No wide Shiite rally to Sadr's forces

Shiites want Iraqi political control by June 30 but say the violence the Mahdi Army has incited since Sunday is dangerous.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Just a year ago, Ayad Abdullah Hussein shared in the jubilation when the much-feared Saddam Hussein was toppled. But today, he is afraid again - this time, of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, who have been in open battle with coalition forces since the weekend.

"I'm glad the Americans liberated us from the regime, though I expect them to keep their promise and leave Iraq soon,'' says the grandfather, who has lived in Baghdad's Khadimiya neighborhood for most of his 63 years. Then he nods at the mosque up the street. "But those guys over there - I live in fear of them. If I were you, I'd get out of the neighborhood fast."

The mosque is controlled by Sadr and his Mahdi Army, whose clashes with coalition forces in five cities have left about 100 Iraqis and 18 US and allied soldiers dead since Sunday. Tuesday, Mahdi members roamed the streets near the shrine of Imam Mouza Kazem, the centerpiece of the Khadimya, challenging people they didn't recognize.

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As the days go by, a full-fledged Shiite uprising in Sadr's support is looking less likely. Most Shiites, about 60 percent of Iraq's population, insist that they should become the arbiters of political power. But they see fighting for it now - with the US still battling Sunni insurgents - as premature.

That leaves the problem squarely on the shoulders of the US at a time when it was hoping to hand over more responsibility for security to Iraqi soldiers and police.

Instead, US soldiers are fighting on multiple fronts across Iraq - possibly luring the US into a deeper involvement.

Iraq's major Shiite political parties, like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, are reluctant to stand up to Sadr's militants, afraid they could lose standing for siding too closely with the US.

They're hoping that the US will deal with Sadr's people for them, leaving them free to criticize the operation if public anger grows at the civilian, predominantly Shiite casualties in Baghdad's Sadr City, the holy city of Najaf, and the southern town of Nasariyah.

The moderate Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who stayed alive by avoiding controversy while many ayatollahs were killed by the Hussein regime, also has avoided any major statements.

SCIRI officials said in interviews with local radio on Tuesday that the US should negotiate with Sadr, rather than press the confrontation.

For the US, that points to something less than full-fledged revolt. But it is still worrying for coalition forces that some American officials say are already overstretched. Top US military officials told reporters in Washington Monday that they're studying options for adding to the roughly 100,000 troops already deployed in Iraq. The officials said they were simply planning for the worst case - that unrest will spread.

Indeed, US commanders are hoping that their tougher footing will quickly end the fighting and return their focus to reconstruction. "Individuals who create violence, who incite violence, who execute violence against persons inside of Iraq will be hunted down and captured or killed,'' Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said.

"We have forces that are absolutely capable, 100 percent of the time, to be in a mode of fixing schools, fixing sewers, fixing health clinics. That's what our marines would like to be doing and soon in Fallujah they will be doing that,'' he said.

But coalition forces are now engaged in some of the hottest fighting for months, on two widely different fronts. Marines and Iraqi forces have surrounded the Sunni Triangle town of Fallujah, and clashes near that town have killed five marines in the past day. Three US troops have died in attacks near Khadimiya since Monday, and eight US soldiers were killed in a firefight with the Mahdi Army in Sadr City Sunday.

The number of Iraqi casualties is less clear. Fifteen Iraqis were reported dead in fighting with Italian troops in the Shiite city of Nasariyah Tuesday, and at least 50 Iraqis were killed in Baghdad and Najaf over the weekend. An unknown number have been killed in Fallujah.

Marines have cordoned off Fallujah, where the murder and mutilation of four US security contractors shocked the world last week, and information coming out is scant and unreliable. The marines have made the policy decision not to provide details on the location and nature of attacks. Residents reported the boom of shells and the crack of rifles through much of Sunday night. The Associated Press also reported the Sunni Triangle fighting appears to have spread to Ramadi, near Fallujah, where at least one Iraqi was killed Tuesday.

While Sadr's support can't be described as deep, he has thousands of armed and committed followers scattered in over a dozen southern cities. He also has an untold number of sympathizers in poor urban areas like Sadr City, a tough area of 2 million people where residents complained about the US weekend offensive, many alleging that US soldiers shot at protesters who threw stones.

The US is now pressing for Sadr's arrest on charges he was involved in the murder of a rival cleric last April.

Tuesday, his office issued a statement calculated to raise tensions. Sadr said he'd fled a mosque he controls near Najaf, in the town of Kufa, because he feared "the glorious and esteemed mosque would be violated by scum and evil people."

"I would like to direct my words to the father of evil, Bush," al-Sadr said. "Who is against democracy? The one who calls for peaceful resistance or the one who bombs people (and) leads them away from the leaders under feeble and dirty pretexts?"

Sadr's whereabouts are unclear. He could be holed up in Kufa, or hiding elsewhere. And success against Sadr and insurgents in the Sunni Triangle is about more than conditions in Iraq.

A new Pew Research Center poll found the number of Americans satisfied with Bush's handling of postwar Iraq had fallen to 40 percent from 59 percent in January.

The big danger for the coalition is that Sadr will cast himself as a martyr for a Muslim sect steeped in a history of sacrifice. Mouza Kazem, whose 1,000-year-old shrine dominates Khadimiya, was one of 11 Shiite Imams descended from the Imams Ali and Hussein, who died fighting Sunnis near Karbala in the 7th century. Kazem was killed in 818, also in conflict with the then-dominant Sunni Caliphate.

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