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Shi'a Pundit

Devoted to the viewpoint of Islam of Muhammad SAW and Amir ul-Mumineen, Ali ibn Abi Talib SA, in the Shi'a Fatimi Ismaili Dawoodi Bohra tradition.

April 29, 2004

live by the sword, die by the sword.

I'll admit to being all over the pessimism-optimism axis on the issue of Muqtada Sadr and the threat he poses to both eventual Iraqi liberty and the fate of the holy sites in Najaf. But Juan Cole has reported a real reason to hope:

Some teachers in the Najaf seminaries called upon radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to leave the shrine of Imam Ali, just as the Imam Husayn had departed from Mecca (when he led his uprising against the Umayyad empire in 680-81). This according to the Iranian newspaper, Baztab. The seminarians said that it was obvious that Muqtada's bloody confrontation with the US was doomed to fail, and that he should do the right thing and take his fight out of Najaf so as to protect it, just as Imam Husayn had protected Mecca.

This is precisely the correct manner in which to address the misuse of religion - by fighting fire with fire. If Sadr - or Osama bin Laden for that matter - choose to wrap themselves in religious justification for their essentially political causes, then they must be forced to discover that the mantle of religion has thorns of responsibility.

Sadr has likened the occupation forces to Yazid, the tyrannical caliph who ruled Damascus and upon whose orders Imam Husain AS was martyred. Sadr was very quick to adopt the rhetoric of Husain's AS martyrdom - now he must be held to that standard.

There has been a lot of critique against Ayatollah Sistani for not doing enough, but I detect his hand in the message above. The point here is that Sistani at all costs wants to avoid the fate of the earlier British imperial adventure in Iraq, where the Shi'a rose up in religious war and ultimately lost any influence over its governance, ensuring decades of oppression under the Ba'ath. Diana Moon has argued that Sistani wants the same outcome as Sadr, namely a theocratic state on the model of Iran, but that's just not accurate. Sistani has consistently moved to support the cause of direct democracy, and criticized the CPA and Bremer for not moving quickly enough. Direct democracy is incompatible with the Iranian model, as we saw last year with the full-scale boycott of the Iranian elections by the reformers. Sistani does not want that path, and has supported the constitutional process. Sadr is the one who sees democracy as a threat, and he is rightly the one who needs to be marginalized. In doing so, however, lies great risk, and only Sistani's behind-the-scenes maneuvering can prevent Sadr from achieving the notoriety he desires.

UPDATE: There are some Shi'a in Najaf willing to take up arms against those who wrap themselves in the flag of Islam, unjustly:

In a deadly expression of feelings that until now were kept quiet, a group representing local residents is said to have killed at least five militiamen in the last four days.

The murders are the first sign of organised Iraqi opposition to Sadr’s presence and come amid simmering discontent at the havoc their lawless presence has wreaked.

The group calls itself the Thulfiqar Army, after a twin-bladed sword said to be used by the Shiite martyr Imam Ali, to whom Najaf’s vast central mosque is dedicated.

Residents say leaflets bearing that name have been circulated in the city in the last week, urging Sadr’s al-Mahdi army to leave immediately or face imminent death.

The name Thulfikar is very significant indeed, to a Shi'a. This is the highest form of jihad I have seen, because they fight not against non-muslims doing their duty, but against pseudo-muslims who try to subvert the faith. I've engaged in a verbal form of jihad against the same enemy myself. Sadr's little blasphemy is also triggerring a larger, non-violent backlash that has yet to crest.

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April 25, 2004

Occupation hinges on Najaf.

I daresay that war supporters will agree with me on the headline, but not the specifics. But George W. Bush is the one who ultimately will make the final decision about whether to invade Najaf or not. On that decision, the fate of Iraq rests.

I have long argued that jihad is primarily seen as a non-violent duty by the majority of the world's muslims. That simple truth is proved daily by the failure of one billion muslims rising up across the world in violence. But there IS a legitimate violent interpretation of jihad - the defense of faith.

