Shiite Clashes in with Coalition in Najaf Baghdad: Phase II of the Anti-Occupation Struggle Begins

Nine Coalition Troops Killed, Dozens wounded in Confronting Uprising

Juan Cole

04/04/04 "ICH"
The always tense relationship between the Sadrist movement among Iraqi Shiites and the US and its Coalition partners has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Perhaps a third of Iraqi Shiites are sympathetic to the radical, Khomeini-like ideology of Sadrism, and some analysts with long experience in Iraq put it at 50%. Earlier Muqtada Al-Sadr, the movement leader, had called on his forces to avoid violence against Coalition forces. As of Sunday, he has decided that the Coalition means permanently to exclude his group from power, and has decided to launch an uprising. This uprising involves taking over police stations in Kufa, Najaf, Baghdad and possibly elsehwere. The Sadrist militia now controls Kufa, according to the New York Times, and probably controls much of Sadr City or the slums of East Baghdad, as well, though it has been expelled from the police stations it had occupied there.

In Najaf, Sadrist crowds some 5000 strong protested outside the Spanish garrison. Firing began between the two sides, leading to a 3-hour gun battle that left 1 American and 1 Salvadoran soldier dead [initial reports had said 4 Salvadorans were dead] and fourteen Salvadorans wounded, 24 Iraqi civilians dead, and more than 130 persons wounded, according to AP and the Washington Post. Spanish troops also fought. (Spain's new Socialist government had pledged to withdraw Spanish troops this summer). AP reports that Sadrist militiamen took over the police station in nearby Kufa, and that police had disappeared from Kufa streets.

There were also large protests in central Baghdad, and it is reported that 3 Sadrist protesters threw themselves under American tanks, so as to become "martyrs." AP said, ' In central Baghdad's Firdaus Square, police fired warning shots during a protest by hundreds of al-Sadr supporters against al-Yacoubi's arrest. At least two protesters were injured, witnesses said. ' Meanwhile, US troops assaulted the office of Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad.

In Sadr City, gunfire was heard all afternoon and into the evening on Sunday, and early on, two US military jeeps were set on fire. az-Zaman reports that there was an exchange of fire between US troops in a Humvee with Army of the Mahdi militiamen in the Suq Muridi quarter of central Sadr City. The Army of the Mahdi briefly occupied at least three police stations in Sadr City, expelling the local police. The US sent in tanks, retaking the police stations, but suffered 7 US soldiers killed and 24 wounded, according to CNN at 5 pm EST. The AP report is now on line at The Washington Post.

In Amara, The Scotsman reports of Sadrist demonstrations in Amara, ' The Ministry of Defence said that the soldiers returned fire after coming under attack from a “criminal element” in the crowd armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). No British troops were injured in the incident although a MoD spokeswoman said that there were a number of Iraqi casualties. It was not immediately known if any of the Iraqis were killed. '

In Nasiriyah, according to US cable television news, demonstrators set an Italian tank afire. AP says that ' In the southern city of Nasiriyah, Italian troops traded fire with militiamen demonstrating against the arrest of al-Yacoubi, said Lt. Col. Pierluigi Monteduro, chief of staff of Italian troops in the region. One Italian officer was wounded in the leg. '

az-Zaman also reports Sadrist demonstrations in Kirkuk (where Muqtada has Turkmen and Arab followers) and Basra, where 600 protesters assembled near the British HQ.

So far, about 60% of clashes with Coalition troops had occurred in the Sunni heartland of Iraq. But the violent clashes in Najaf, Baghdad, Amara and Nasiriyah may signal the beginning of a second phase, in which the US faces a two-front war, against both Sunni radicals in the center-north and Shiite militias in the South. The clashes come at a pivotal moment, since on Friday April 9, the Shiite festival of Araba'in will take place, coinciding this year with the anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The protests on Saturday and Sunday were sparked by the Coalition arrest on Saturday of Sadrist cleric Mustafa Yaqubi, the head of the Najaf office of Muqtada al-Sadr. Initially the Spanish denied the arrest, which provoked large demonstrations in Baghdad on Saturday led by Muhammad al-Tabatabai, a key aide of Muqtada al-Sadr there. But AP now says that the Coalition Provisional Authority admits that it has indeed arrested Yaqubi. Sadrist spokesmen in Baghdad complained that no reason was given for the arrest, and promised to reply "with every means necessary," according to ash-Sharq al-Awsat..

