Now he will, now he won't
The firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr plays a deadly game of chicken
NAJAF, IRAQ--There are few signs of life around the front lines dividing this ancient, rebel-held city. A woman wails; a baby cries. The only other sound is the echo of war in the desolate streets. Metallic crackle mixes with reverberating booms as American tanks exchange fire with the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr.
Once again it is the angry face of the militant cleric that is catalyzing fierce opposition to American troops in the heartland of the Shiite faith. It is a scene reminiscent of Sadr's last attempt to foment a revolution in Najaf and its fellow pilgrimage town Karbala in the spring, but now the challenge comes not only to occupation forces but also to the newly minted interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and Iraq's experiment in democracy.
Because the standoff centers on the Imam Ali mosque, one of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam, Allawi's moves are being watched by the Arab-Muslim world, which would not rest easy were such a revered site attacked. And if the Iraqi leader is unable to bring Sadr to heel, it would send a signal of weakness to the political parties and bands of militias that already present a formidable challenge to public order in the country. "There could be a devastating effect on the interim government," says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now at the National Defense University. "There is a sense of, if they can't deal with this, what can they deal with?"
Center stage. Already, Sadr's 15 minutes in the spotlight is fraying the nerves of Iraqi politicians. Last week, over 1,000 delegates from across Iraq gathered in Baghdad to select a national assembly, which will serve as an interim parliament until elections are held. But discussions on policy were overshadowed by the rise and fall and rise again of a renegade cleric.
The standoff also underscores the country's difficulties weaning itself from the U.S. military. Iraqi security forces were nowhere to be seen in the vicinity of the shrine on Friday, even as the Interior Ministry claimed to have retaken control of it. "People will come away from this thinking that Allawi can't do anything without the Marines," says Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan.
Last week the confrontation hardened into a deadly game of chicken, with each side proclaiming its willingness to negotiate, as sounds of mortar and Kalashnikov fire intensified around the shrine. Comparatively lacking in firepower, the Mahdi Army suffered a disproportionate number of casualties (several hundred Iraqis to fewer than 20 multinational forces, according to coalition officials), but Sadr held the prized real estate of the mosque to his advantage, luring coalition forces closer with the apparent intention of blaming America for any desecration of the holy burial place of Imam Ali, the father of Shiite Islam. "Sadr has the mosque rigged with explosives," says one senior Bush administration official. "The moment we get too close, he'll blow it up--he doesn't care." U.S. News has not in dependently confirmed the official's report of explosives in the mosque.