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Iraq: Could U.S. Have Acted Differently To Prevent Recent Violence?

Muqtada al-Sadr U.S. and other coalition forces in Iraq have long had to contend with bloody resistance from Saddam Hussein loyalists and other insurgents, much of it centered in the restive "Sunni Triangle" north and west of Baghdad. For the most part, there has been little trouble from Iraq's Shi'a. But the arrest of an aide to the outspoken Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr led to a violent response by his followers over the weekend. Dozens of Iraqis and at least nine coalition soldiers have died in the clashes. Now, an arrest warrant has been issued for al-Sadr himself. Did the coalition wait too long to crack down on the cleric, or should it have cracked down at all?

Washington, 6 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As they have many times in the past, U.S. military officials say they have enough troops to maintain control in Iraq, but are also reportedly considering adding to the force if the current violence gets much worse.

That report emerged yesterday from the Pentagon after weekend violence by armed followers of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. At least nine coalition soldiers and almost 50 Iraqis have been killed in confrontations related to the protests.

U.S. President George W. Bush says the violence will not weaken U.S. resolve in bringing democracy to Iraq. Speaking in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bush said: "The desire for those who do not want there to be a free and democratic Iraq is to shake our will through acts of violence and terrorism. It's not only our will. It's the will of other coalition forces, and it's the will of the Iraqi people."

"It may be the sort of thing, however, where being decisive and firmly going after people who have been implicated in crimes is the only alternative, and there is no neat, easy, painless way to deal with this kind of a group."
An Iraqi judge has issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr in connection with the killing of another Shi'a leader, Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khoi, last year. But the question remains whether the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq could have acted differently to avoid the recent violence.

Michael O'Hanlon believes the occupying forces could not have done much, if anything, to prevent it. O'Hanlon is a foreign policy analyst specializing in military affairs at the Brookings Institution, a private research center in Washington.

O'Hanlon told RFE/RL that, despite the outlawing of armed militias in Iraq, the United States was reluctant to disarm them to avoid provoking the kind of violence that occurred during the weekend. Instead, the idea was to move slowly and try to incorporate militias into an Iraqi security force rather than demand that the militias surrender their weapons.

"When you disarm people, you're actually confronting them with the demand that they give up the one thing they have that can protect them and perhaps also help them get power. It is one of the most fundamentally political, fundamentally dangerous things you can attempt in ongoing civil strife. And for that reason, I do not criticize U.S. authorities and coalition authorities who chose to only make this an issue now," O'Hanlon said.

O'Hanlon conceded that last week's arrest of one of al-Sadr's top aides, Mustapha al-Yaqubi, on charges also related to al-Khoi's murder, may have been risky. He notes that in 1993, when U.S. troops were part of a UN peacekeeping force in the East African nation of Somalia, they sparked bloody armed resistance by mounting a manhunt for a leading Somali warlord, Farrah Aidid.

O'Hanlon said the arrest in Iraq seems to have had the same result. "There is the risk that when you do that sort of thing, you are escalating a confrontation, and I'm not prepared to say it was definitely a mistake, but it's the sort of thing where we, at a minimum, should have anticipated the possibility of this kind of reaction," he said. "It may be the sort of thing, however, where being decisive and firmly going after people who have been implicated in crimes is the only alternative, and there is no neat, easy, painless way to deal with this kind of a group."

Anthony Cordesman is a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. State and Defense departments. He told RFE/RL that, with the exception of Kurds in the north, Iraqis have seldom greeted coalition forces as liberators. He said recent polls show that about one-third of Iraqi Shi'a did not support the U.S.-led invasion and now oppose the occupation of their country. He cites one survey that found 12 percent of Shi'a support violence against coalition troops and their immediate withdrawal.

Cordesman said sending forces into such hostile areas is virtually impossible from a military standpoint. He said it made sense to leave al-Sadr alone as long as he was merely talking.

Cordesman said that for coalition forces to have tried previously to neutralize al-Sadr -- arrest him, perhaps -- would have been counterproductive, either because another Shi'a leader would have taken his place or, worse, an arrest might have incited the kind of violence they were trying to avoid.

"The problem lay in the fact that [al-Sadr] became increasingly more threatening with time, largely not so much because of his opposition to the United States, but as we move toward 30 June, people in Iraq are making fundamental power struggles. And [al-]Sadr wants to carve out a leading, if not dominant, role among the Shi'ites. He also wants to carve out a role that isn't dependant on the kind of government the coalition is trying to create," he said.

Cordesman said he believes many of today's problems in Iraq are rooted in the coalition's lack of preparation for the aftermath of the invasion. "There's absolutely no question that if we had performed the security mission immediately after the fall of Saddam, it would have made the political and economic aspects of nation building far easier," he said. "It would have saved us hundreds of millions -- if not billions -- of dollars. It would have saved hundreds -- if not thousands -- of American and coalition and Iraqi lives, and created a much more stable basis for the work of the coalition."

Cordesman concluded that, because the United States did not prepare for such eventualities before, during or after major combat in Iraq, it can expect continued losses of both money and lives.

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