Cracking Down on A Cleric
By David Ignatius
Friday, October 31, 2003; Page A25
In a high-stakes escalation of U.S. strategy in Iraq, the Bush administration has decided after an intense internal debate to work with Iraqi security forces to crack down on the radical Shiite Muslim leader Moqtada Sadr.
Administration officials were reluctant to disclose details of the new approach for fear of tipping their hand to Sadr. But they said the Pentagon had concluded it was crucial to show resolve in the face of Sadr's attacks over recent months on Americans and their Iraqi allies.
"A decision was made to move against Sadr head-on because he crossed a red line. The U.S. military believes he is responsible for the deaths of Americans and Iraqis and is actively hostile to the American presence," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer and now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Gerecht, an expert on Shiite Islam, has occasionally advised the administration about Iraq.
The decision to clip Sadr's wings carries risks because it could trigger a reaction among Shiite Muslims who have been America's key allies in Iraq. So far, the senior Shiite clergy in Najaf have tacitly supported the U.S.-led occupation, and most of the Shiite population has followed the clergy's lead. If the United States ever lost that support, its position in Iraq would quickly become untenable, in the view of many analysts.
The administration decided to get tough on Sadr in part because it wanted to defend the authority of the senior Shiite leaders. The clerics in Najaf, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and known collectively as the Hawza, regard the 30-year-old Sadr as an upstart and a troublemaker, and most would quietly welcome a crackdown -- as long as it didn't put them even more in the firing line. "A growing number of moderate Shia believe that decisive action needs to be taken against him," said one senior administration official. "They want it done with an Iraqi lead, but they feel it is our responsibility."
The debate over what to do about Sadr has been going on for several months. The crackdown has been controversial because of fears among some U.S. military officials, reportedly including Centcom commander Gen. John Abizaid, that it could widen the Iraq war at a time when American troops are already vulnerable. But both Abizaid and occupation chief Paul Bremer are said to have signed off on the new policy.
Pressure to crack down on Sadr increased after two U.S. soldiers and two Iraqis were killed in an ambush Oct. 9 near Sadr's headquarters in the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City, named for the young mullah's father, Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, whose assassination was blamed on Saddam Hussein. . At that time, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, warned that he might have to move against Sadr's militia.
U.S. officials cite two instances of the new get-tough policy toward Sadr and his followers. One came in Karbala, after three U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush by Sadr supporters on Oct. 16. A week later Iraqi police, backed by U.S. troops, raided the Sadr headquarters in Karbala and arrested 32 of his followers. U.S. officials viewed this operation as a success partly because it was carried out by Iraqi police.
A second key assault on Sadr's forces came in a raid on a mosque in Baghdad that had been used by a fiery lieutenant named Sheik Moayed Khazraji. U.S. troops captured Khazraji in early October after he threatened U.S. forces. U.S. officials viewed this operation as an assertion of secular law against a renegade cleric.
The American strategy is to contain the anti-U.S. violence spawned by Sadr's young Shiite followers without alienating the larger Shiite community. Because most of the Iraqi police and civil defense forces moving against Sadr are Shiites themselves, the confrontation amounts to a test of political sentiment within that community.
So far the moderate line of the senior clerics seems to be prevailing. Administration officials see hopeful signs that Sadr has begun to soften his rhetoric since the United States began its crackdown. He appears to have shelved a plan to form a provisional government, and he is said to have issued statements this week counseling his followers against using violence.
Taking on Sadr is dangerous, because it could widen the anti-U.S. sentiment in Iraq. But administration officials felt they had no choice. At a time when Shiite members of the Iraqi Governing Council are facing death threats, the administration concluded it had to impose law and order -- even at the risk of alienating some of its Shiite allies in Iraq.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company