If the US enters Najaf, then there will be a legitimate jihad. The cause of resistance to an invasion of Najaf will be a just one.

It will break my heart.

I don't want a single hair on a single soldier harmed. They are my American brothers, this is my nation, and they are not my enemy. But Najaf is the city of Ali AS. I cannot and will not fault those who live there from taking up arms to defend the holy shrine. There is no cause to invade Najaf - none. The responsibility for the decision will lie upon one man - George W. Bush - but its consequences will lie upon the soldiers of my nation, and he will escape judgement for the time being.

Events once set in motion often cannot be undone. Invading Najaf is a nexus point. Remember it, for history will pay great attention to it in hindsight.

I may have to cease blogging entirely, cease reading entirely, cease doing any political analysis entirely, if this happens. I cannot bear it.

UPDATE: Andrew writes with a good question about my attitude towards Muqtada Sadr and his claim to the mantle of a defender of the faith:

I just read your last entry and was wondering whether as a Shi'ite you would see Sadr as a defender of the Shi'ite holy places or as an interloper who seized control of them from the rightful religious hierarchy without any authority save that of his own aggrandizement.

Absolutely not - I agree with the assessment of Sadr as a craven opportunist. However, the sentiment to which he has attached himself, parasitically, is a valid one. I see an assault on Najaf (unlike the liberation of Najaf last year) as being legitimately interpreted as an assault on faith, and anyone who fights to defend it as having a legitimate claim to performing true jihad (unlike suicide terrorists attacking innocent Jews).

I should also clarify that I myself do NOT think an assault on Najaf would be an assault on Islam, but that is my personal feeling and interpretation based on my own bias as an American ans other biases from being Bohra which are not relevant here. But to the Shi'a living in Najaf, I cannot fault them from drawing such a conclusion any more than I can fault those Americans who think 9-11 symbolized an assault upon Western ideals.

As usual, I find myself on both sides, paralyzed utterly.

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April 22, 2004

Arab Times (Kuwait) praises Syedna Burhanuddin TUS.

This is a nice editorial in the Arab Times, the leading english daily in Kuwait. Syedna TUS just visited Kuwait after observances of Chelum (also called Arbain) in Dubai, and was personally welcomed by the Amir. The article full text:

By Ali Al-Baghli, Former Minister of Oil

THE recent visit of Syedna Dr Mohammad Burhanuddin, the spiritual head of the Bohra Islamic community to Kuwait at the invitation of HH the Amir gives us an opportunity to highlight some facts about this community. Minister of Amiri Diwan Affairs Sheikh Nasser Mohammad Al-Ahmad officially received Dr Mohammad Burhanuddin. The reception organised by the Bohra community, whose members are involved in various business activities, at one of the sports clubs was a spectacular affair with all of them wearing their traditional shiny white robes. Unlike some Muslim leaders who give fiery speeches in support of extremism, Dr Mohammad Burhanuddin addressed his followers with nice words.

This was in stark contrast to the speeches of Islamic leaders from Pakistan, Iran, Palestine, Algeria and other countries who breathe fire, giving Islam a bad name.
Syedna Dr Mohammad Burhanuddin began by thanking God for giving him the opportunity to visit Kuwait and urged his community to serve the country which has welcomed them and given them their livelihood. He asked them to abide by the teachings of Islam, give donations and seek profits which are "Halal." Stressing the importance of offering prayers five times a day, Dr Mohammad Burhanuddin urged his followers to promote commerce and industry, abide by Kuwaiti laws and contribute to the development of Kuwait.

We have missed such well-meaning speeches for a long time. Most of the Islamic leaders, who visited Kuwait in the past, have always tended to talk about politics, stirring disputes and calling for Jihad. What we need is religious leaders in the mould of Syedna Dr Mohammad Burhanuddin. May Almighty Allah give him a long life.

Amin! There is a large community of Bohras in Kuwait and Syedna TUS has always urged them, as with Bohras living in the United States and the West, to place an emphasis on good citizenship and civic responsibility - while also remaining steadfast in opposition to any compromise on the duties of faith.

