FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Islamic militants threaten to derail Iraq hand-over
, April 24, 2004
Virtually simultaneous uprisings by Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim forces in Iraq, coupled with on-going bombings and the killing of American troops, is threatening to derail American attempts to effect an orderly transfer of power to an Iraqi interim government by June 30, as promised by the American President, George Bush.
President Bush faces substantial domestic pressure to withdraw, with both a Presidential election and Congressional elections to be held next November.
A force of US marines and Iraqi troops moved into the town of Fallujah in an attempt to regain control of the town, part of the Sunni triangle which was the heartland of former dictator, Saddam Hussein.
Fallujah was the scene of the ambush and murder of four American security personnel, and the subsequent torching, dismemberment and display of their bodies, while a mob cheered.
In the meantime, American officials in Baghdad announced an arrest warrant for a radical Shi'ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, whose black-uniformed militia killed seven American soldiers in the Baghdad district known as Sadr City.
Up to 500 Iraqis were also killed in clashes around the country, the worst since its fall to US troops a year ago.
Muqtada al-Sadr, 30, who comes from a family of revered Shi'ite leaders, was reported to have sought sanctuary in a mosque in his home base of Kufa near the holy city of Najaf, and his supporters pledged to fight to the death in his defence.
"I'm accused by one of the leaders of evil, Bremer, of being an outlaw," Mr Sadr said in a defiant statement. "If that means breaking the law of the American tyranny and its filthy constitution, I'm proud of that and that is why I'm in revolt."
He ordered his followers into the streets after the arrest of one of his top aides, Mustafa al-Yakoubi, and 13 other followers, for the murder of another Shi'ite cleric, and the closure a week earlier of his movement's weekly newspaper, al-Hawza
At the same time that clashes took place in Baghdad's Sadr City, 24 Iraqis died in gunfire between Mahdi militiamen and Spanish-led forces in Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad. Sadr's forces also demonstrated in the southern cities of Basra, Amara and Nassiriya.
Western diplomats had predicted that the occupation would remain tenable as long as the Shi'ite majority acquiesced in the expectation that transition to a representative democracy would bring it political power.
However, the Iraqi Shi'ites' most senior religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a relative moderate, was reportedly ambivalent in his response to the Mahdi revolt.
"The good news here is Sadr is just one extreme cleric we already knew was an extremist and by resisting firmly we will send a message," said Michael O'Hanlon, a strategic analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The more nerve-racking news is that Sistani seems to be divided in his instincts."
The Wall Street Journal
editorialised, "The next few days in Iraq may be the most critical since President George Bush ordered the invasion ... Millions of Iraqis, and millions of Americans, are waiting to see if the US is still fighting in Iraq to win ...
"With Sunday's riots [Mr Sadr] has crossed a line that makes him an urgent threat ...
"Having let Mr Sadr's militia grow, the coalition now has no choice but to break it up ... We trust that Mr Bush knows that his reaction to Fallujah and Mr Sadr matters far more to his re-election prospects than does Richard Clarke's book tour.
"Americans know that Iraq was Mr Bush's undertaking, and they will hold him responsible for any failure of will."
The Shi'ite cleric at the centre of the uprising was reported to have moved from his headquarters to one of the most sacred Shi'ite shrines in the holy city of Najaf, in a clear attempt to turn the issue into a clash between the Americans and Islam.
In the meantime, Washington has made clear that it will not bend in its determination to hand over political power by the end of June.
"Our resolve is firm, our resolve is unshakable and we will prevail," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters in Washington.
"We will pass sovereignty [to the Iraqis] on June 30," President Bush said in a campaign speech in Arkansas. "We will stay the course in Iraq. We're not going to be intimidated by thugs or assassins. We're not going to cut and run from the people who long for freedom."
Whether he is able to maintain this course depends on whether he continues to have the support of the American people.
With the US committed to handing political power to Iraqis in less than three months time, the pace of violent resistance seems to be intensifying, threatening to narrow US choices and endangering the chances of stability in Iraq.