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April 13, 2004
Why al-Sadr Was Inevitable

A statement by Iraqi Shi'ite clerics this morning demonstrates clearly why the Coalition and the Iraqi Governing Council would eventually be forced to deal with al-Sadr or another radical cleric eventually -- and why we may be fortunate that al-Sadr wound up as the opponent:

In a statement issued Monday after a meeting with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the clerics and members of the country's religious authority also cautioned the coalition against doing battle in the holy city of Najaf -- and warned against any attempt to kill al-Sadr.

"The current crisis in Iraq has risen to a level that is beyond any political groups, including the Governing Council, and it is now an issue that is between the religious authority and the coalition forces," the statement said.

"Those who have brought on this crisis must pay for what they have done."

Shi'ite clerics have forced the issue of the nature of the future Iraqi government to the forefront, an issue that had been expected to arise at some point prior to the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis no matter when it was scheduled. Shi'ite clerics such as al-Sadr, and even moderates like al-Sistani, believe that any government must be Islamic at its core, similar to Iran, where imams rule over a severely limited parliament. Iran not only provides the inspiration for this concept, it's also providing the funding for the clerics involved, according to Fox News analyst Alireza Jafarzadeh:

By allocating vast resources, including tens of millions of dollars, to the task of building and spreading an overt network of mosques, local organizations, charity groups, medical and cultural centers, Tehran has also covertly created a number of new Iraqi surrogate groups, including the Hezbollah especially in the south. (This entity is separate from Iraqi Hezbollah, which operates openly). The group has been casing U.S. forces, gathering intelligence and building its military structure. It is headquartered in Al-Amarah, but is also active in a number of other cities including Al-Kut. Several Iranian Intelligence Ministry agents held extensive talks with Hezbollah officials in Al-Kut on February 15th to coordinate their actions.

We had to face this fight at some point; as President Bush has said since the fall of Baghdad, the potential for a free and secular Iraqi government would be too destabilizing for Iran (and Syria) to sit idly by. And in nominating Moqtada al-Sadr as the point man for the insurgency, the Coalition caught a big break, as al-Sadr's supporters are second-rate even for militias in that region. He's fallen back to the mosques and taken hostages, as have others in the region, in a bid to win politically what he now realizes he can't possibly win militarily. He's losing people at a ratio of 30-1, when in order to be militarily effective those numbers would have to almost be reversed, considering the size of the forces he's opposing. Today's hot news is that one of his key aides managed to get himself captured by the Coalition:

Sheikh Hazem al-Aaraji, a representative of Mr Sadr in the Iraqi capital, was seized as he attended a meeting of tribal leaders at the Sheraton Hotel, one day after the US military vowed to "kill or capture" Mr Sadr himself.

Mr Aaraji's bodyguards stepped aside when confronted by US soldiers, who arrested Mr Aaraji and drove him away in a Bradley fighting vehicle according to the Associated Press. Tribal sheikhs cited by Reuters said the imam had not been formally arrested but merely detained for questioning.

In short, as a general, al-Sadr's a bad politician, and as a politician, he's worse.

Now the clerics have issued a warning that the Coalition must not fight in Najaf, a statement that the Coalition must and will completely disregard. To allow al-Sadr or any other cleric of any stripe declare cities as off-limits is to cede sovereignty to the mullahs. The Coalition must make clear to those who would impose an Iranian-style theocracy onto Iraq that anywhere combatants hide is considered a war zone and fair game for military action. If they're shooting from mosques, then the mosques must come under attack. They're testing our will to win in Iraq by hostaging and threatening religious warfare. To back off now would be to demonstrate our lack of resolve in establishing a free Iraq.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 13, 2004 7:34 AM

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