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April 17, 2004

Sistani's hidden hand.

translations via Juan Cole, the Shi'a clergy are taking two hard lines. For Sadr and the Mehdi Army, they have called upon him to reject violence, and if he refuses, then go fight and lose as is forordained outside Najaf so that the civilians don't pay any further price for his folly:

ash-Sharq al-Awsat: The clerics of the Najaf seminaries have called upon the Army of the Mahdi to go fight the Americans outside the city if they must, so as to avoid the spilling of innocent blood. They called on the militia to pursue peaceful methods and to avoid violence, whatever the motivation. "If you reject our advice and decide to confront them, then remove yourselves from the city of Najaf, and take on the Occupier out there where there are no human beings or buildings, so that you do not burden others with the consequences of your decision, which is foreordained to be a failure."

This is almost a poetic reprimand. It says in no uncertain terms that Sadr is harming the Shi'a cause, without granting one iota of ground to the Occupation. The "foreordained to be a failure" part is key to understanding the subtext here.

The tone is equally harsh for the Occupation, however. In a stern warning, Sistani forbids the military from entering Najaf. Juan Cole points out that Sistani's representative has essentially promised a true uprising from the Shi'a is the Coalition tries to take on Najaf the way they did Falluja. Coming from a moderate like Sistani, that's a shicking promise, but I have to confess that a frank assessment of my own feelings reveals an intense hostility towards the idea. I can't predict my own emotions should the Coalition wage war on Najaf - it's safe to assume that if Rumsfeld doesn't understand what he is dealing with here, there could be a true Shi'a revolt that will make the Mehdi Army fighting look like lovers' quarrel.

We are literally on the brink of losing Iraq completely.

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April 15, 2004

noble savages.

Daniel Pipes argues that muslims can't handle democracy:

This history suggests that the coalition's grand aspirations for Iraq will not succeed. However constructive its intentions to build democracy, the coalition cannot win the confidence of Muslim Iraq nor win acceptance as its overlord. Even spending $18 billion in one year on economic development does not improve matters.

I therefore counsel the occupying forces quickly to leave Iraqi cities and then, when feasible, to leave Iraq as a whole. They should seek out what I have been calling for since a year ago: a democratically minded Iraqi strongman, someone who will work with the coalition forces, provide decent government, and move eventually toward a more open political system.

This sounds slow, dull and unsatisfactory. But at least it will work -- in contrast to the ambitious but failing current project.

I wonder if Saddam Hussein is available? After all, it seems to work just fine with Hosni Mubarak. This is the same kind of anti-democracy, racist-imperialist condescension that Ralph Peters put on fine display last year. Admirers of both should take heed.

Frankly, I find Fareed Zakaria to be a more honest, principled, and relevant analyst:

It is conventional wisdom that the United States should stay engaged with Iraq for years. Of course it should, but for this to work Iraqis must welcome the help. In the face of escalating anti-Americanism, U.S. involvement in Iraq will be unsustainable ... Washington has a final window of opportunity to end the myriad errors that have marked its occupation and adopt a new strategy.

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April 14, 2004

victimhood is self-fulfilling.

It angers me that Muslim student organizations think that radical conspiracy nutjobs such as Mohamed al-Asi are worth associating with[1]. Fools such as these undermine the sincere, legitimate efforts at reaching out and building bridges that MSAs/PSAs North America-wide are making. Unfortuately, until such influences within local chapters are disavowed publicly and angrily, the guilt will indeed continue by association. Such judgements are not just nor morally defensible, but are alas the pragmatic reality. The MSA/PSA groups at the national level have a responsibility to police themselves if they want to be judged by the peak of their efforts, not their nadir.

Given that the extremist rhetoric is still a minority, there is serious denial among most American muslims of the need to confront it. In discussing the issue with some fellow muslims, one argued, "It seems that no Muslim will be free from guilt by association unti-unless he ceases to be one, and perhaps not even then."

I disagree. Victimhood is a poor foundation for self-identity.

