11 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. forces are increasingly testing the strength of the Al-Mahdi Army, the armed militia loyal to radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The past few days have seen strong probes by U.S. troops into the militia's strongest bastions -- the Shi'a holy cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala, and the poor and densely packed neighborhood of Baghdad known as Sadr City. The neighborhood is named after Muqtada's late father, a preeminent Shi'a ayatollah.
The U.S. military said yesterday it had destroyed al-Sadr's headquarters in the Baghdad neighborhood. U.S. forces say they have killed some 50 Al-Mahdi Army members in the capital since 9 May.
"In Baghdad, coalition forces conducted offensive operations [on 9 May] in Sadr City to reduce attacks and the overall presence of the Muqtada militia," said Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "Starting at [2 a.m.] last evening, coalition forces conducted a cordon and search in conjunction with the destruction of the Sadr bureau building, to deny its future use by Muqtada militia members. Coalition forces observed numerous accounts of [rocket-propelled grenade] fire from the alleyways directed at their elements as they approached the Sadr bureau and encountered numerous other engagements during the early morning."
The Baghdad fighting comes as Al-Mahdi Army members took to the streets of Iraq's second-largest city, Al-Basrah, over the weekend to launch attacks on British soldiers. The situation there reportedly remains tense.
U.S. officials have vowed to arrest al-Sadr in connection with the assassination last year of a rival Western-leaning Shi'a cleric in Al-Najaf.
The increasing clashes between coalition forces and the Al-Mahdi Army suggest that the crisis around Washington's efforts to arrest al-Sadr now may be moving into a decisive phase after weeks of maneuvering for political advantage on both sides. U.S. officials have vowed to arrest al-Sadr in connection with the assassination last year of a rival Western-leaning Shi'a cleric in Al-Najaf.
On al-Sadr's side, that maneuvering has seen the mid-level cleric -- said to be in his early 30s -- trying to marshal Shi'a discontent into a mass movement capable of sustaining an armed rebellion. His following is highest among poor and jobless Shi'a in slum areas of Sadr City who believe that expelling the coalition would bring them to power after decades of deprivation.
In a typical appeal last week, al-Sadr compared the abuse of prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb Prison by some U.S. soldiers with the brutality of the former regime of Saddam Hussein. Saddam's government, based in the Sunni minority, marginalized and at times persecuted the Shi'a majority to maintain its iron rule.
Al-Sadr said Saddam behaved as expected of a tyrant, while the U.S.-led coalition has sought to dupe Iraqis with promises of democracy. In the past, he has often accused Washington of occupying Iraq for its own gain.
"Saddam never claimed to advocate freedom, democracy, justice or equality, but moreover, he acknowledged that he was a terrorist who suppressed people violently and ruthlessly," al-Sadr said. "So when he committed such acts, or worse than those acts, it was not unusual or, to be more accurate, it was not significant, because a terrorist can only perpetrate terrorism."
But if al-Sadr's message gets a hearing among some segments of the Shi'a population, his efforts to militarily challenge the coalition have exasperated the community's mainstream religious leaders.
A senior Shi'a cleric, Sheikh Sadreddin al-Qubanchi, said on 9 May that the Al-Mahdi Army's presence in Al-Najaf is endangering the shrine city and that it is the duty of all faithful to assure it is not destroyed in fighting.
"We all want to protect the holy places against danger and prevent any possibility that the city will be turned into a military bunker or street fighting," al-Qubanchi said. "And we have to cooperate to achieve this."
Al-Qubanchi is allied with the best-organized Shi'a political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and is said to be close to the most influential Shi'a religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
SCIRI, which fought Saddam from exile in Iran, has its own well-armed militia and participates in the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. It has called for mass protests to expel the Al-Mahdi Army from Al-Najaf.
Today, some 1,000 people marched through the southern holy city carrying portraits of al-Sistani and the leader of SCIRI. Some Al-Mahdi Army members were reported to have fired their guns into the air in an attempt to disperse the marchers, but there was no violence.
News agencies report that in recent weeks popular sentiment in Al-Najaf has increasingly turned against the Al-Mahdi Army, largely for economic reasons. The presence of the armed fighters, and the possibility of a major battle with coalition forces, has dried up the usually lucrative flow of Shi'a pilgrims to the city from elsewhere in Iraq and from Iran.
Last week, U.S. troops probing the outskirts of Al-Najaf said they killed more than 40 fighters in an apparent test of the Al-Mahdi Army's strength. There are some 2,500 U.S. troops around Al-Najaf, but Washington has been cautious about taking immediate military action in the apparent hope that al-Sadr's support will weaken with time.
Al-Sadr's headquarters is near one of the holiest Shi'a shrines, the Imam Ali mosque, which is surrounded by a labyrinth of narrow streets that provide excellent cover for guerrilla fighters. Any campaign to flush out al-Sadr's militia would involve urban fighting likely both to damage the shrine and expose coalition troops to considerable risk.
As the standoff continues, there are reports of emerging Shi'a political initiatives aimed at convincing al-Sadr to end the crisis peacefully before Washington's patience runs out.
The new U.S.-appointed governor of Al-Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi, said today that legal proceedings against al-Sadr over the murder of his rival would be delayed until after 30 June if the cleric disbands his militia. That is the date when the United States is to turn political power over to a sovereign Iraqi government.
At the same time, Shi'a tribal leaders are reported to be working on a deal that would see al-Sadr surrender to them rather than to U.S. forces. The reported deal, which would need approval both from al-Sadr and Washington, envisions giving the cleric the right to approve the names of the judges who would decide his case, in exchange for his pledge to abide by their decision. The Al-Mahdi Army would be turned into a political organization.
A top adviser to Iraqi Governing Council member Salama al-Khafaji has described the negotiating attempt to the U.S. daily "The Washington Times" as a way to save face for all sides.
Adviser Fatih Kashif al-Ghitta said, "It's an attempt to solve the legal question and not just the security question. And to solve it in a way that doesn't humiliate Muqtada, that doesn't humiliate the Iraqi people, and that doesn't humiliate the Americans."