THE ROAD TO IRAQ'S RIOTS:
A POLITICAL POWER PLAY
By AMIR TAHERI
April 6, 2004 -- SUNDAY'S deadly riots look like the worst nightmare of Iraqis coming true: a Shiite uprising that could trigger not only a clash with the forces of occupation but also a civil war in the newly liberated country.
There is no doubt that the recently created Iraqi police force and the Coalition troops were taken by surprise, giving the armed rioters an initial advantage. For a few hours, parts of the affected cities looked like war zones.
But take a deep breath: This is not the start of the much-predicted Iraqi civil war.
The riots were orchestrated by a group led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a 30-year-old cleric nicknamed by his friends as "al-qunbulah" (the bomb). Sadr hails from one of the seven clans who have led Iraq's Shiite community for two centuries. He was propelled to the top of the clan's pyramid when most of its senior members, including his father and uncle, were murdered by Saddam Hussein or driven into exile.
But Muqtada is too young to claim the coveted theological title of "Marjaa al-Taqlid" (Source of Emulation) for himself. Nor can he circumvent the two dozen or so senior ayatollahs who dominate the Shiite seminaries throughout Iraq. He is, therefore, trying to make up for his lack of theological gravitas by flexing his political muscles.
To play a political role, Sadr needs a role in the script written by the Coalition Provisional Authority. But Sadr has been excluded from that script and almost forced to act as a loose cannon. Last year, when the Iraqi Governing Council was being set up, Sadr at first excluded himself because he believed he could seize control of the Shiite heartland and present the Coalition with a fait accompli. When he realized that this wouldn't happen, he sought a place in the council. But those who had already joined refused to have him, and the Coalition sided with them.
Yet the Coalition meanwhile turned a blind eye while Sadr raised an army of almost 5,000 men and turned parts of northern Baghdad into no-go areas for the new Iraqi police. Sadr has also set up a network of charities, patterned on those created in Lebanon by the Hezbollah, to win support among poor Shiites, especially in Baghdad.
Sadr has received some support from the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran's ruling mullahs. But it would be wrong to dismiss him as an Iranian stooge or as the local agent of the global Hezbollah movement.
What was Sadr trying to do by organizing the riots? Three things:
1) Position himself as the most uncompromising Shiite leader in dealing with an increasingly unpopular occupation.
Almost all Shiite leaders have allied with the Coalition in exchange for a promise of free elections that would allow the Shiite community, some 60 per cent of the population, to dominate the government. Excluded from this alliance, Sadr is trying to operate in the only area left: opposition to the Coalition.
2) Win the support of all who wish the Americans to fail in Iraq. He is especially keen to persuade Iran to put its chips on him rather than on Ibrahim Jaafari and his Al-Daawah (The Call) Party. But Iran still regards Sadr as a temperamental egomaniac who might not be able to play a major role in a delicate anti-U.S. power play.
3) Perhaps most important: Ward off what he sees as a Coalition plan to dismantle his organization.
In February, a Najaf prosecutor issued arrest warrants for 12 men on charges of planning and carrying out the murder of Abdul Majid Khoei in Najaf in March 2003. Khoei, son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Khoei, had entered Najaf ahead of the Coalition forces and was trying to wrest away control of the city from the remnants of the Saddamite regime when he was murdered by a mob. The Khoie family have blamed Sadr for the murder. Sadr denies the charge - but his name is on the arrest list issued by the Iraqi prosecutor.
The leak of the list last month was followed by the closure of Sadr's newspaper in Baghdad and by raids on several money-changing shops suspected of channeling funds to Sadr. He may have decided that attack was the best defense and ordered his "Army of the Messianic Guide" into action.
Sadr lacks the strength to disrupt plans for the handover of power to an interim government, but he may produce headlines that neither President Bush nor Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to see - each is coming up on an election.
As one Hassan Nasrallah, a Sadr relative and leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, succinctly put it: "We may be unable to drive the Americans out of Iraq. But we can drive George W. Bush out of the White House."
What to do with Sadr? He and his intimates must not be allowed to ignore the prosecutor's warrant. While it is not at all certain that Sadr played a role in Khoie's murder, it is important for Iraqi justice to establish the truth. (The balance of evidence as far as I can make out is that Sadr was not involved in the murder.) Last December, Sadr offered to answer questions provided any interrogation took place in his own office. There is no reason why a compromise should be dismissed out of hand.
The decision to shut Sadr's newspaper was ill-advised to say the least, as any move to impose censorship often is. Having made its point, the Coalition should now allow the paper to resume publication.
The broader political picture also needs to be reviewed. Sadr's militia must be disarmed, by force if necessary. But the young mullah and his supporters must also be offered a place in the emerging political spectrum in Iraq ahead of general elections.
Like all who use violence in pursuit of political aims, Sadr knows he would fare badly in any free election. This is why, shut out of the process, he will do all he can to disrupt elections. The best way to counter Sadr and other anti-democratic figures and groups in Iraq is to speed up the electoral process and bring forward the date at which Iraqis will be able to choose their rulers for the first time.
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