Revolts in Iraq Deepen Crisis In Occupation
The most visible leader of the resistance is Sadr, a firebrand whose appeal long appeared to be limited to the young, unemployed Shiites who made up his militia, the Mahdi Army. However, in a surprising development, his poster began appearing this month at Sunni mosques that previously showed little interest in his activities.
Such displays of unity have dampened fears of a clash between the Sunni minority and Shiite majority communities. But worries about a different kind of civil war have been generated by reports that Iraq's ethnic Kurds are fighting alongside U.S. Marines and against the insurgency.
Guerrillas coming out of Fallujah have complained bitterly that Kurdish militiamen known as pesh merga are deployed against them. The Kurds are members of the 36th Battalion of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, built from several exile-based militias that supported the U.S.-led campaign against Saddam Hussein. Commanders of another, overwhelmingly Arab Iraqi army battalion refused to fight alongside the Marines.
"Worse than pigs, thieves and tramps," read lines in a poem circulating on fliers in Kirkuk, a city in northern Iraq where Kurds are accused of pushing Arab families off land claimed by both groups. The fliers condemned the leaders of Iraq's two Kurdish parties. It is not known who produced the fliers, which were also seen in Baghdad.
The Kurdish leaders were condemned in chanting that followed Friday prayers at a major Sunni mosque in Baghdad.
"When the fighting is over in Fallujah, I will sell everything I have, even my home," said a resistance fighter who gave his name as Abu Taif Mashhadani. He wept as he recalled his 8-year-old daughter, who he said was killed by a U.S. sniper in Fallujah a week ago. "I will send my brothers north to kill the Kurds, and I will go to America and target the civilians. Only the civilians. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. And the one who started it will be the one to be blamed."
The American confrontations with Sadr and in Fallujah also have roiled the political landscape by further isolating members of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council from the Iraqi population.
In the first few days after Sadr's militiamen clashed with U.S. forces and the Marines surrounded Fallujah, council members -- usually a publicity-hungry lot -- had little to say in public. Although most of them regard the insurgents and militiamen as just as much of a threat as U.S. officials do, few wanted to risk the fallout from condemning a cleric or advocating tough counterinsurgency measures.
But on Baghdad's streets, many Iraqis said they equated the silence with tacit agreement with U.S. policies. In their sermons, clerics lambasted council members, many of whom the Bush administration had hoped would emerge as Iraq's new leaders. At one mosque in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, where streets run with wet garbage, council member Mowaffak Rubaie, a Shiite physician who was recently named national security adviser, was derided as a traitor and "the minister of sewers."
The crises have helped boost the standing of more radical Shiite and Sunni political leaders. Abdul Karim Muhammadawi, a Shiite tribal chief who led guerrilla attacks on Hussein's army in the 1980s and '90s in the southern marshes, gained stature in many Shiite neighborhoods after he suspended his membership in the council because of a disagreement with U.S. policy. Although U.S. officials selected Muhammadawi to sit on the council last summer, they have soured on him in recent months because of his support for an armed militia in southeastern Iraq.
Mohsen Abdul Hamid, the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, has emerged as the council's most influential Sunni member because of his attempts to broker a peace deal in Fallujah. But Abdul Hamid had also been written off months ago by U.S. officials -- for alleged connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Sunni movement that is banned in several Arab nations.
"The politicians the Americans wanted to become popular have lost out to the guys the Americans didn't want to become popular," said an Iraqi adviser to the occupation authority. "It was exactly the outcome they did not want."
The fighting has clearly widened the chasm between the government appointed by the U.S. administration and Iraqi society. In Baghdad, ambulances and hospitals that report to the Ministry of Health took in the wounded from Fallujah but then spirited them to smaller, private hospitals and homes amid rumors that U.S. soldiers were sweeping through major medical centers arresting the injured.
"We must protect them -- we must," said Riad Mohammed Saleh, a receptionist at a public hospital in the capital's Yarmouk district. "We figure they are regular citizens."
The extent of popular support for the resistance is unclear. But in nationwide surveys taken before the sieges of Fallujah and Najaf, a growing percentage of Iraqis said they saw the U.S. forces as occupiers, not liberators. The standing of the Americans was particularly low in the restive towns of Fallujah and Ramadi.
"Whenever the Americans increase their attacks on these areas, the people there become stronger and more willing to fight," said Sadoun Dulame, director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, an independent Iraqi research center. "I think if the Americans break into Najaf there will be a real problem, because they will be affected by the people of Fallujah."
A wider uprising would further test U.S. troops, which were forced in the last week to vastly expand their area of operations by moving south of Baghdad into a zone nominally controlled by a Polish-commanded international division. Several Army units were recalled from Kuwait, where they were preparing to leave for home.
Commanders were surprised by the sophistication and coordination displayed by insurgents massing for attacks on armored columns on highways. On Friday, a coalition aircraft reported coming under fire from an anti-aircraft gun, which was highly unusual.
No less sobering, commanders said, were new reports of children playing roles in guerrilla attacks. In Baghdad Tuesday, a girl about 6 or 7 years old dropped an explosive from a highway overpass onto a convoy. A commander was killed in a similar incident outside Fallujah, when a convoy was ambushed after slowing for a girl leading cattle across a highway.
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Baghdad contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company