Analysis: Picking on the wrong guy in Iraq

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor   |   May 27, 2004 at 8:41 PM

WASHINGTON, May 27 (UPI) -- When Uncle Sam picked a fight with the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, the powers that be must have imagined it would be a quick fight. A rapid knockout in the first round after a few punches thrown in for effect. That would have been a welcome victory at a time when something positive was badly needed to counter the daily downbeat news emerging from Iraq.

Sadr junior, only 25-years-old, -- a super lightweight -- would be knocked flat to the mat in no time. The radical Shiite cleric should have been no match for the super-heavyweight, the 228-year-old, only remaining world super power, armed with far superior firepower. But politics in the Middle East are deceiving; they are never what they first appear to be. The reality is always far more complicated, and the outcomes of Mideast ventures -- particularly non-clearly defined military undertakings -- are never certain.

Uncle Sam did not realize that although Sadr was young, largely inexperienced -- he is not even an ayatollah -- and his followers numbered only in the mere hundreds, he was playing on the immense popularity of his deceased father.

The elder Sadr, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, was assassinated in Najaf in 1999, along with his two sons. It is widely believed that Saddam Hussein had ordered the killings.

As a result of his father's (and brothers') "martyrdom," young Moqtada has benefited in his position in Iraq's Shiite community. "That status confers considerable legitimacy upon the son," said Youssef M. Ibrahim, a former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times and energy editor of the Wall Street Journal.

Despite his low ranking in the clerical hierarchy, Sadr, riding on the tails of his father's accomplishments, has commanded a greater following than was expected. He surprised the U.S. administration in Iraq, which upon issuance of a warrant for his arrest and the shutting down of al-Hawza, his magazine, must have believed that taking him into custody would be easily achieved.

In fact, the firebrand cleric accomplished something that took the United States and many others completely by surprise. Not only did his feisty resistance to the U.S. attempt to apprehend him fail, but also Sadr succeeded in rallying Sunni Muslims to his Shiite-led insurgency, a first in the usually sectarian-fractured Iraq.

What the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq hoped would be a quick clean fight has instead turned into an ugly series of battles, at times quite fierce. American forces having now been engaged in clashes with Sadr's Mehdi Army for over a month in a number of cities across the country, and still see no sight of closure to this debacle.

To date, about a thousand Iraqis have been killed as well as scores of U.S. soldiers and Marines as a direct result of the Sadr affair. And the fighting in the holy city of Najaf has partially damaged one of the sacred mosques. These are incidents that the Shiites in Iraq are not about to forget. Memories in this part of the world tend to carry.

Under pressure from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the prominent Shiite religious authority in the country, as well as from other leaders to defuse the situation, Sadr offered Thursday to order the withdrawal of his troops from Najaf, but on condition the United States does the same.

Sadr demanded that an Iraq-led security force police Najaf after the mutual pullout. The plan has been approved by the U.S.-led coalition, "in principle." Agreeing to a cease-fire and to conditions demanded by Sadr is quite a departure from earlier American demands that he be taken "dead or alive."

One gigantic miscalculation on the Americans' part in their dealing with Sadr was in believing that he would be left alone in the fight. This is not the way the Shiite community behaves. History has shown that they traditionally stand by each other, despite their differences.

Sadr is not just a firebrand cleric. "He has an audience growing by the day as Americans continue attacking him and the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala," stated Ibrahim, the former New York Times correspondent, who has spent considerable time in the Middle East. "Millions of Shiites are watching that mayhem."

Besides Sadr's followers and those watching from the sidelines in Iraq -- a country of nearly 25 million, of which 60 percent are Shiite -- 65 million more Shiites in neighboring Iran are keeping a very close eye on developments in Iraq.

According to a number of observers in the area, Iran is widely believed to be playing an active role in financing and arming Sadr and his Mehdi Army. Some analysts believe Iran has dispatched hundreds of intelligence agents to Iraq.

Additionally, Lebanon has about one million Shiites. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia, last week called for a show of force, asking for 100,000 "death volunteers" to march in a show of solidarity with their coreligionists in Iraq, clad in white death shrouds.

Those -- as well as the Shiite minorities in Pakistan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's oil-rich eastern provinces -- are forces not to be ignored.

Much as Sunni volunteers flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invader in the 1980s, so too, could the United States find itself suddenly facing thousands of Shiites, ready to support a hothead young cleric who should have not lasted more than one round.


(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)

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