppose the current hand-over plan, the U.S.-led Coalition forces have felt increasing pressure to bring them into the fold before June 30. That means neutralizing Moqtada, who, it is widely believed, would likely try to make a serious challenge to the Iraqi government in the weeks following the hand-over. His militant denunciation of the occupation authorities has touched a chord with many impoverished young Shiites — analysts of Shiite politics in Iraq believe Moqtada may have the support of around one-third of the community (which, as a whole comprises almost two-thirds of Iraq's population). The clerics around Sistani, and the Shiite parties on the Governing Council, see Moqtada as a dangerous hothead. But they're unlikely to align themselves with the Coalition forces against him. That's a game played by Sadr, too, who styles his movement not in opposition to Sistani, but instead as a kind of militant vanguard pursuing the same objectives — majority rule and early elections (in which, given Moqtada's extensive party organization, he could legitimately expect to fare rather well). Following the weekend's violence, Sistani called for calm and urged Shiites to refrain from retaliating. But he also said their demands were legitimate and condemned the actions of the Coalition troops.

The price of help?

Sistani's unmatched influence makes him the Coalition's best bet for tamping down the Moqtada intifada. But Sistani has his own quarrels with the U.S. The ayatollah has launched a national campaign against the minority veto provisions in the U.S.-brokered interim constitution, and he continues to push for early elections. The political price for his support against Moqtada would likely be a substantial rewriting of the transition plan, which could open new conflicts with the Sunni and Kurdish communities. Even then, the outpouring of Shiite popular anger evident in last weekend's violence may be difficult for Sistani to restrain.

Although going after Moqtada Sadr could inflame hostility and instability, the occupation authorities may no longer have any choice. The Sadrists' calls for violence has crossed a red line that the Coalition cannot afford to tolerate if it hopes to maintain the ability to dictate the rules of the political game in Iraq. For both sides this now may be a fight to the finish, with the U.S. seeking to disarm Moqtada's militias while they seek to force a U.S. withdrawal.

Either way, violence and tension looks set to escalate in the weeks and months ahead, raising doubts over the viability of the June 30 hand-over date. The ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Richard Lugar and Democrat Joe Biden called on Sunday for a new debate over whether the U.S. can afford to hand over authority on June 30 and risk, as they put it, Iraq descending into civil war. That may not be a debate the Bush administration had hoped to be having a mere four months before the U.S. presidential election.