Monday, April 05, 2004

Who is this Muqtada al-Sadr fella?

It seems the Bush administration is asking itself that very question right now. On Monday, the Bush administration declared that Sadr is an "outlaw" and announced that it now plans to arrest Sadr [WP] on a warrant it has been sitting on since last fall for allegedly conspiring to assassinate a rival Shiite cleric in April 2003. On Saturday, Coalition forces arrested one of Sadr's top aides, Mustafa Yaqoubi, in connection with the same crime. That arrest--in conjunction with the Coalition's decision to shut down Sadr's newspaper [BBC]--precipitated this weekend's violence, which some say is the worst Iraq has seen after Saddam's fall.

Asia Times reported over two weeks ago that Sadr had been warning armed resistence would soon begin. CBS News interviewed Sadr in October (here's the transcript), and they reported back then that Sadr was suspected of being a chief instigator in much of the violent resistence.

The BBC reports that Sadr has a relatively small following among Shiite Muslims in Iraq (ABC News agrees), but that of course may change depending on the Coalition response to the recent uprising. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has apparently been trying to broker peace [Reuters], but Sadr has apparently rejected Sistani's plea, and has chosen instead to continue his campaign of armed resistance. He is currently holed up in one of Iraq's holiest shrines.

The Council on Foreign Relations provides an excellent background on Sadr (his dad, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq until Saddam executed him in the late 90's) and describes the events leading up to the recent Shiite unrest. Keep in mind that these events must be viewed as distinct from the goings-on in Sunni-controlled Fallujah, although one can imagine both groups are seeking to take advantage of the overall instability in Iraq.

We now find ourselves in the most delicate position we have been in since invading Iraq, and I fear that the Bush administration is not capable of handling the situation properly. Pulling out now would only create an ideal environment to cultivate terrorists and the ideology that drives them (although the support for keeping the troops in Iraq is definitely waning [Pew]). The best game plan I can think of is to throw support behind Sistani, who seems genuinely interested in promoting the peace (although that is highly unlikely, because Sistani has been very critical of the Coalition's plans for transitioning out of Iraq [FT]) and encourage a more active involvement by the UN. Moreover, it seems utterly ridiculous that Bush insists on sticking with the original June 30 transition date [Reuters], particularly when Senators in the President's own party are calling for more troops to stabilize the situation.

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