For the Jewish community, Finkelstein argues as much in his book The Holocaust Industry. A better model however is the concept of slavery reparations. Prominent black intellectuals have spoken out against the idea, arguing solidly from the position of a moral high ground that utterly rejects the passivity of the victim in charting their own fate. However, the segment of the Black community that insists on victimization as their identity crutch continues to sacrifice their own potential on its altar - one example is the emergence of "Black Studies" programs at minority colleges.

A side note - Martin Luther King himself is often invoked by victimhood-revisionists in support of reparations, using this quote from his 1964 book, "Why We Can't Wait" :

No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries... Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of a the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.

What King refers to here is explicitly NOT a payment but a program, to help even the imbalance suffered by the Black community due to the legacy of slavery. Affirmative action essentially answers that call, but the sense of victimhood is so powerful among certain blacks that they debase themselves in seeking money, not opportunity.

Victimhood is simply beneath a people of dignity[2]. Rather than rail uselessly at the reactions of outsiders to your community's worst excesses, it is more productive to turn inwards and root those excesses out, and let the chips of judgement fall where they may. The only judgement that matters in the end if Allah's.

[1]I would not have come across this story if not for LGF. Charles (whom I find far less objectionable than Daniel Pipes) may see little difference between me and a Hamas terrorist, but LGF provides a service to me in my jihad against the extremism which thankfully still remains a minority view in the American muslim community. Victimhood, however, remains a majority view, and there is a clear path from one to the other that I find myself struggling to obstruct.
[2]The link is to a truly great essay by Ismail Royer on victimhood, the best line of which is, "Since victims are all the rage nowadays, it's hard to blame Muslims in America for having a tendency to whine as well." The essay is an important and frank look at the destructive nature of victimhood upon a community's sense of identity, and correctly points out the trend is not unqie to Jews, muslims, or any other group. Rejecting victimhood is a responsibility of all communities - including Americans post-/11. There is a difference between being a victim and being a target. On the topic of Royer, I explicitly will state that my high regard of his writings and thoughts is is no way undermined by my personal opinion of him for being a complete and utter fool. The sheer idiocy of the man in his personal affairs is mind-boggling. Royer provides another example of an extremist action undermining important yeoman's work towards the mainstream, only this time combined in a single man.

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April 9, 2004

Sadr calls for end to hostilities.

translation by Juan Cole:

' In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

"They plot, and God plots, and God is the best of plotters." God, the exalted, the great, has spoken truly.

To the Army of the Mahdi, the Office of the Speaking, Fighting Center of Religious Learning, and to the followers of the martyred Sayyid [Sadiq] al-Sadr, and all Muslims:

We formerly requested the withrdrawal of the American forces of occupation from our country, and the erection of an Islamic state. But after the iniquitous attack on us on the part of the American Zionist forces of occupation, we recently asked for the release of Shaikh Mustafa al-Ya`qubi and the reopening of our newspaper, which speaks out, they replied to us with gunfire and the response of rabble. Many of our sons and brothers, Sunni and Shiite, have been martyred. But it has also reached us that a rebellious faction has infiltrated your ranks and deliberately attempted to fan the flames of turmoil, committing plunder and looting of governmental offices that offer services, and of the stalls of money changers. They closed the doors of the universities and seminaries in such a way as to distort the image of Islam and of Muslims, and of the Army of the Mahdi. We do not fear the forces of the infidel American army or the communiques of Bremer and Kimmit. After the intervention of a number of learned clerics and Iraqi personalities and tribal notables, we have decided (we, the office of the martyered Sayyid al-Sadr), to halt the military operations and gatherings, and to stop the disturbance of secure citizens, to halt the attacks on their honor, and to apprehend these rebellious elements and to surrender them to the office of the speaking, fighting religious Center.

We continue to demand the release of all those imprisoned, and the reopening of our newspaper. We urge that action be confined to peaceful retreats after the Friday prayers on 19 Safar 1425, in the Kufa Mosque only.

All believing brethren in all the provinces must prepare to fulfill their religious duties through this sit-in, and to prevent enemies of Islam from infiltrating their ranks.

