Sadr: A new Arab hero in the making

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor   |   April 6, 2004 at 12:35 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 6 (UPI) -- The ancient Romans used to "divide and conquer" to defeat their enemies.

During the course of the past few centuries, all foreign and domestic powers that came to rule Iraq, from the Arabs, to the Ottomans, and from the British to Saddam Hussein's Baathists, followed that same doctrine by promoting division between the country's Shiite majority and the Sunni minority.

Now, Iraq's firebrand, fiercely anti-American Shiite cleric, Moqtada Sadr, is using the Romans' principle, but in reverse, to unite the two communities in the face of their common enemy, the United States. Unite and resist.

As the U.S.-led coalition continues its efforts to find and capture Sadr, after a warrant for his arrest was issued Monday, the 31-year-old cleric who until just a week ago was considered to be on the outer fringes of Iraqi politics, is now emerging as someone who could unite Iraqis in their resistance to the U.S. occupation in an unprecedented manner.

Since the arrival of American troops in Iraq a year ago, Sadr was considered more of an annoyance than a real threat. Until just a few days ago Sadr was believed to command no more than about 5,000 supporters, mostly in the vast Baghdad slum named after his father. But since this past weekend, as Sadr stood up to the United States, blatantly defying the Coalition, his followers have increased significantly, as has his political stature. Now, many more Shiites have been reported flocking to join him in his anti-American campaign, including some of the more moderate Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Additionally, new reports emerging from Iraq Tuesday indicate that an unholy alliance is being forged between Sadr's militia, known as the Mehdi's Army and the Sunni resistance, traditionally grouped under the banner of Mohammed's Army. And on Tuesday U.S. troops battled both; followers of Mohammed's Army in the Sunni hotbed of Fallujah where the Marines are currently engaged in fierce clashes, as well as armed followers of the young cleric in Sadr City and other parts of the country who are resisting American attempts to disarm them, as thousands of armed militiamen faced off American tanks and armored personnel carriers.

In just two short days, the situation in Iraq has changed dramatically, from one of terrorists and foreign jihadi agitators fighting the coalition, to that of a domestic popular rebellion already being compared by some to the Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

And while the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has labeled Sadr "an outlaw" and seeks to apprehend him and put him on trial for the murder of fellow Shiite cleric Abdel Majig al-Khoei last spring, there is also little doubt that his political clout will skyrocket in the Arab and Islamic world.

In short, the United States' gamble to go after Sadr may have grossly backfired. The question is why did the U.S. decide to go after Sadr at this particular time? The answer could be that as the countdown to the June 30 handover of sovereignty to Iraqis is underway with less than 90 days remaining on the clock, the U.S. -- at the instigation of certain parties who would like to see the elimination of the maverick cleric -- may have decided on the need to clean the playing field of potential dissent voices for the Iraqi government to be.

But if the U.S.-led coalition and the American pro-consul in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, expected the Shiite militant cleric to give up without a fight, they were misinformed and the plan grossly miscalculated. Instead, they have created a new pan-Islamic, pan-Arab hero on the same level with Osama bin Laden.

This new fight with Sadr is rapidly creating a no-win situation for the coalition. Having declared him an outlaw, the Coalition Provisional Authority now has no choice but to go after him, no matter what it takes. Failure to follow through would make the CPA loose face vis-à-vis the Iraqi public and reinforce the belief that the resistance can get away with murder -- literally. It would also give the future Iraqi government an enormous handicap with which to begin their mandate, and therefore reduce their credibility. This would simply be disastrous for the future of a stable and democratic Iraq.

Allowing Sadr to remain at large now only amplifies his status as a leader of the revolt. By Tuesday afternoon, the revolt appeared to be expanding with Sadr's followers reported to have captured a number of official buildings in the holy city of Najaf.

Already, a number of Sunni chiefs have accepted Sadr as the unchallenged new leader of Iraq's resistance to the American-led occupation. The events of the last few days have, in short, given the Iraqi resistance a face and an icon it was missing.

On the other hand, if the Americans capture him, they will only encourage further acts of resistance and possibly incite new acts of terrorism against Coalition troops by Sadr's supporters demanding his release.

If the coalition were to kill him while attempting to capture him, they would create an even more volatile situation. The Shiite would never believe Sadr's death was not intentional and besides inciting an unprecedented level of violence, his death would raise his standing to that of a martyred imam.

"We must be careful not to make a martyr out of Sadr," cautioned Clare Lopez, an intelligence analyst with Hawkeye Systems, a high-tech consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., that specializes in counter-terrorism issues.

No matter how you look at it, the outcome may spell trouble in the days and weeks ahead. As of Tuesday, the death toll stood at 20 dead Americans and more than 60 killed Iraqis.

Finally, continued violence in Iraq greatly reduces the chances of internationalizing the conflict, or involving the United Nations, something the Bush administration would very much like to see happen as another countdown nears -- the one to the November U.S. presidential election.

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