Mohamad Bazzi / Newsday – 2004-04-16 11:09:28
BAGHDAD, Iraq – If U.S. forces arrest or kill Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the reverberations will be felt far beyond Iraq.
Al-Sadr could become the newest martyr for Shiites from Lebanon to Pakistan, scholars say. And if American troops have a bloody confrontation with al-Sadr’s militia in the holy city of Najaf, it could set the United States toward a collision with the world’s 150 million Shiite Muslims.
US forces were massing yesterday around Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, raising the prospect of a battle near the Imam Ali Mosque, Shiism’s holiest site. The gold-domed mosque lies in the center of Najaf, and al-Sadr has taken refuge there in recent days.
About 2,500 US troops gathered outside Najaf and set up roadblocks around the city to prevent al-Sadr’s militiamen from leaving.
A Military Attack to ‘End Violence: It’s That Simple’
“We see a significant threat in the vicinity of Najaf by the name of Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military’s top Iraq spokesman. “We will get the forces to the place, at the time when it is necessary, to go after him and his militia to end this violence. It is that simple.”
Iraqi politicians and representatives of the country’s four most senior Shiite clerics rushed to defuse the situation. Al-Sadr’s followers have fought with occupation forces in Baghdad and southern Iraq for 10 days, but their revolt has not yet spread to most segments of Iraq’s Shiite majority.
By arresting or killing al-Sadr, analysts say, the rebellion could expand to the rest of the Shiite community, which makes up 60 percent of Iraq’s 24 million people.
A Very Dangerous Moment in Iraq
“This is a very dangerous moment in Iraq. If the Americans launch an attack on al-Sadr in Najaf, it could ignite a broad Shia (Shiite) uprising,” said Jalal Mashita, editor of Al-Nahda, an independent newspaper in Baghdad. “That would make the occupation impossible to sustain.”
Since the violence began April 4, members of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and leaders of the main Shia parties have warned occupation officials about the sensitivity of trying to crush al-Sadr’s militia, especially in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Iraqis have urged US officials to delay arresting al-Sadr on a warrant issued against him months ago in the murder of a rival cleric.
Instead, according to people involved in the negotiations, the Iraqis have urged US officials to accept a compromise in which al-Sadr would disarm his militia and stop calling for armed resistance to the occupation. In exchange, the United States would defer the arrest warrant to the interim Iraqi government that is expected to assume sovereignty June 30.
Bremer Resisting Compromise Solution
But Iraqi officials say L. Paul Bremer, the top US administrator in Iraq, has resisted a compromise that does not involve al-Sadr’s arrest. “For US domestic political reasons, they don’t want to appear to be soft on Muqtada al-Sadr,” said an Iraqi official involved in the negotiations who asked not to be named. “This has more to do with President Bush’s re-election campaign than with Iraq.”
Many Iraqis say the Bush administration made a serious mistake by precipitating a showdown with al-Sadr just three months before the transfer of formal political power to an Iraqi government.
“The Americans, and whoever was advising them to go after Muqtada, underestimated the force that he could rally around himself,” said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political scientist at Baghdad University. “After the explosion of violence, Muqtada was able to rally a lot of Shia and Sunnis.”
Attacking al-Sadr Could Galvanize World Against US
US actions in Iraq are being closely followed throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, and a move against al-Sadr in Najaf could galvanize Shiites and even Sunnis well beyond Iraq.
“There is a sense that even Saddam Hussein shied away from fighting near the Shia shrines in Iraq,” said Hazem al-Amin, an editor at the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat and an expert on the Shiites.
Shiites constitute about 15 percent of the world’s 1 billion Muslims. While most Muslims worldwide are Sunnis, the Shiites constitute a majority in several countries, including Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Bahrain. Other Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have sizable Shiite minorities.
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