Muqtada al-Sadr
17 Safar 1425 '

UPDATE: via Brian Ulrich, looks like there may be negotiations between the CPA and Sadr. Bremer however seems to be dead-set against it - probably because (as Atrios notes) the Administration has a "terrorist" mindset when dealing with Sadr rather than an "opposition army" (the military does call Sadr's militia "ACF" or Anti-Coalition Forces). Professor Juan Cole points out how arbitrary the hard line on Sadr has been, given that there have been plenty of other militias that the Coalition and CPA have actively embraced and invited to take part.

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April 8, 2004

legitimate targets.

Tacitus argues that the bombing of the wall of a mosque compound in Falluja was a legitimate action, since the compound was being used by insurgents. I agree. He also gently mocks Jim Henley's argument that we have crossed a line from Republic to Imperium in doing so. I disagree.

There is indeed cause for Muslims to be outraged. Not that the Coalition bombed the wall of the mosque compound, but that the Sunni resistance entered the mosque with the intent of drawing fire. At that point it was the fighters who desecrated the sanctuary of the mosque, converting it into a military installation rather than a house pof worship. At that point, why should the Coalition forces continue to unilaterally assign a religious function to the structure when the occupants themselves have changed its status? Note that there is precedent: the Abbey of Monte Cassino was destroyed for much the same reasons in WWII.

Tacitus wrongly argues that mosques play a unique role in incitement of the resistance, however. There are enough examples of churches, synagouges, and monasteries as incubators of religious violence throughout history to illustrate the point, but that topic is best left for another post.

While it's essentially beyond dispute that the Falluja mosque was a legitimate target once it was occupied by armed fighters as a base from which to attack the Coalition troops, there is indeed a line that can be crossed. Tacitus recognized this earlier:

we are faced with the delicious prospect of an all-out urban assault on one of the worldwide epicenters of Shi'ism. Did I say delicious? Try awful: there will be no rational response from the Shi'a on this one. I remember one of my Shi'a co-workers having a minor freakout at the sight of American troops, in April '03, approaching the Imam 'Ali mosque -- the kufr are about to do something haram! -- and that was back when they were unambiguously liberating the place. Transpose the situation and the inculcated paranoia to an utterly non-Westernized populace without the capacity to distinguish between Saddam and Bremer, and you've got a recipe for a fanatical defense on the scale of Berlin '45. Not saying it will happen. Just that the ingredients are there.

I had a bit of a minor freakout myself last year when it was fedayeen holed up in the Tomb of Ali. The fact that the Tomb was scrupulously preserved is testament to recognition of Henley's point. There is a point at which we will unambiguously have fallen from the grace of our own self-interest, let alone Iraq's (however the two are bound). Muqtada Sadr has taken refuge in Najaf today and he will do his utmost to try and make us cross that line.

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on the wrong side.

this is actually a good sign in some respects:

THOUSANDS of Sunni and Shiite Muslims forced their way through US military checkpoints Thursday to ferry food and medical supplies to the besieged Sunni bastion of Fallujah where US marines are trying to crush insurgents.

Troops in armoured vehicles tried to stop the convoy of cars and pedestrians from reaching the town located 50 kilometers west of Baghdad.

But US forces were overwhelmed as residents of villages west of the capital came to the convoy's assistance, hurling insults and stones at the beleaguered troops.

Had the military been given the resources by Bush and the GOP Congress, they could have distributed teh food themselves. But the incompetence of the Administration is such that our soldiers are in the position of trying (and failing) to hold BACK humanitarian supplies.

Still, any sign of Shi'a-Sunni unity is good for Iraq, in the long run...

UPDATE: (via Juan Cole) - insubordinationby US troops on humanitarian grounds:

The relief convoy was a joint Sunni-Shiite operation, and protesters carried posters of assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Muqtada al-Sadr. It seems to me from reading between the lines in the press reporting that some US troops let some of the food and supplies into the city as an act of insubordination toward Donald Rumsfeld, refusing to fire on unarmed civilians to stop them from entering the city with food. Pan-Islam and Sunni-Shiite unity in the face of encroaching Western powers have been a political dream since the time of Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in the 19th century, but have usually proven futile. Donald Rumsfeld has finally made al-Afghani's dream come true.

