Tuesday | July 29, 2003
Playing chicken with Sadr
By Steve Gilliard
Cleric Risks a Backlash With Anti-U.S. Rhetoric
BAGHDAD, July 27 -- With militant sermons drawing tens of thousands of followers, the young scion of one of Iraq's most revered ayatollahs has laid claim to leadership of the Shiite Muslim opposition to the U.S. occupation. But in seeking to rally the most disenfranchised and alienated of the Shiite majority, Moqtada Sadr has embarked on a strategy that his supporters acknowledge risks creating a dangerous backlash.
Residents of the holy city of Najaf have grown angry at the boisterous crowds ....other clergy, many far more senior than the 30-year-old activist, worry that his calls will bring to the surface bitter divisions among Shiites -- between former exiles and those who remained through the rule of ousted president Saddam Hussein, and between those cooperating with U.S. forces and those opposed.
"It's dangerous," acknowledged Ali Feisal Hamad, ...... Who's listening to the opinions in the street?"
Sadr's calls for U.S. withdrawal play on the discontent many feel over the slow pace of reconstruction, and his group has reached out to a leading Sunni cleric, Ahmed Kubeisi, who was credited with sending followers to the sermon on Friday
Lt. Col. Chris Conlin, the commander of the Marine battalion stationed in Najaf, dismissed Sadr as a troublemaker. ...."He's a rabble-rouser, but he has to import his rabble," said Conlin. "He finds people who are dissatisfied, and he brings them along
First, Sadr's ahead of the curve, but by how much? A week, a month, three months?
Second, I think when push comes to shove, any move against Sadr by the Americans will get those Americans killed. They tried to surround his house once and 10,000 men showed up. He is no one to be disregarded. His power comes from his family name and his message more than him. But to assume Hakim and Sistani would remain silent while he was carted off to Baghdad Airport is well, insane. Snubbing and ignoring him will not make him go away. It may even make him stronger.
He also got 100,000 people to listen to him. They may not want to all set off car bombs, but they are receptive. His audience obviously has to be the recently demobilized Shia soldiers of the Iraqi Army.
Hakim and Sistani think they can politic the Americans into giving them power, Sadr and his boys want the Americans gone, period. While there may look like there is a lot of room between the two, politics is funny. Sadr could not say a word if Sistani demanded an audience and threw down the law. Or if Hakim's battle hardened operatives sent him word. They profess public irritation with his words, but privately, he serves a purpose for them.
They can always tell the Americans "deal with us or the hothead". His antics are not without purpose or reason.
Forget about Shia/Sunni divisions. They exist and are real, but at the end of the day, they are all Iraqis and there are 150,000 non-Iraqis telling them what to do. Do you think, at the end of the day, they will take our word or their neighbors on what is best for them?Posted July 29, 2003 12:41 AM