Friday, May 14, 2004

When talking about Muqtada al-Sadr, our guys in Baghdad consistently describe him as the leader of a small, radical faction, isolated from the mainstream of Iraqi Shiites (as represented, they say, by the Shiite factions represented on the IGC, SCIRI and al-Da'wa). Juan Cole has been saying otherwise for months -- that al-Sadr's support comes from the movement originally built up by his father, which is much broader and deeper than our folks seems to realize. But a new poll, showing 45% support in Baghdad and 67% in Basra, surprises even him:

I am surprised by the high numbers in Basra, where I think the rival al-Fudala branch of Sadrism is more important. The level of support for Muqtada has almost certainly increased greatly since late March when the poll was done.

My own view is that Muqtada has now won politically and morally. He keeps throwing Abu Ghuraib in the faces of the Americans. He had his men take refuge in Najaf and Karbala because he knew only two outcomes were possible. Either the Americans would back off and cease trying to destroy him, out of fear of fighting in the holy cities and alienating the Shiites. Or they would come in after Muqtada and his militia, in which case the Americans would probably turn the Shiites in general against themselves. The latter is now happening.

But oddly, Cole may be giving al-Sadr too little credit; according to reports here, al-Sadr actually agreed to disband his militia and stand trial for the murder he is being accused of by the Americans, in a deal brokered by more senior Shiite clerics -- only to have the deal vetoed by Paul Bremer. The problem? Muqtada wants to surrender after June 30th, to the new, supposedly sovereign Iraqi government; Bremer wants him in custody now.

Now, how Bremer can expect any potential "high value detainee" to hand himself over to U.S. control after the Abu Ghraib scandals is beyond me, but that's what he wants. And since he can't get it, he's ordered troops into Najaf, crossing what the very senior grand Ayatollah al-Sistani had earlier identified as a "red line". Is he daring al-Sistani, at long last, to issue a fatwa against our troops?

Ah, but Bremer believes that, polls be damned, the majority of Shiites are with us, as are our Shiite friends on the council, SCIRI and al-Da'wa, each with its own militia, a long-time rival to al-Sadr's. One wonders who is telling them this. Might it be, perchance, SCIRI and al-Da'wa?

Update: The dare is on... someone's knocked holes in the Shrine of Imam Ali. The Americans are, of course, claiming that it was stray ordnance from the Army of the Mahdi that did the damage, not their own. As if that actually matters...


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