Is there any greater evidence to date of the disconnect between the facts on the ground that our troops are valiantly and honorably dealing with and the fantasy-world of the Administration safely ensconced in Crawford Texas?

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April 7, 2004

Sadr and Sistani.

Sadr simultaneously has rebuffed Sistani's call to peace:

Sistani has made declarations in the past calling on Iraqis to respect state institutions and public order. He has not spoken directly on the violence involving Sadr's supporters, but he is expected to make a statement in the next few days.

"The Hawza (seminary) is unanimous on this," the aide said.

"We asked Moqtada (al-Sadr) to stop resorting to violence, occupying public buildings and other actions that make him an outlaw. He insists on staying on the same course that could destroy the nation."

He said Moqtada had refused to meet a tribal delegation and representatives of Bahr al-Uloum at the main mosque of Kufa, near the holy city of Najaf, where he is staging a sit-in with armed followers.

"The delegation met Moqtada's aides, who did not express interest in relying on wisdom and patience," the aide said.

A Shi'ite religious source said Sadr has moved from Kufa to Najaf's Imam Ali shrine, the holiest Shi'ite site in Iraq, and armed followers have closed off streets leading to the shrine.

and wrapped himself in Sistani's authority:

He also aligned himself with Iraq's most influential religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. "I proclaim my solidarity with Ali Sistani, and he should know that I am his military wing in Iraq," he said.

Mr. Sadr, whose followers on Sunday began the most serious insurrection of the postinvasion period, said, "I will put the city with the golden dish between Ali Sistani's hands after liberation."

The golden dish refers to the golden shrines of Najaf, some of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. Najaf, south of Baghdad, is the home of Ayatollah Sistani, who is considered much more moderate than Mr. Sadr. On Sunday, Ayatollah Sistani issued a religious decree urging Iraq's Shiites to stay calm.

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losing the Occupation.

This is pretty serious news:

U.S. Marines in a fierce battle for this Sunni Muslim stronghold fired rockets that hit a mosque compound filled with worshippers Wednesday, and witnesses said as many as 40 people were killed. Shiite-inspired violence spread to nearly all of the country.
An Associated Press reporter in Fallujah saw cars ferrying the dead and wounded from the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque. Witnesses said a helicopter fired three missiles into the compound, destroying part of a wall surrounding the mosque but not damaging the main building.

The strike came as worshippers had gathered for afternoon prayers, witnesses said. Temporary hospitals were set up in private homes to treat the wounded and prepare the dead for burial.

The AP article quoted has an extensive summary of the fighting across Iraq as well.

There's a fair question to be asked as to why the situation has deteriorated this badly. The fact that a mosque was struck is, from the public relations perspective, a coup for the resistance to the occupation, because it legitimizes their rhetoric.

As Steven den Beste reminds us, it is impolite to correct your enemy when they are making a mistake (though of course SDB made the observation in a different context). In this case, we are Al-Qaeda's enemy and our presence in Iraq is the mistake, because it has made us uniquely vulnerable to their rhetoric of a war against Islam.

But we ARE in Iraq and the situation IS a quagmire - a bad situation from which withdrawal would immediately make things worse. If we left Iraq, then the result would be a Iran-style theocracy in short order. Muqtada al-Sadr's Iranian sympathizers are watching the Resistance with anticipation. Remember that Al-Qaeda's ties to Iran were always stronger than to the tenous Iraq connections asserted by Bush apologists. (for excellent documentation of Al-Qaeda's Iranian sponsorship, see Dan Darling's blog - links forthcoming).

