April 09, 2007

On The Rise?


"Firebrand" used to be the most common adjective the media attached to Shiite cleric/thug Muqtada al-Sadr. Today the adjective seems to be "powerful," as the two articles below illustrate. But this article reports that al-Sadr is struggling to rebuild his image as a "unifier."

From CNN: Thousands join anti-U.S. march marking Baghdad's fall.

Thousands of anti-U.S. protesters marched in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Monday to mark the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.

Powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for the demonstration, which Najaf police said included tens of thousands of protesters. ...

On Sunday, al-Sadr called on his followers to stop killing Iraqi forces and focus instead on resisting Americans.

In a statement attributed to al-Sadr and released in Najaf the cleric purportedly said insurgents should not be killing Iraqis and that Iraqi police and troops should be on the side of the militias.

"You, the Iraqi army and police forces, do not walk alongside the occupiers because they are your enemy," the statement said. "I am here to advise you the honest resister hope for two things from God: either victory or martyrdom. But at the same time, the honest resister should not kill a fellow Iraqi."

Throughout the weekend, U.S. and Iraqi forces battled al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia south of the capital in Diwaniya.

The New York Times version soft-pedals al-Sadr's comments but has a little more on his history:

Mr. Sadr led two rebellions against the Americans in 2004 and emerged more powerful from each, even though thousands of his fighters were killed. He entered mainstream politics, and his followers now hold at least 30 seats in Parliament and critical cabinet postings. He also has a powerful protector in Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a conservative Shiite who gained the top job because of Mr. Sadr’s support.

Although Mr. Sadr has a home in Najaf, his current whereabouts are a mystery. American military officials say he is in Iran, but supporters insist he is still in Iraq.

Some history not mentioned by NYT: Coalition forces had an arrest warrant for al-Sadr on charges of complicity in the death of a rival Shiite cleric, and al-Sadr has declared his support for Palestinian terrorist groups and said that 9/11 was a miracle from God.

We should not have allowed al-Sadr to get this far.

(As an aside, the NYT article also mentions more Iranian involvement in Iraq: "The American military said Sunday that at least 39 people suspected of being militiamen had been detained during the weekend fighting, and soldiers had uncovered caches of particularly deadly explosives that American officials contended came from Iran.")

UPDATE -- April 10: The New York Times follow-up story at least raises questions about al-Sadr's influence, but there's still no mention of his ugly past: Huge Protest in Iraq Demands U.S. Withdraw.

Tens of thousands of protesters loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric, took to the streets of the holy city of Najaf on Monday in an extraordinarily disciplined rally to demand an end to the American military presence in Iraq, burning American flags and chanting “Death to America!”

Residents said that the angry, boisterous demonstration was the largest in Najaf, the heart of Shiite religious power, since the American-led invasion in 2003. It took place on the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, and it was an obvious effort by Mr. Sadr to show the extent of his influence here in Iraq, even though he did not appear at the rally. Mr. Sadr went underground after the American military began a new security push in Baghdad on Feb. 14, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Mr. Sadr used the protest to try to reassert his image as a nationalist rebel who appeals to both anti-American Shiites and Sunni Arabs. ...

The protest unfolded as heavy fighting continued in parts of Diwaniya, a southern city where American and Iraqi forces have been battling cells of the Mahdi Army since Friday. Mr. Sadr issued a statement on Sunday calling for the Mahdi militiamen and the Iraqi forces there to stop fighting each other, but those words went unheeded. Gun battles broke out on Monday, and an American officer said at a news conference that at least one American soldier had been killed and one wounded in four days of clashes.

That fighting and the protest in Najaf, as well as Mr. Sadr’s mysterious absence, raise questions about how much control he actually maintains over his militia. Mr. Sadr is obviously still able to order huge numbers of people into the streets, but there has been talk that branches of his militia have split off and now operate independently. In Baghdad, some Mahdi Army cells have refrained in the last two months from attacking Americans and carrying out killings of Sunni Arabs, supposedly on orders from Mr. Sadr, but bodies of Sunnis have begun reappearing in some neighborhoods in recent weeks.

Posted by Forkum at April 9, 2007 04:40 PM