May 6, 2004
Senior Shia clerics have given rebel militia leader Muqtada al Sadr an ultimatum to get out of the mosques and shrines in Najaf and Karbala, or else. Its unclear what the or else includes, but there has been an increase in fighting between coalition troops and al Sadr gun men in the last few days. For the last few weeks, the al Sadr gunmen kept a low profile, engaging in an occasional ambush of coalition truck traffic (and usually taking a lot of casualties as a result). But recently the al Sadr men have taken to firing on coalition bases, and this resulted in American troops raiding known al Sadr militia hideouts and killing dozens of gunmen. There has also been a growing armed resistance to the al Sadr gunmen, who are derisively called (behind their backs), sons of Saddam (because of their use of arbitrary violence to terrorize people into obeying them.) The al Sadr men have scared away a lot of the pilgrims that regularly visit Najaf and Karbala to worship at the huge mosques there. This has put a lot of people out of work. Most Shia are not happy with al Sadr at all.
In Najaf and Karbala, the al Sadr followers are getting shot at by anonymous Shia gunmen, and small groups of al Sadr supporters have been faced down by large groups of hostile Iraqi Shias. The senior Shia clerics were allowed, by the coalition, to install their own armed followers to provide security in Najaf. But these men were bullied aside by the more aggressive and ruthless al Sadr gunmen. The Shia clerical establishment does not want a battle in the Shia holy places, but al Sadrs men have stored weapons and explosives in the mosques and told all who will listen that they will not leave. The growing armed resistance to al Sadr may result in a siege of the al Sadr gunmen in the key mosques, cutting off the supply of food, and water, which would eventually bring about surrender due to thirst. But al Sadrs men have been seen stockpiling water as well. The battle for the mosques has already begun, without anyone really noticing it. How long it will take, no one can tell. Apparently al Sadr has painted himself into a corner, and the Shia clerical establishment have not been able to convince him, yet, to admit defeat and go into exile in Iran.
Shias and Kurds have been watching with interest as the Arab world gets indignant over charges that American soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners. Shias and Kurds recognize that the vast majority of these prisoners are Sunni Arabs arrested for attacking, or supporting attacks, on Shias, Kurds and coalition troops. The pictures of abused prisoners bring feelings of satisfaction, not disgust, to Shia and Kurds who have lost so many family members to decades of Sunni terror. Al Jazeeras indignant coverage of all this gets a different response from Shias and Kurds, who consider this the Sunni News Network because it supported Saddam when he was still in power, and now it laments the treatment given to Saddams diehard supporters. All of this reinforces the feeling that Shias and Kurds have much to fear from the Sunni Arab world. Shia know that many Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia regularly preach that Shia Moslems are heretics. The Kurds are hated because they are not Arab (but Indo-European), even though most are Sunni Moslems. The Shia and Kurds know well that Saddams thugs are still threatening, and murdering, people. Al Jazeera doesnt cover this violence. To al Jazeera, the only thing wrong in Iraq is that the Sunni are no longer in control, and the Sunni struggle to regain control is portrayed as a valiant effort by an abused people to assert their rights. But to the majority Shia and Kurds, the main thing the Sunni want to do is run the country for their own benefit and kill lots of Shia and Kurds along the way.