George W. Bush's Administration remains committed to the nonsensical June 30th "handover" deadline, though the earlier promise of troop draw-down has been rescinded. For a thorough discussion of the problems imposed by the June 30th deadline, see Spencer Ackerman's latest entry on the Iraq'd blog at TNR. John Kerry's critique of the June 30th date is concise and cogent:

"I think the June 30 deadline is a fiction and they never should have set an arbitrary deadline, which almost clearly has been affected by the election schedule in the United States of America," Kerry told National Public Radio in an interview to be broadcast Wednesday.
"If all we do is make war against the Iraqi people and continue an American occupation fundamentally without a clarity to who and how sovereignty is being turned over, we have a very serious problem from the long run here and I think this administration is just walking dead center down into that trap," Kerry said.

"As I have said since day one, what you need is to minimize the perception and reality of an American occupation."

Kerry's last statement (emphasis mine) is the key to understanding why the Resistance has gone from mere rhetoric to shed blood - the Administration has taken a heavy handed and ideologically-driven approach to management of the Occupation itself. Consider these mis-steps:

1. Disbanding of the Iraq Army, resulting in hundreds of thousands of unemployed ex-military men with no means of income.
2. Recruitment of former Mukhabarat operatives to work within the Coalition Provisional Authority
3. Giving the Pentagon control over reconstruction funds, leading to enormous cost overruns for basic troop/equipment supplies such as gasoline and rations, and shutting out local Iraqi contractors from the bidding process
4. The aliennation of our democratic allies resulting in less resources to rebuild Iraq's still-crippled infrastructure
5. The schizophrenia of the Administration itself in reconciling the neo-con Defense Department with the traditionalist State Department.

All of this has helped feed the perception of the Occupation as an imperialist enterprise, not a truely benevolent one. Sadr was quite saavy in establishing a "shadow government" in direct opposition to the CPA, and by creating organizations that filled the void of basic services in the south and in Baghdad (his power base). But his political influence was still marginal until the Administration legitimized him, by targeting him. It's clear that closing down Sadr's newspaper, which granted was inflammatory and hostile to occupation, was a massive overstep, instantly undermining the claim that America seeks to support freedom of expression in the new Iraq. Going after Sadr's lieutenants likewise fed into Sadr's stature. It's clear that by escalating the issue, we pushed Sadr into an active role - one which he, as a paranoid firebrand whose father was persecuted and executed by Saddam, and whose people were abandoned by the former President Bush when they attempted to revolt - had assumed would happen anyway, and prepared accordingly. There was never any deep reservoir of benefit of the doubt for our (American) intentions, and our recent actions have only strengthened those suspicions into certainty.

For Sadr, and an increasing number of Shi'a, the perception of the Occupation is irrevocably changed. The bombing of the mosque compound will only increase Sadr's mindshare.

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April 6, 2004

The Army of the Mehdi advances.

The House of Ali AS has fallen to Muqtada Sadr's control:

Supporters of maverick Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr controlled government, religious and security buildings in the holy city of Najaf early Tuesday evening, according to a coalition source in southern Iraq.

The source said al-Sadr's followers controlled the governor's office, police stations and the Imam Ali mosque, one of Shia Muslim's holiest shrines.

Iraqi police were negotiating to regain their stations, the source said.

The source also said al-Sadr was busing followers into Najaf from Sadr City in Baghdad and that many members of his outlawed militia, Mehdi's Army, were from surrounding provinces.

Recent polling by a consortium including the BBC suggests that most Shi'a do not support attacks on Coalition forces, which is good news for now. If Sadr were to achieve his dream of rallying and uniting all Iraqi Shi'a under his (Iranian-funded) banner, the occupation would effectively be over.

However, Sadr has proved to be an adept strategist. Moving his offices to Najaf and asserting control over the shrines gives him a pulpit for his claim to legitimacy. It also makes it much harder to separate Sadr from the broader Shi'a community - trying to apprehend him would now require a massed attack on Najaf, which unlike Sunni Falluja is the epicenter of faith along with Karbala for the Shi'a majority across Iraq.

It's unlikely that Sadr will succeed in rallying the majority to his side, but one mis-step or heavy-handed tactic (not unlike closing his newspaper) could dramatically change Sadr's image. Especially since Sadr has established a "shadow" government and his organization is providing basic services in eth absence and inability of the Occupation forces to do so.

