Near stalemate as Muqtada al-Sadr uprising fails to take off but refuses to collapse

Developing Just Leadership

Crescent International

Rabi' al-Thani 13, 1425 2004-06-01

Occupied Arab World

by Crescent International (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 4, Rabi' al-Thani, 1425)

The Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, one of the holiest shrines in Iraq, was reportedly damaged by shell-fire on May 25, as US troops maintained their pressure on the al-Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr...

The Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, one of the holiest shrines in Iraq, was reportedly damaged by shell-fire on May 25, as US troops maintained their pressure on the al-Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. The damage was reported after fighting around Najaf and Kufa in which at least five civilians were reported killed and twenty wounded.

Muqtada al-Sadr visited the site of the damage to the Imam Ali Mosque later in the day, amid chanting crowds that proved that he remains popular among ordinary Iraqi Shi’as, even if many members of the Shi’a hierarchy are less than enamoured with him. Although the Americans denied being involved in the damage to the Imam Ali Mosque, it is consistent with their efforts to pressurise Muqtada al-Sadr in order to keep the lid on his uprising, which at one stage had threatened to spiral into a general uprising.

The fighting in Najaf is part of an intensification of American pressure on al-Sadr, in an offensive the US has dubbed Operation Iron Sabre. They are now engaging members of the al-Mahdi army whenever possible, without launching a direct assault on Najaf. They claim to have killed dozens of al-Mahdi Army fighters in a number of clashes in different parts of the country, including during incursions into the outskirts of Najaf. However, it appears unlikely that they will actually move into the city militarily, for fear of sparking a general uprising.

The face-off between Muqtada al-Sadr began at the end of March, when the US authorities moved against his supporters, closing down a pro-Muqtada newspaper, al-Hawzah, and briefly arresting a close aide, Shaykh Mustafa al-Ya’aqubi. They also issued a warrant for al-Sadr’s own arrest, in connection with the murder of Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, a London-based alim who was killed in Najaf shortly after returning to Iraq with US forces after the invasion.

In the early weeks of the face-off, it appeared to have the potential to become a general uprising, in alliance with the Falluja-based Sunni uprising. Over subsequent weeks, however, it has settled into a sort of a stalemate, with Muqtada al-Sadr not having the following, and possibly not the political will, to move it up to a higher level, and the US authorities unable to take effective action against him for fear of provoking a wider reaction.

There has instead been a series of low-level clashes between US troops and members of al-Sadr’s militia, the al-Mahdi Army, in which the US have claimed to have killed large numbers of al-Sadrs followers. They have also moved against his political followers in certain towns, without ever doing enough to provoke a stronger reaction. The US has also raised the possibility of fighting damaging Iraqi holy sites, particularly in Najaf, where al-Sadr is based, in the hope that the Shi’a hierarchy or population will pressure him to do a deal with the Americans in order to safeguard the sites. This approach has also not worked.

Although al-Sadr’s uprising has popular support, it has been hampered by not having the explicit support of the senior members of the Shi’a hierarchy in Iraq, particularly Ayatullah al-Udhma Ali Sistani. Ayatullah Sistani follows a more traditional Shi’i political approach, which is essentially quietist and focuses on putting pressure on those in political authority, rather than taking a direct political lead itself. This approach was well-demonstrated in November, when Ayatullah Sistani led protest against the US’s November plan for the future of Iraq, forcing the US to turn to the UN for assistance and change their plans. Ayatullah Sistani may have a similar role to play in the intense politicking which is expected to follow the announcement of Iraq’s interim government by UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, which is due to take place by the end of the month.

The US, having been seriously embarrassed by their inability to militarily defeat the Sunni mujahideen in Falluja in April, and wary of the risk of a general Shi’a uprising, appear to be playing a waiting game with Muqtada al-Sadr, hoping to be able to by-pass him politically in the intense political maneuvering of the next few weeks.

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