No matter who started it, a miniwar erupted last week in several Iraqi cities between US-led coalition forces and Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and many of his followers. The young firebrand cleric has since barricaded himself in the holiest Shiite city, Najaf, where he may be hoping for a US attack that could spark an uprising among Iraq's majority Muslim Shiites.
The US military will need to be careful about how it confronts or catches Mr. Sadr (he's wanted for the murder of a rival moderate cleric last year). His real danger lies less in possibly spreading violence than in the potential appeal of his brand of Islam, which is modeled after the father of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Sadr is the protégé of Ayatollah Kadhem Husseini Haeri, an ultraconservative Iraqi based in Iran who may well be one of Tehran's tools in influencing events in Iraq.
While most Iraqi Shiites reject an Islamic state like that in Iran, the United States risks agitating hundreds of thousands of slum-dwelling Iraqis who now benefit from Sadr's charity organization. Capturing him by force could possibly make him more popular than Iraq's more powerful moderate clerics who prefer democracy over a theocracy for Iraq.
Not to be too apocalyptic about it, but any US action against Sadr in coming days could decide what type of Islam prevails in Iraq.
Sadr represents an interpretation of Islam that sees humans as so evil they must be strictly controlled by powerful mullahs, such as in Iran, and forced into creating a perfect Islamic nation. In contrast, most Iraqi Shiite leaders see humans as inherently good and capable of running society on their own.
In a way, the current US-Sadr standoff is a microcosm of the ongoing war with Osama bin Laden and his version of Islam. And, in the same way, Sadr is hoping to rally Muslims behind him by goading Americans into overkill, just as Al Qaeda hopes to unite the Islamic world by provoking the West.
This theological powerplay in Iraq is escalating now as Sadr and other Islamic clerics battle for dominance before the US returns sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 30. Although the US-led coalition forces will still keep order after that (perhaps for years), the political handover will set Iraq on a course to have a secular, elected government that may or may not reflect Shiite aspirations.
Democracy can be seen as a threat by those who regard humanity as corrupted and in need of correction by a self-selected few. Iraqi Shiites themselves, as much as the US military, must not accept Sadr's sad last stand against democracy.