As Juan Cole reports, Sadr's Iranian religious connections are also doing their part to buttress his credentials:

Grand Ayatollah Kadhim al-Ha'iri, now resident in Qom in Iran but the major clerical successor to Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (Muqtada's father), warned the Americans against "these reckless actions" on Monday, referring to the crackdown on the Sadrists. He complained that seminary students had become the targets of the Occupation authorities. He said he knew from the beginning that the Americans had not come to Iraq to liberate it from darkness, and now his conviction had been proven correct. He complained that the Americans had begun "making war on this community [the Shiites], dishonoring them, imprisoning their clerics and believers, killing their children, and striking at their ancient intellectual positions. "This is all taking place in the name of freedom and democracy."

There is no word from Ayatollah Sistani yet on the occupation of the Tomb of Ali by the Mehdi Army - I think that Sistani now has more leverage with the Coalition in one respect, because he will be essential in countering Sadr's coup on religious grounds. However, te longer Sistani waits to assert his authority, the weaker it will be.

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April 5, 2004

the merging front.

Has the Iraqi civil war truly begun? Events are certainly proceeding in parallel to my own worst-case scenario back in June.

Before the Shi'a uprising, we were fighting a war on two fronts in Iraq: the Al-Qaeda infiltration which sought to turn Shi'a against Sunnis, and the Ba'ath guerilla insurgency which seeks to restore Saddam's regime. Muqtada Sadr's timing fo rhis insurgency was impeccable, given the Sunni-led insurrection in Falluja and the slowly-building American military response; it's not an exaggeration to say that retaliation in Falluja will consume a significant fraction of the military's resources in Iraq. Fears of Mogadishu will ensure that these resources are spent in Falluja, giving Sadr's Mehdi Army that much more breathing room to pose a direct challenge.

The result is that a response to the Shi'a uprising will require heavy reliance on Iraqi civil defense troops - who are also not professional enough to be fully trusted. In fact those Iraqi forces turned on the American troops yesterday:

US Apache helicopters sprayed fire on the private army of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr during fierce battles today in the western Baghdad district of Al-Showla, witnesses and an AFP correspondent said.

"Two Apaches opened fire on armed members of the Mehdi Army," said Showla resident Abbas Amid.

The fighting erupted when five trucks of US soldiers and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) tried to enter the district and were attacked by Sadr supporters, Amid said.

Coming under fire, the ICDC, a paramilitary force trained by the Americans, turned on the US soldiers and started to shoot at them, according to Amid.

The soldiers fled their vehicles and headed for cover and then began to battle both the Mehdi Army and the ICDC members, he said. Their vehicles were set ablaze.

Now, we fight a three-front war. And our troops have no allies, whereas the three fronts show every sign of an emergent cooperation:

Immediately after the Kufa firefight, representatives arrived to consult with Sadr officials from the Badr Organization, the militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and a delegation from the Dawa Party, the two most prominent Shiite parties represented on the U.S.-appointed Governing Council.

But armed men from Fallujah and Baqubah -- centers of resistance in the Sunni heartland west and north of Baghdad -- also appeared at the mosque, offering support.

Sistani is calling for calm but this stage will need to play itself out before it can be brought back into control. Assassinating Sadr will likely cause things to get worse in the short term, and have an unknown effect on the long term - I suspect that Sadr is replaceable and that there is no shortage of firebrands willing to take up his banner, especially with his face on it above the word "martyr".

June 30th is coming, an increasingly meaningless date for "handover" of what passes for sovereignity in a nation where the official ruling body is comprised of selected expats, the country is occupied by a foreign military, and a firebrand cleric's homegrown militia is the face of law and order. Islamic theocratic order, to be sure.

permalink | posted by Shi'a Pundit


Nahj-ul Balagha

About Shi'a Pundit

Shi'a Pundit was launched in 2002 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The blog focuses on issues pertaining to Shi'a Islam in the west and in the Islamic world. The author is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community. Bohras adhere to the Shi'a Fatimi tradition of Islam, headed by the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS).

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