Whether L. Paul Bremer III knew it or not, America's top official in Iraq was taking a big risk when he decided in late March to curb the movement of the firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Now, violence sparked by Sadr's militia 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 poses a tricky problem for Bremer as well as for Shiite leaders such as Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani, the top Shiite authority. Bremer, who has vowed to arrest Sadr on murder charges, needs to figure out how to neutralize or co-opt him without making him a bigger hero or a martyr. It would be a disaster for the U.S., which has struggled to suppress a Sunni insurgency in areas such as Falluja, if the Shiite community were to rise up against the coalition as well.
Height of Danger
The recent fighting is one indication that the situation in Iraq may be more dangerous than at any time since Saddam Hussein's fall a year ago. The June 30 deadline set by the U.S. for a handover of power to Iraqi authorities is intensifying rivalries. What is 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 H. Cordesman, a military analyst at Washington's Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Probably worried about such an outcome, Sistani is trying to restrain his own people and keep them from following Sadr's lead. But with Shiites enraged at American troops, Sistani risks looking like a stooge if he openly sides with them against Sadr. Instead, he is calling for calm while also criticizing U.S. tactics.
Most mainstream Shiites see Sadr as too young and poorly educated to play a key role. But he has inherited the popularity of his religious-leader father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was gunned down in 1999. Sadr is backed by young clerics who think senior Shiites have catered too much to Saddam and the U.S. That Sistani and other top clerics are Iranian-born leaves them open to critics who say a more homegrown religious establishment would better serve Iraq. Sadr also has made inroads among Shiite slum dwellers. His volunteers have offered food and services and kept order after the Baath Party's collapse. "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: a Shiite theocracy in which women would be veiled and Western influence minimized. Sadr has slammed Iraq's recently approved interim constitution as a "terrorist document" that slights Shiites and called on the Bremer-appointed Governing Council to dissolve itself.
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 as if there won't be much to celebrate on June 30.
By Stanley Reed in London
Edited by Rose Brady