Al-Sadr's Demise?

Ahmed Mukhtar, Al Ahram Weekly (semi-official), Cairo, Egypt, June 1, 2004

An Iraqi Shiite Muslim protects his head from the sun with a poster of his leader while attending midday prayers on May 7, 2004.  (Photo: Marwan Naamani/AFP-Getty Images)

The courtyard of the Al-Abbas shrine in Karbala bears witness to the fierce battles that turned the holy cities into ghost towns. The twisted remains of vehicles, countless bullets and the burnt facades of shops were all that remained of weeks of fighting between Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi militia and U.S.-led occupying forces.

This week, however, in a surprising turn of events, many members of the Al-Mahdi militia who had taken refuge in Karbala at the start of fighting began to flee the city as a result of mounting pressure from the city's residents. On Sunday, while life was returning to normal in Karbala, many Karbala residents remained skeptical about the uneasy peace. "We are still not sure how the situation will unfold," said Haider Hassan, a trader in Karbala, whose business has dried up because of the fighting. Another Karbala resident put the blame on Al-Mahdi militia for the presence of foreign troops near holy shrines. "If the militia had not taken refuge in the shrines," he said, "the occupiers would not have come to fight them."

Signs this week were that Al-Sadr was losing the support of the mainstream Shia movements in the two holy cities. According to sources in Najaf, leading Shia figures have called on Al-Sadr to give up fighting but he has remained defiant. A peace march was organized by some Shia leading figures to protect Al-Abbas and Hussein, the two main religious shrines in the city. Abdul-Mahdi Al-Karabali, representative of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq's most prominent religious figure, reiterated Al-Sistani's call for "all armed groups to leave the city".

For the past few weeks, U.S. military officials have allowed Al-Sadr freedom of movement between Najaf and Kufa where he delivers his Friday sermons. But soon after leaving the Friday prayers, U.S. troops fired on a convoy of cars resembling that of Al-Sadr. During the raid, the troops captured Mohamed Tabtabai, a top Al-Sadr aide. His driver was killed in the attack. Al-Sadr has called on his supporters to continue to rise against the U.S. occupation even if he himself is killed or captured.

The Al-Mahdi militia suffered heavy losses on Sunday after U.S. tanks backed by air cover entered Kufa on Sunday. At least 32 fighters were killed when U.S. troops entered the Sahla mosque, a shrine sacred to Shia pilgrims, which is close to Kufa mosque where Al-Sadr regularly delivers sermons. According to witnesses, tanks smashed through the gates of the mosque compound as helicopters hovered overhead. Blood, spent shells and tank tracks covered the grounds of the mosque compound, the walls riddled with bullet holes. Pools of blood inside the mosque indicated that the injured were left to bleed to death.

While U.S. military officials said they wanted to avoid inflaming religious passions in the two holy cities, they nonetheless added that mosques that are used in combat operations could be considered legitimate military targets.

Iraqis have expressed concern over the consequences of the capture or killing of Al-Sadr. "Although I am a follower of Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani," said Fadhil Ali, an Arabic language teacher, "I can't accept the idea that any Shia cleric be humiliated or insulted."

There was no indication, however, that the Americans would revoke the warrant issued for the arrest of Al-Sadr. The U.S. military spokesman in Iraq Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt said he remained open- minded about progress, but also said that for the confrontation to end peacefully, Al-Sadr would have to surrender and disband his militia. "Meanwhile, we will continue to use our own methods for getting Al-Sadr's militia off the streets," he said.

Ayatollah Mohamed Taqi Al-Modarressi, a key cleric in Karbala, saw matters differently. In a statement issued this week, he accused the Americans of deliberately employing a heavy-handed policy. "It was possible to solve it all peacefully, but the Americans turned down any peaceful settlement," read the statement. He warned against American presence in holy Shia shrines. "The holy cities are of great importance to Muslims in general and Shia in particular." He explained that Al-Sadr was looking for a face-saving way to peacefully leave the city. Iranian and Lebanese Shia leaders echoed Al-Modarressi's statement.

In a letter addressed to the U.S. State Department, Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei warned the Americans against attacking holy shrines. Demonstrations in protest against military action in the holy cities have been taking place in front of the British Embassy in Tehran. On Friday, the secretary-general of Lebanon's Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, voiced the same concerns.

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