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.
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.
Like many, Dodge points to the disbanding of Hussein's 400,000-member army, who largely surrendered, as unwise. "US forces never really controlled the country; they never had enough intelligence assets and the troops on the ground that were needed to impose order,'' he says. "A month after the invasion, the insurgency started to test the Americans, found the hegemon didn't have complete control, and then the insurgency took off."
The fighting has drawn the US into the position that all occupiers want to avoid: combat against a foe scattered among the civilian population. Counterinsurgency in that environment inevitably creates civilian casualties, and even more hostility.
To be sure, the US had few good options, since failing to meet force with force can encourage more attackers.
Now in the spiraling conflict, soldiers are being forced to engage in urban combat not just in Fallujah, but in the nearby Sunni town of Ramadi, in central Baghdad, and near the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The consequence is looking like aggressors, stirring support for the insurgents.
"What you've got is a conflict between strategy and tactics,'' says Dodge. "The marines go into Fallujah fighting house to house, and since they don't have enough troops and are casualty averse, they're using helicopter gunships. "
Such urban battle, says Gailan Ramiz, a Princeton-educated political scientist at Baghdad University, "can't occur without starting to lose the support of the people."
Dr. Ramiz says the past week has brought into sharp focus political failures, particularly not giving enough authority to Iraqis to build credibility for the Governing Council and reduce the sense inside Iraq that the country is indeed occupied.
"This notion that technocrats with technocratic solutions is what Iraq needs is entirely naive,'' says Ramiz. "It completely ignores the political and cultural spheres. What was needed was real Iraqi leaders."
As the violence continues, there are also signs of trouble among the 25 Iraqis on the Governing Council. Council Member Muhsen Abdel Hamid, in an interview with the Al Jazeera channel, said he was "with the Sadr people, and the people of Fallujah,'' and threatened to resign.
Mr. Hamid leads the Islamic Party, the Iraqi affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that arches across the Middle East and wants to see Islamic law take precedence over secular institutions.
For now, Marines continue to fight pitched battles in Fallujah, and have taken control of about 25 percent of the town, according to a spokesman. The death toll of Iraqis there has risen above 150, and Iraqi aid convoys have been pouring towards the city. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez vowed US forces would "imminently" retake the southern city of Al Kut, where Mahdi army members chased out a Ukrainian force on Wednesday.
March 28 US-led coalition authorities close Moqtada al-Sadr's newspaper, Al Hawza.
March 31 A guerrilla ambush on two vehicles in Fallujah kills four American military contractors. Images of their mutilated bodies are shown worldwide.
April 3 The arrest of Mustafa al-Yacoubi, a close aide of Sadr and a lieutenant in Najaf, provokes demonstrations and attacks in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
April 4 Dozens of militants belonging to Sadr's Mahdi army move into the governor's office in Basra at dawn the next day. Eight American soldiers are killed in gunfights around Baghdad.
April 7 US bomb hits mosque courtyard wall killing 40 Iraqis, say Iraqi witnesses.
April 8 Shiite Muslim militias hold partial control over three southern Iraqi cities, Kut, Najaf, and Fallujah. Iraqi gunmen kidnap foreign civilians including South Koreans and Japanese.
Sources: AFP, AP. As of Noon, April 8, 2004