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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 / April 7, 2004


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.

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"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.

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.