Iraq: Rising Radicalism, Falling Hopes

The U.S. move against firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is uniting the Iraqi opposition and creating a much dicier situation all around

By Stanley Reed

Whether L. Paul Bremer realized it or not, America's top official in Iraq took a big risk when he tried to curb the movement of the firebrand Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, a few days ago. Now, after violence has swept half a dozen Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, Bremer's relations with the Iraqi Shiite majority are in jeopardy, and Iraqi resistance to the Americans has gained a public face -- that of the defiant 30-year-old cleric.

Sadr now poses a tricky problem for Bremer as well as Shiite leaders such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top Shiite authority. Bremer has vowed to arrest Sadr on murder charges. Now he needs to figure out how to neutralize or co-opt Sadr without turning him into an even bigger hero or a martyr.

That outcome would be a disaster for the U.S., which has had little success in suppressing an insurgency in Sunni Muslim areas such as Falluja and Ramadi. Until now, Iraq's Shiite community has been generally supportive of the American effort in their country. The nightmare for the Americans now: a coordinated Shiite and Sunni uprising. That hasn't happened yet, but reports of guerillas from both sides fighting alongside each other in the name of Islam are coming in.


  More than 30 American soldiers and close to 200 Iraqis have been killed in the fighting as of Apr. 7. Such high casualties suggest that the situation in Iraq may be more dangerous than at any time since the fall of Saddam Hussein a year ago. The June 30 deadline set by the U.S. for a handover of power to Iraqi authorities is intensifying factional rivalries. What's still a small-scale war "could suddenly escalate into a major civil conflict or broader struggle between coalition forces and elements of both Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites," warns Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

Sistani is trying to restrain his own people and keep them from following Sadr's potentially suicidal lead. But with Shiites enraged at American troops shooting up their neighborhoods, he risks looking like a stooge if he openly sides with the U.S. against Sadr. He has chosen an even-handed approach, calling for calm while also criticizing U.S. tactics.

Even before the recent fighting, Sistani had been taking positions that don't augur well for the future of Iraq. For instance, he opposed clauses in the temporary constitution put there to assure the rights of minorities, particularly the Kurds. If the Shiites can't accept strong protection for other communities, partition will be the logical outcome. Sistani undoubtedly thinks Sadr is a reckless young hothead, but the Ayatollah is still being influenced by Sadr.


  Mainstream Shiites dismiss Sadr as too young and too poorly educated to play an important role in Iraq. But the upstart has a few strengths. He has inherited the immense popularity of his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a religious leader who was gunned down in 1999, probably on Saddam's orders. Sadr's denunciations of the occupation and advocacy of the downtrodden has also attracted the support of young clerics, who think Sistani and other senior Shiites have been too accommodating both to Saddam and the Americans. That Sistani and other top clerics are Iranian-born leaves them vulnerable to critics who say a more homegrown religious establishment would better serve Iraq.

Sadr also has made inroads among the Shiite slum dwellers of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. His network of volunteers and militiamen have provided food and services and kept order following the collapse of the Baath. Particularly important is his standing in the vast Shiite area of Eastern Baghdad now named Sadr City after his father.

This seemingly endless zone of low, fawn-colored houses may hold as much as 8% of the total population of Iraq and is a ready source of shock troops for demonstrations in the capital. "[Sadr] is able to mobilize the urban poor. The worse things get, the more influential he is likely to become," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at Britain's Warwick University.


  Were Sadr to get his way, the new Iraq would be just what the U.S. doesn't want. He favors a cleric-dominated Shiite state. Women would be veiled, Western influence minimized, Israel kept on the enemies list, Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah supported.

Not surprisingly, the coalition has excluded Sadr from power. But he has lashed back, condemning the interim constitution as a "terrorist document" that slights the Shiites. He has also called on the Bremer-appointed Governing Council to dissolve itself.

Sadr's several-thousand-strong militia, called the Mehdi army, has been increasingly aggressive not only in resisting the Americans but in enforcing the cleric's strictures on "immoral" activities such as alcohol sales and prostitution. After U.S. forces closed his newspaper, al-Hawza, and arrested a key aide on murder charges, Sadr urged his followers on Apr. 5 to "terrorize your enemies, as we cannot remain silent at their violations."

Having vowed to arrest Sadr for complicity in last year's murder of a rival, Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei, Bremer is out on a limb. On Apr. 7, Brigadier Army General Mark Kimmit vowed that the coalition would "destroy" Sadr's army. But an American push into the center of the holy city of Najaf, where Sadr is holed up, might really set off fireworks. It's looking more and more like there won't be much to celebrate on June 30.

BusinessWeek London Bureau Manager Reed covers the Middle East and has visited Iraq several times since the invasion

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