*There was more trouble in Falluja yesterday, where US troops again fired on and killed civilians demonstrating against their presence. The troops allege that Baath loyalists fired at them from the protesting crowds, and they had to fire back. It is a very difficult situation. The troops can’t lose control of the situation, of course, and obviously cannot allow themselves to become sitting ducks. And, the Saddamists still in this Sunni city are deliberately trying to provoke such incidents. A local Sunni cleric advised the troops to withdraw from residential areas and to avoid shooting into the crowds. But those solutions may not deal with the problem, either. I guess I fear that if these demonstrations and killings go on, there is a danger they will completely alienate the Iraqis from the US and British troops. A lot of them aren’t happy at the occupation to begin with, but many are willing to give the US a chance. That number could plummet if this Falluja situation isn’t taken care of. Is it a job for Special Forces, who might be able to track down the Saddamist saboteurs?
*There are rumors in the Arabic press that a US attack on al-Qaeda remnants in Eastern Afghanistan may have netted some more big fish, but I can’t confirm them yet from the Western press. The rumors come on the heels of the Pakistani Ministry of Interior’s capture of Walid bin al-Attash, a key al-Qaeda leader who had been implicated in the bombing of the USS Cole. (I mind them all, but that one I take as a personal affront.) In the same sweep, in Karachi, the Pakistanis caught the nephew of Khalid Shaikh Muhammad.
*The Shiite party-militia Hizbullah in Lebanon is reaffirming its intention to go on fighting in the South until it liberates the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms. How complex the US Iraq mission is can be demonstrated by just one question. If given a choice of supporting 1) Israel, 2) the U.S. or 3) Hizbullah on this issue, which do you think the Iraqi public would choose? Which do you think the Iraqi Shiites would choose?
*SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON of the Knight-Ridder newspapers describes the Friday prayer sermon in Kufa last Friday of Muqtada al-Sadr, the young leader of the Sadr movement: “Sadr challenged the faithful to embrace Islamic rule and turn away from four ayatollahs in Najaf who are the present Shiite spiritual leaders. ‘We are the true believers, not the others,’ Sadr said.*
*In reply on a list to a Le Monde article from Iraq that played down the Shiite radicals:
Sophie Shihab’s report from the ground is very useful, and of course she
is correct that the “radicals” are a minority. I don’t draw the same
conclusion from that fact that she does, though.
The dangers are manifold: 1) That the radicals will gain enough militia
control on the ground to dictate subsequent politics for urban Shiites; 2)
that their popularity will spread to the rural areas; 3) and that
gradually the Iraqi population will get tired of and annoyed with the
Americans, and the radicals will be able to exploit that sentiment to
catapult themselves to political leadership of the South. Point 3)
depends on how long and how ostentatiously the Americans remain. I read
Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz as being eager to push on this issue, and fear a
confrontation down the road.
I doubt the tribal chieftains or the villagers in the South are interested
in radical clerical Shiism in the least. (One exception maybe the
displaced Marsh Arabs). Where the radicals have shown any strength at all,
it largely is in urban places, towns and cities of 50,000 or more.
The phenomena of the Sadr Movement and the SCIRI militias are mainly
important in places like Baquba, Kufa, Najaf, Karbala, to some extent in
Kut, and in the slums of east Baghdad. Since these towns and cities have
a combined population of several million, they are not insignificant, but
they are not a majority of the Shiites, either.
The problem is that they have armed paramilitaries, and these have seized
a good deal of urban territory, raiding Baath arms depots and storing arms
in mosques. It may be possible to roll these neighborhood militias back,
but there could also be trouble about any attempt to do so. The danger
for the Americans is that Shiites do have a certain amount of solidarity.
If US troops shot a number of Sayyids or descendants of the Prophet in
front of a Shiite shrine in the course of putting down a riot, the
resentments could spread rapidly.
Muqtada’s popularity among the poor does not seem impeded by his age (late
20s or 30); they don’t care how many books he has written. He has
cleverly inducted Ayatollah Kazim al-Ha’iri (in exile in Qom) as the
Object of Emulation in whose name he speaks.
And, there are many mysterious things going on. Shaykh Muhammad
al-Fartusi suddenly came from Najaf a couple of weeks ago and began
preaching at one of the largest mosque congregations, al-Hikmah. It now
turns out he says he was sent by al-Ha’iri to take over that mosque. How
did this happen? How many other large mosque congregations are being
essentially usurped by al-Ha’iri’s/ Muqtada’s emissaries? Note that
al-Fartusi is supported by a neighborhood militia of Sadriyyun, and was
briefly arrested for traveling with a fire arm.
While Sistani’s quietism could be a brake on the momentum of the radicals,
it is not clear that he will be happy with the Americans still being there
next year this time, either.
Anyway, it isn’t a matter of simple numbers.