Divided Iraqi South Posing New Obstacles
Shiite Foes of Militia Fail to Stem Uprising
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page A01
BAGHDAD, May 15 -- The battle for Iraq's Shiite-populated south that engaged U.S. forces again Saturday is presenting U.S. officials with a more serious political challenge than the insurgency's still potent strongholds farther north, U.S. officials and Iraqi political leaders say.
In heavy fighting over the past week, U.S. forces have inflicted substantial casualties on the Shiite Muslim militia loyal to Moqtada Sadr, a breakaway cleric wanted by U.S. forces on murder charges. U.S. and British troops battled Sadr's forces Saturday in four southern cities, including new fighting in Amarah near the Iranian border. Firefights between U.S. forces and insurgents in the east Baghdad slum named for Sadr's assassinated father left 14 insurgents and two U.S. soldiers dead overnight Friday.
The fighting reflects the U.S. strategy of squeezing Sadr militarily while allowing a group of local Shiite leaders to broker a deal, much as Sunni Muslim leaders did this month in the western city of Fallujah. The Americans contend that Sadr is deeply unpopular among many Shiites in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, where his men are ruining the local economy and have spurred many residents to flee the growing violence.
But the same divisions among Shiites that U.S. officials had hoped would help persuade Sadr to end his insurrection are among the principal reasons that a negotiated solution has not emerged. The deal reached in Fallujah, U.S. officials and Iraqi political leaders say, has little application in the south.
Fallujah has a homogeneous population of Sunnis with strong tribal ties. Sunni clerics who benefited under ousted president Saddam Hussein's rule have united with former officials from Hussein's Baath Party in support of the insurrection. By contrast, the Shiite south is divided by rival religious loyalties.
The pudgy, bearded son of a revered cleric, Sadr has used his thousands-strong militia, known as the Mahdi Army, for political leverage within a Shiite hierarchy that has long considered him a brash upstart.
Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, deputy commander of the 1st Armored Division responsible for Karbala and Najaf, said Sadr "is attempting to gain a power base and disrupt the momentum that is leading Iraq toward a representative government."
"He believes that he needed to form a following -- a militia, in this case -- that is geared toward intimidating those who are moderate," Hertling said. "We see those joining the Moqtada militia are mostly disenfranchised, mostly unemployed younger people who are looking for leadership, looking for money and looking to fight."
Sadr was a vocal opponent of the U.S.-led occupation from the outset, and his message erupted into an armed uprising in March after U.S. officials closed his newspaper, al-Hawza, for printing articles that they said incited violence. Soon afterward, U.S. officials announced a warrant for Sadr's arrest in connection with the April 2003 killing of Abdel-Majid Khoei, a moderate cleric and potential rival who had returned from exile in Britain.
As the target of a murder charge by the occupation and the leader of a militia battling occupation forces, Sadr has become, for many, a symbol of Islamic resistance to the occupation. The insurgency he has inspired has spread to new cities and gained momentum in parts of Baghdad.
"The occupation is my enemy, and they are occupying my holy city," Sadr said in an interview Saturday with the al-Arabiya satellite channel. "There is no other alternative but for us to defend the city."
Shiite leaders say Sadr's growing stature and the divisions it is causing among Shiites could turn him into a political power broker in Iraq's next government.
During a meeting of mainstream Shiite tribal, political and religious leaders this month, several participants suggested that Sadr be given a role in the interim government scheduled to assume limited political authority from the Americans on June 30. Even the idea represents a sharp shift in Sadr's political standing among the Shiite establishment.
"If we had this situation in other parts of Iraq, it would be a kind of civil war," said Adel Abdel-Mehdi, a senior leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a prominent Shiite political party. "We are in a large discussion right now about the new government and who might be a part of it."
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