US Army Arrests Sadrists in East Baghdad
The US military went into East Baghdad on Thursday with tanks, which stood guard while the soldiers took control of a municipal building and arrested several supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr. The building had been used by a local city council, but al-Sadr’s supporters had invaded it and taken it over last week. This move may have been in anticipation of Muqtada’s announcement of a shadow government. He had made preparations for the announcement, but shelved it when he perceived that the proposal lacked public support.
Muqtada has two sorts of supporters. One is fanatical cadres, the sort who organize and network and preach. The other is passive supporters, who are far more numerous and far less brave and committed. The latter may run to hundreds of thousands or even millions. But they clearly do not wish to take on the Americans at this point, and they are signalling their lack of enthusiasm for such a step to Muqtada. He had asked for neighborhoods to come out and hold rallies in support of the new government and no one did.
The cadres took over the building, and may have bombed a police station last week. The US military appears to have decided to move against the Sadrists, beginning with the cadres. The latter have occupied many buildings in East Baghdad, including hospitals and clinics. They tried to take over the shrine of Imam Husayn in Karbala recently, provoking violence.
It is certainly the case that were Muqtada to succeed in transforming his passive supporters into cadres, it would be very, very bad for Iraq. On the other hand, moving against the cadres will cause a lot of trouble, including demonstrations. The big danger is that if the cadres begin to fear that they are about to be seriously curbed, they might turn away from political and paramilitary organizing to active terrorism on the model of Hizbullah in Lebanon. I presume that Gen. John Abuzaid, an Arabic speaker, is behind the new policy, and knows the dangers. It is either a shrewd move of preventive surgery or a precursor to the further radicalization of an important segment of religious Shiites. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, Muqtada’s aides are admitting that the stalling of the plan for a shadow government has cost him support and credibility. They hold out hope that both can be recovered over time. Muqtada himself attempted to portray himself as serving the nationalist cause, saying that he will permanently shelve the alternative government if the US gives more power to the Interim Governing Council and expands it to be more representative (i.e. appoints some Sadrists to it).