WASHINGTON - With US Marines
effectively locking down the defiant city of Fallujah in
the rebellious Sunni triangle, other US
military forces in Iraq opened a new front on Monday
to quash an apparent uprising by a Shi'ite militia in
Baghdad and the south, in what some experts warn could
be a major turning point in the year-old occupation.
US officials appear to believe that the two
shows of force - coming in the wake of some of the worst
US losses since the official end of major hostilities in
Iraq 11 months ago - will remind both rebellious Sunnis
and increasingly impatient Shi'ites that Washington
remains very much in charge of the ongoing "transition"
that is supposed to end in a US transfer to power to
Iraqis by June 30.
But some experts believe that
both actions could well trigger even greater resistance
in the Sunni heartland of north-central Iraq, and, more
dangerously, among the Shi'ite community, which, with
roughly 60 percent of the country's total population,
could create overwhelming problems for an increasingly
beleaguered occupying force.
analysts, such as Anthony Cordesman of the conservative
Center for Strategic and International Studies in
Washington, have long warned that active opposition by
the Shi'ite population would doom the occupation and
make Iraq ungovernable. Monday's actions followed
the killing and mutilation of four private US security
contractors in Fallujah and the deaths of five US troops
in a roadside bomb explosion about 15 kilometers from
the predominantly Sunni city last Thursday.
also followed the killings of eight US troops in gun
battles with members of the Mahdi Army headed by the
radical, outspoken anti-occupation Shi'ite cleric,
Muqtada al-Sadr, in the Sadr city section of Baghdad on
His militia and supporters, who had
carried out increasingly confrontational demonstrations
after Muqtada's al-Hawza newspaper was closed down last
Sunday for 60 days, also mounted uprisings in Najaf,
Kufa and Amara in southern Iraq, where they quickly took
over police stations and clashed with Iraq and
occupation troops. At least one soldier from El Salvador
and at least two dozen Iraqis were reported killed.
To reassert their power, US forces flew Apache
gunships over Sadr City on Monday, but journalists
reported that the Mahdi army appeared to remain in
control of the streets. Muqtada reportedly retreated to
a mosque in Kufa that has been surrounded by coalition
troops after an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for
him in connection with the killing of Ayatollah Abdel
Majid al-Khoei in Najaf shortly after the US-led
invasion of Iraq and the fall of the regime of former
president Saddam Hussein.
While US officials
downplayed any sense of crisis over the situation in
Fallujah or the unprecedented crackdown against the
Mahdi, US President George W Bush insists that
Washington will "stay the course" on Iraq, including
handing over sovereignty to an interim government on
June 30, but others - both for and against US designs in
Iraq - depicted a much more dire scenario.
are on the edge of a generalized civil war in Iraq,"
said Larry Diamond, a senior adviser to the Coalition
Provisional Authority (CPA), who told Inter Press
Service that occupation authorities must follow through
on any crackdown against Muqtada's forces by disarming
and dismantling all of Iraq's militias if the transition
process and future elections are to have any hope of
Diamond, a democracy specialist at the
Hoover Institution in California, also called on the
administration to sharply increase the number of US
troops in Iraq in order to disarm and dismantle the
militias, and accused Iran of financing and arming
Muqtada and other Shi'ite militias, which he says are
building up arms in advance of elections or possible
"Iran is embarked on a concerned,
clever and lavishly resourced campaign to defeat any
effort to create a genuine pluralist democracy in Iraq,
and we've been sitting back," he said in what has become
a growing refrain among neo-conservatives and
administration officials who blame Tehran for the
coalition's growing problems among the Shi'ites.
"I think we should tell the Iranian regime that
if they don't cease and desist, we will play the same
game - we will destabilize them."
Toensing, editor of the Middle East Research and
Information Project, who visited Iraq last month, agreed
that the situation, particularly regarding the Shi'ites,
has reached a potentially decisive moment, but warned
that shows of military force of the kind the coalition
appears to have embarked on are likely to be
"This is what [Muqtada] Sadr
wants," said Toensing. "His father [Grand Ayatollah
Muhammad al-Sadr] was a martyr to Saddam [Hussein,
in1999]; he wants to be a martyr of the US occupation,
so, in a sense, the US is playing right into his hands"
by issuing the arrest warrant.
Hunkered down in
Baghdad's Green Zone and in US bases across the country,
the occupation's military and political leadership,
according to Toensing, fails to appreciate how
distrustful most Iraqis are of US intentions.
Rather than persuade Iraqis that the crackdown
on Muqtada is designed to protect the transition
process, according to Toensing, "it will be largely
understood as a provocation in order to create violent
conflict that will, in turn, justify the continuing US
presence". The move also risks radicalizing Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's leading Shi'ite cleric,
who has generally cooperated with the CPA, although his
recent ruling, or fatwa, that declared the
interim constitution approved by the CPA-selected Iraqi
Governing Council illegitimate, has clearly clouded the
While Sistani is considered
a political moderate who is reported to personally
detest Muqtada, he has also publicly supported some of
his positions. Indeed, while a close aide of Sistani's
reportedly urged in the ayatollah's name that Shi'ite
demonstrators "remain calm" Monday, he also noted their
demands were "legitimate" and that Sistani "condemns
acts waged by the occupation forces".
has been following rather than leading Shi'ite opinion,"
according to Toensing, who added that while Muqtada is
only one actor in the Shi'ite community, "it's also true
that the most prominent poster on display on the highway
from Sadr City to the south is of his father. The US has
a vested interest in keeping him alive."
Iraq expert Juan Cole at the University of Michigan said
that might be difficult to accomplish, given Muqtada's
"apocalyptic mindset" that left him convinced after the
closure of his newspaper that the "US planned to silence
him and destroy his movement, leaving him no choice but
to launch an uprising".
"Muqtada saw his father
and brothers cut down by Saddam and he is clearly a
paranoid personality deeply traumatized by Ba'ath terror
against Shi'ites, and he views the Americans as little
different from the Ba'athists," Cole wrote in his web
log, adding that perhaps at least one-third of Iraqi
Shi'ites are sympathetic to his ideology.
wrote that he could not fathom why the coalition acted
against Muqtada now, given that the indictment of the
cleric was issued last November and that he and his
followers "haven't been up to anything extraordinary as
far as I can see in recent weeks ... this is either
gross incompetence or was done with dark ulterior
The latter could include, according to
Cole, the provocation of greater sectarian violence or
casting blame on Iran, thus halting any progress towards
detente with Tehran in its tracks.
insisted that the speed and intensity with which all the
Shi'ite militias, including al-Dawa and the Badr
Brigades of the Supreme Council for the Islamic
Revolution in Iraq - both of which are represented on
the Iraqi Governing Council - as well as the Mahdi Army,
have been building up their arsenals and their ranks is
"If we don't get a grip on this
situation, entire communities will be prevented from
registering to vote, opposition candidates will be
assassinated, and electoral officials will be
intimidated," he said. "There's no hope for a peaceful
and democratic Iraq without taking apart these
militias," an action Diamond said will naturally create
"more protest and violence. But what I'm saying is
that's better now than later. We will fight a limited
war now to disarm and demobilize these militias, or
there will be a larger civil war later," he stressed.