Standoff bolstered Sadr's support

Interviews with Iraqi Shiite clerics reveal that moderates are increasingly supporting Sadr's anti-US campaign.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Six months ago, Sheikh Jawad al-Khalasi was what most would consider an Iraqi Shiite moderate. Critical of the militant ideas of fellow Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Mr. Khalasi preached a more cooperative approach toward the Americans and the interim Iraqi government.

Then, last Thursday, when Iraqi snipers opened fire on him and thousands of demonstrators converging on Najaf, hoping to end the siege there and protect the shrine, Khalasi changed his mind. Now he's a radical, a troubling sign that Mr. Sadr has grown stronger from a three-week-long standoff that the Iraqi government once hoped might reduce Sadr to irrelevance.

Sadr and his forces agreed on Friday to put down their weapons and withdraw from the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites. But interviews in Baghdad suggest that Sadr is walking away from the standoff with a widening base and supporters who are more militant than before.

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"This is the beginning of the end for the Americans," says Khalasi, speaking from his home in Baghdad's upper-class Shiite district of Kadhimiya. "What will happen now is that all the political parties will unite to kick the Americans out of Iraq. You have seen even the Sunni people starting to support Moqtada. All this will encourage people to be united."

The Najaf standoff was meant to be a turning point for the legitimacy of the new interim Iraqi government, showing its strength and will to defeat rebellious militias, not just in Najaf but around the country. But that turning point now looks like a wrong turn. While Khalasi's influence may be rather small - dwarfed by more powerful Shiite leaders like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who brokered the Najaf truce - he appears to be a part of a growing disenchantment among Shiite clerics, and a weakening of Baghdad's ability to reach out to Iraq's largest religious group.

All sides are claiming victory in Najaf - the Americans say they expelled Sadr's forces, the Sadrists say they forced the Americans to withdraw from Najaf - but the momentum may be with Sadr. Interviews with Iraqis since the siege in Najaf ended indicate some of the moderates becoming radical, the radicals becoming suicidally committed, and the average Iraqi Shiite - while discontented with Sadr's methods - showing no sign of uniting in a backlash against him.

"A small organized minority is more effective than an unorganized majority," says Ghassan Atiyyah, head of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy in Baghdad. "The question for the government is this: What have they offered the silent majority to get them involved in politics? They had the National Conference, and they squandered it. Instead of showing what the future of Iraqi democracy could look like, they played the same game of ruling party politics."

"The spread of the Sadr movement has been an ongoing phenomenon, but has picked up strength from the Najaf episode," says Juan Cole, a history professor and expert on Shiite Islam at the University of Michigan. "And, Moqtada's central message, of 'American troops out now!' has almost certainly moved from the fringes in May of 2003 to the political center among Iraqis in August 2004."

The question among Shiite leaders, says Mr. Cole, is: "When to make the big push to get the Americans out?"

"Moqtada thinks it should be now, and ongoing. The four grand ayatollahs in Najaf met on Saturday and issued their opinion that now is not the time for violent anti-American action. They want the Americans out, as well, but after the January elections," he says.

Ayatollah Sistani believes that the Shiites made a mistake in rebelling against the British in 1920, causing the colonial power to rely on the minority Sunnis, marginalizing Shiites for the rest of the century, says Cole. "Sistani is convinced that if the Shiites will just be patient, they can come to power via the ballot box. And then it will be relatively easy to just insist the Americans leave, without the need for violence."

"The next few weeks are crucial," adds Mr. Atiyyah. "Now it's time for more wisdom and less muscle."

But as of Saturday that muscle appeared to be prevailing. In Sadr City, a congested Baghdad neighborhood of 2.5 million Shiites, battles between the US and the Mahdi Army raged all Saturday afternoon and again after midnight Sunday morning. In 12 hours, 6 people were killed and 86 were wounded, according to Health Ministry figures.

Sunday afternoon the streets took on a tentative air of normalcy. Fruit vendors sold watermelons and peaches, dress shops enticed the fashion minded, and donkey carts carried in blocks of ice that grew ever smaller in the 110-degree heat.

Armed Mahdi Army fighters, once seen directing traffic or manning checkpoints, have returned to their homes. But they are far from disarmed. They are just obeying orders, the fighters say, avoiding any provocation and honoring the terms of Friday's cease-fire.

"We have been told not to attack the Americans, even if they attempt to enter the city," says Sheikh Ammar al-Saadi, a Mahdi Army local commander and Shiite cleric. "Only if the Americans bust into our houses and try to capture us are we allowed to fight."

But not all Mahdi Army commanders are happy with this truce, and some say they will fight the Americans, even without permission of Sadr.

"Now we don't listen to Moqtada al-Sadr for our orders," says Sheikh Sattar al-Kaabi, a top lieutenant of Sadr. "Even if Sayid Moqtada came to ask us personally to give up our weapons, we would refuse." Chastised by another militia member in the room, Mr. Kaabi changes his tone. "We are not rebellious against Moqtada, but we are keeping his promises so that the last Americans will leave this country," he says.

But as Mahdi Army fighters say they have become even more energized by the siege of Najaf - and they claim to have signed up 3,000 suicide bombers for training - the citizens around them appear to be growing tired of war.

Yet this growing dissatisfaction with the Mahdi Army is nowhere near an active backlash. Those Iraqi Shiites who are most likely to reject Sadr also reject involvement in Iraqi politics. They follow the lead of Ayatollah Sistani, who says that religious and political matters must be kept separate. Experts say that this position can only cement Sadr's position on the political scene.

At Sadr Central Hospital in Sadr City, Dr. Kamel is making the rounds on a very busy day. In the female ward alone, there are five families with more than a dozen wounded children. Most are injured by mortars and other bombs, says Dr. Kamel, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. He blames most of those injuries on the Mahdi Army.

"Ninety-nine percent of the injuries are caused by Mahdi Army fighters," he says, speaking in English to avoid being overheard by Mahdi Army officials, who now administer the hospital. "Every morning and night I see families coming in - father, mother, children, all injured by mortars. These are not simple injuries, but two or three injuries per person. It's terrible."

Across town at the Kadhimiya Shrine - burial place of a revered Shiite leader, the Caliph Kadhim - Munthir al-Abbassly says that most Shiites admire the Mahdi Army for their bravery. But he says, most Shiites also worry that the Mahdi Army has taken things too far.

"All Shiites - no, all Iraqis - have the same reaction to the Mahdi Army," says Mr. Abbassly, business manager of the Kadhimiya Shrine. "These people are very brave, but they are too young and too passionate, and sometimes they do things without thinking rationally."

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