It seems to me possible that the Americans swooped into Najaf and arrested Mustafa Yaqubi, and that the Spanish did not even know about it to begin with. That would explain their initial denial. If so, in a sense, the US set the Spanish up for a confrontation with the Sadrists. Why would the US arrest Yaqubi? Well, on Friday April 2 gunmen shot down the police chief of Kufa and his deputy. It is possible that the Americans suspect the Sadrists were behind that shooting, and that they arrested Yaqubi in retaliation.

The Spanish maintain that they were fired on from the crowd. I was initially suspicious as to whether this was really true, since the inexperienced Central American forces under their control could well have fired first. Az-Zaman quotes sources maintaining that the Spanish fired first, in response to stone-throwing. But one way or another, it is looking increasingly as though the Sadrists have launched an uprising.

The problem began in some ways on Sunday March 28, when Paul Bremer decided to close the main Sadrist newspaper, al-Hawza, purportedly for publishing material that incited violence against Coalition troops. Many observers in Iraq said that move was a mistake, since no specific violence could be traced to the newspaper, and closing it was itself a provocation. As it turns out, it seems clear that the newspaper closing played into Muqtada al-Sadr's apocalyptic mindset. He became convinced that it meant the US planned to silence him and destroy his movement, leaving him no choice but to launch an uprising. The Coalition, which just closed a newspaper for 2 months, probably thought of it as a relatively mild response to Sadr's own provocations. But Muqtada saw his father and brothers cut down by Saddam and he is clearly a paranoid personality deeply traumatized by Baath terror against Shiites, and he views the Americans as little different from the Baathists. Saddam also sent warnings to Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, in January of 1999, which were a prelude to Sadiq's assassination in February of that year. In Muqtada's own mind, the Coalition 'warnings' may also have been perceived as a prelude to removing him. The US army appears to have seriously threatened him with arrest or worse last October.

Why did the CPA take this risk? The US is aware that since it is turning over sovereignty to an Iraqi government on June 30, indigenous Iraqi political forces have begun jockeying for position in the post-occupation phase. Closing Muqtada's newspaper and arresting a key aide in Najaf are probably actions aimed in part at attempting to curb the influence of the Sadrists, who otherwise might well sweep to power in an elected Iraqi parliament next January.

The outbreak of Shiite/Coalition violence is a dramatic challenge to US military control of Iraq. The US is cycling out its forces in the country, bringing in a lot of reserve and national guards units, but will go from 130,000 to only 110,000 troops. It is too small a number to really provide security in Iraq, but the country has not fallen into chaos in part because the main attacks have come in the Sunni heartland and because the Coalition has depended on Shiite militias to police many southern cities. If the Shiites actively turn against the US, the whole military and security situation could become untenable. The US is already losing its Spanish coalition partner. The Japanese and Korean contingents are explicitly not there to fight. The Thais may decamp. The coalition partners probably provide a division altogether, and if they pulled out, the US would have to find a division to replace them. It only has 10 itself, and nobody else is going to come in under these circumstances--certainly not the UN and probably not NATO.

(Mustafa Yaqubi, by the way, should not be confused with Muhammad Yaqubi, also a Sadrist, but who leads a splinter Sadrist group called the Fudala' or the Virtuous, which is something of a rival to Muqtada).

Serious readers who want a background on the Sadr Movement should see my article, "The United States and Shi`ite Factions in Post-Baath Iraq" in The Middle East Journal. Volume 57, Number 4, Autumn 2003, pp. 543-566.

© 2004 Juan Cole

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