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Iraqi Shiite Uprising Threatens to Open a New Front in Conflict - 2004-04-08

The Shiite uprising in Iraq has threatened to open a new and a dangerous front in the conflict in Iraq. For the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein a year ago, the coalition forces face some of the worst violence from a community that had so far tolerated the U.S. presence in Iraq. VOA’s Prerna Kumar profiles the man behind the latest Shia uprising and the impact it could have on the June 30th deadline for the transfer of power from the United States to the Iraqis.

Violent protests against the coalition forces turned into a Shia uprising that spread to several Iraqi cities. The protestors support a man named Moqtada Al- Sadr, a 30-year-old Shiite radical Islamic cleric known for his anti-American rhetoric. He is backed by an armed and feared militia group known as the Al-Mahdi Army.

Moqtada al-Sadr comes from an illustrious Shiite family. His father, a revered Shiite religious leader, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, was assassinated in 1999 along with his two elder sons. Shiites blame the slayings on former President Saddam Hussein’s security forces. After the Hussein regime was toppled in April, the sprawling Shiite slum in Baghdad known as Saddam City was re-named Sadr City.

Moqtada Al-Sadr draws much of his popularity from his father’s legacy. He himself has a relatively small support base in Iraq, but his fiery speeches against the American occupiers strike a chord among young unemployed Iraqis.

Amatzia Baram, of the United States Institute of Peace in Washington says Iraqi youths see Mr. Al-Sadr as a leader who will fight for their rights in the new Iraq. “In Iraq you have young men who don’t think they will part of the new Iraq,” he says. “Iraq will be a private enterprise capitalistic, personal education will be important. They feel under Saddam they couldn’t have it because they were Shia, and under the new system they won’t have much because they don’t know how to fit into a new system.”

Many of Iraq’s majority Shia Muslims, repressed under Saddam Hussein, welcomed last year’s U.S.-led invasion. And attacks on coalition forces were largely confined to the minority Sunni community before Sunday’s violence. But more recently Mr. al-Sadr has emerged as the most vocal Shia opponent of the occupying forces. Since last May he has called for the U.S. and its allied forces to leave Iraq.

Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, says U.S. forces are coping with the horror in Fallujah, a Sunni dominated city where four American security contractors were killed and brutalized by an Iraqi mob. But coalition troops will find it difficult to respond simultaneously to both Shia and Sunnis revolts in the country. “If some Shiite elements were to join the Sunni-dominated resistance or insurgency,” he says, “I think Iraq would really become or turn into a deathtrap for America and its allies.”

The latest violence began after the coalition closed down Mr. Al-Sadr’s main newspaper – Al Hawaza for preaching violence against the U.S. led forces. Tensions flared further when coalition forces arrested one of Mr. Al-Sadr’s aides, Mustafa Yacoubi, in connection with the murder of a moderate cleric last year.

The U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer accused Mr. al-Sadr of trying to establish his own rule of law and his office issued a warrant against the firebrand cleric. But some analysts say Americans will have to walk a fine line in dealing with Mr. al-Sadr. Tony Cordesman, a military analyst in Washington thinks Mr. Sadr’s arrest could lead to a Shia backlash. “If he is arrested,” he says, “he will become a kind of a martyr. If he’s killed, he’ll be even more of a martyr, and regardless of what happens to him, there will be other leaders to take his place.”

Mr. Baram of the U.S. Peace Institute says U.S. forces must be cautious to act against al-Sadr due to religious reasons as well. Shia Muslims are preparing to celebrate the martyrdom of their prophet Imam Hussein, the most holy event for Shia Muslims across the world. Mr. Baram says any U.S. action during this period may backfire.

“We are now approaching a very sensitive time,” Mr. Baram says. “This is the 40th day to the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. So the timing is very, very difficult, especially now since he’s hiding in the Mosque in Ali’s tomb, in Najaf, the most holy place for Shias in the world. The main idea should be not to come into a major clash with him during the 40th day.”

Since the ouster of Saddam and his Baathist government one year ago, Moqtada Al-Sadr has set himself apart from older Shiite leaders like the country’s leading Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with virulent rhetoric aimed at the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Mr. Baram says the older Shiite clerics regard Mr. Al Sadr as a dangerous hothead, while Mr. Al- Sadr and his supporters accuse the elders of excessive caution.

“The senior clergy are very careful and hesitant,” he says. “The problem from their point is that he (al-Sadr) is putting a lot of pressure on them to change their policies. He’s forcing them to adopt more radical slogans. He has his own court system, his own executive system, police. He is creating a state within a state now in Iraq, completely different and against the Grand Ayatollah.”

The turmoil in Iraq has raised questions over Washington’s plans to hand over power to the Iraqis by the end of June. Richard Lugar, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee wonders if Iraqis will be ready for the task. “How do you know, come June 30th, that a civil war will not occur?” the senator asks. “After all, we -- that is, the coalition -- have not disarmed all of these militia that these religious groups have in various places. They still are armed and apparently ready to fight. As we are finding, they are fighting even the Americans or the Spaniards or the El Salvadorians, or whoever happens to be in harm's way.”

But President Bush says the coalition will stick to the June 30th deadline. “The intention is to make sure the deadline remains the same,” he says. “I believe we can transfer authority by June 30th. We're working toward that day. We're, obviously, constantly in touch with Jerry Bremer on the transfer of sovereignty. The United Nations representative is there now to work on whom we transfer sovereignty to. We're now in the process of deciding what the entity will look like to whom we will transfer sovereignty.”

A U.N. team lead by the organization’s top envoy on Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, is back in Baghdad to foster an agreement between the Grand Ayatollah and the Iraqi Governing Council on the format of the new interim government that will rule Iraq until the elections scheduled for January next year. Some analysts say this will be crucial in bringing peace to Iraq once the United States transfers power. But analysts also say U.S. forces must put an end to all violence to ensure that Iraq does not descend into disarray and anarchy. They fear the recent outbreak in the Shiite community sets a dangerous precedent and if not intelligently addressed, could rapidly spread and draw the United States into a vicious and endless cycle of violence.