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June 7, 2004
Burning Down The House

Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, which had claimed to protect the sacred mosques of Shi'ite Islam, instead may have seriously damaged one of them this morning. The al-Mahdi army used a mosque in the "holy city" of Kufa to store ammunition which caught fire, causing an unknown number of injuries and damage:

Explosions rocked the compound surrounding the Kufa mosque on Monday after ammunition used by fighters loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr apparently caught fire, witnesses and Shiite militia members said. At least nine people were hurt.

Flames and smoke rose above the building. Firefighters and ambulances raced to the site, where fighters in al-Sadr's al-Madhi army had been holed up.

One of the terrorists holed up in the mosque told reporters that he heard a "whooshing" noise and blamed Americans for shooting a missile at the compound. US forces deny they were anywhere near the mosque and note that Iraqi police called to the scene took small-arms fire when they approached. Sadr's militia tried to keep journalists from reporting on casualties, threatening them at the hospital:

At the Furat al-Awsat hospital in Kufa, Mohammed Abdul-Kadhim, a nurse, said that nine people were brought in with injuries from the explosions, mostly burns. The injured included both civilians and militiamen, he said. However, the number of the injured may be higher since the al-Mahdi militia is known not to take their injured to the local hospitals.

One of the militiamen in the hospital shouted at reporters and officials, threatening them if they released any information.

Had it been the Americans who attacked the compound, I doubt that the terrorists would suppress that information. In fact, they would insist that reporters spread the word on casualties, especially among civilians, in order to maximize the public-relations power of such an assault.

Not only does Sadr want to keep silent on casualties, I suspect that he wants to keep quiet the extent of the damage his army has done to the mosque. Other Shi'ite clerics, like Ali Sistani, have called for Sadr to leave the mosque compounds for weeks now to avoid exactly this situation. Now, instead of uniting the Shi'a against the CPA, Sadr now risks inflaming the entire region against him and his militia. His failure to abide by terms of the cease-fire arranged by the clerics and his refusal to leave the compounds put the onus for the damage squarely on Sadr. If the damage is significant -- which seems likely -- Sadr has committed a political and military blunder of the first order.

Perhaps Sadr will convince some locals that the Americans attacked the mosque, creating some space in the confusion for him to continue his inept insurgency. However, Sistani and other Shi'ite leaders made it clear that they wanted Sadr out of the mosques well before now, and his militia have not only stayed but have used the mosques as bases for attacks despite the cease-fire. The other Shi'ite leaders had not been happy to have an upstart like Sadr eclipse them. Now they have a perfect excuse to turn Shi'ites against him, and they will not hesitate to marginalize him -- at the least.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 7, 2004 5:40 AM

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