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In Iraq, a 'perfect storm'

A series of events has triggered the bloodiest crisis to date for US forces in postwar Iraq.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 2004


The US closure of an irregularly published newspaper with just 5,000 readers seemed a tiny moment in the struggle for stability in Iraq. But the March 28 move to close Al Hawza, controlled by militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, now looks like the edge of a violent storm.

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How its twin fronts - of Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents - built and combined to create what might be described as the perfect Iraqi sandstorm is only now coming into focus. At the time, no one would have forecast that the deaths of four US security contractors alone would result in a major military campaign in Fallujah. Similarly, the US coalition hardly anticipated that the closure of just one of 100-plus newspapers in Baghdad would form the genesis of a Shiite revolt in half a dozen cities around Iraq.

But the unexpected series of incidents - combined with the 100-day countdown to the US hand-over of political power to Iraqis - has built bridges between the US-led coalition's enemies inside Iraq and drawn more people to the insurgency. And it has created the bloodiest crisis of postwar Iraq, with 460 Iraqis and 35 Americans killed in fighting in eight Iraqi cities since Sunday.

Al Hawza was closed March 28 for what US administrators deemed its tendency to incite violence. Coalition officials hoped the move would send a warning to Sadr, whose armed followers had spread through Iraq's center and south.

It proved a miscalculation. The closure provided a pretext for Sadr to call out thousands of supporters for daily protests in Baghdad and helped him win sympathy from many previously skeptical Iraqis who felt he was being unfairly muzzled. After a close aide of Sadr's, Mustafa Yacoubi, was arrested April 2 for allegedly participating in the murder of a rival cleric, those protests started to turn ugly. Unrest grew in southern cities as well.

Meanwhile in Fallujah, once a bastion of support for Saddam Hussein and always an insurgent hotbed, the shocking pictures of the March 31 killing and mutilation of the four contractors led the White House to vow swift retaliation.

The murders of the contractors were less significant inside Iraq than the response they drew from the Marines. As the Fallujah siege began, producing scores of Iraqi casualties, Sadr's supporters saw an opportunity to take more power for themselves as general Iraqi sympathy for the insurgents rose. Fighting spread to a number of southern cities.

At this juncture, the challenges posed by Sadr's Shiite followers and Fallujah's Sunni insurgents - who prospered at the expense of Iraq's Shiites under Hussein - couldn't have seemed more different.

But with casualties heavy for both Sunnis and Shiites, many undoubtedly civilian, the violence forged an unlikely alliance. Both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militants expressed their mutual admiration. In Sadr City, where Sadr's Mahdi army holds sway, Shiite mosques have led blood drives for the citizens of Fallujah; in central Baghdad's Adhamiya neighborhood, Shiite militias and Sunnis joined up in at least one attack.

"This character Sadr, I have a lot of sympathy for him now and respect his bravery,'' says a young man from Fallujah, now living in Baghdad, who has participated in attacks on US forces. "This isn't about Shiite or Sunni, or who will lead Iraq. Now it's a war of liberation to kick the occupiers out of Iraqi lands."

Analysts put the biggest blame for the problems in Iraq today at the feet of warplanners who did not anticipate such problems in occupied Iraq, failing to build the stormdrains that would have made it easier to control an uprising when it came.

To focus only on the events of the past week "is like looking at the front window and not the whole shop," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq scholar at Warwick University in England. Dr. Dodge says the occupation should have included three times as many troops to keep order, and that there should have been a more cautious assessment of the cultural and political environment than the prevailing view before the war that most Iraqis, happy to be rid of Hussein, would remain cooperative.