WASHINGTON, April 5 (UPI) -- Following a bloody Palm Sunday weekend in Iraq that left scores killed, including nine American soldiers, the country finds itself in its most politically precarious situation since the fall of Baghdad a year ago this Friday.
When U.S. troops supported by battle tanks toppled Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad's Firdous Square last April 9, heralding the end of the Baath regime's dictatorship, the Pentagon planners of the Iraq war believed the worst was over. But little did they know what would come next.
The sudden flare-up of fighting over the past few days has seen some of the worst violence yet, and all indications lead us to believe the situation can only get worse. The announcement by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority on Monday of an arrest warrant issued for Ayatollah Moqtada al-Sadr, who they say is wanted for murder, will undoubtedly feed the current unrest, giving the Iraq conflict a new -- and precarious -- dimension.
The violent clashes in Baghdad, Najaf, Fallujah and other parts of Iraq as of Monday has left at least 13 American troops dead and many more wounded; additionally, a Salvadoran soldier killed when a mob forced a live grenade into his mouth; scores of Iraqi Shiites have been killed and hundreds more wounded.
The Shiites are mostly followers of the firebrand, staunchly anti-American cleric Sadr, whom the Coalition now accuses of killing Ayatollah Abdel Majid al-Khoi, shortly after the latter's return from his London exile last April. Sadr now finds himself on the run from the law, but whether U.S. troops can actually move in and arrest the rebellious imam remains to be seen.
The flint that sparked this latest round of violence was the closing by the U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer of Sadr's publication, al-Hawza, accused of inciting violence and printing inflammatory and false articles. This led to demonstrations by Sadr's supporters and eventually to clashes with U.S. soldiers. The situation quickly spiraled downward from there.
There is, however, more to the story than would first appear and many questions arise. First, besides this being Sadr's "'testing" of American resolve and might, less than 90 days before the United States takes a backseat in the running of the country, what is now transpiring is also a battle for control of the Shiite street to see who will eventually lead Iraq's largest ethno-religious group.
These latest events are also a clash of leadership between Sadr, who demands an immediate withdrawal of U.S. and other coalition troops from Iraq and the milder, more-moderate stance adopted by the older Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who favors a quieter transition and advocates a more cautionary approach.
Sadr, on the other hand, is opposed to waiting for the June 30 hand-over date, demanding the U.S.-led coalition leave immediately. With Shiites forming about 60 percent of Iraq's population, Sadr believes his coreligionist should assume immediate control of their destiny.
Sadr is relatively young and inexperienced but commands, nevertheless, a following strong enough to stir trouble, as became evident this past weekend. He rules over much of the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City, named after his father who was killed by Saddam, and is believed to have about 5,000 armed followers.
The development to watch for now is to see if the mainstream Shiite movement falls in behind Sadr, and joins the anti-U.S. movement, or instead, if they opt to wait on the sidelines for the United States to remove Sadr from the political scene.
Politically for Sistani, allowing the Americans take out Sadr would be the most advantageous move. The removal would leave the political playing field clear for Sistani, who would then be the only Shiite leader left standing. Since Saddam's downfall last spring, a number of prominent Shiite leaders have been killed.
However, if Sistani, or the Iranian-backed al-Badr Brigade, with more than 10,000 armed supporters jump into the fray, it could spell real trouble for the United States. Iran, one must also suspect, is not without interest in the outcome of events in neighboring Iraq. Tehran's ayatollahs would undoubtedly revel in Washington becoming ingrained in an urban war in the slums of Baghdad.
Already, Monday there was talk of sending more troops to Iraq to help quell the troubles. In its last rotation, the United States has downsized the number of American troops in the country from 130,000 to about 100,000. But if the violence continues, additional forces would certainly be needed.
Another danger, of course, is that Sadr would attempt a "hostile take-over" of the Shiite leadership by trying to physically eliminate Sistani, a possibility that should not be discounted. Should Sadr prove to be successful, it could place the militant ayatollah in an unprecedented position of power and give the U.S.-led coalition a genuine cause for concern. On the other hand, an attempt on Sistani could also pitch Shiite against Shiite, making the June 30 deadline for handing the country over to Iraqis highly questionable, and that despite the fact President George W. Bush reaffirmed Monday the date was not subject to revision.
Regardless of the outcome, there is one Shiite who stands to gain by the removal of either ayatollah -- Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress -- and the man on the fast track to become the next nexus of power in Iraq.
Second, what is unsettling about this turn of events is until now at least, most of the violence emanated from the Sunni population and was mostly limited to the area referred to as the Sunni Triangle. The horrendous killing and mutilation of four civilian contractors last week, for example, took place in Fallujah, in the heart of Sunni-populated territory.
But this recent outbreak involving the Shiite community sets a dangerous precedent and has moved the conflict to previously quieter areas of the country. If not intelligently addressed, it could rapidly broaden into a quagmire and draw the United States into a vicious version of an Iraqi intifada, and a conflict without a foreseeable end.
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