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Iraqi tension built as U.S. miscalculated
Fallujah and Shiite cleric represent a 2-front war
Wathiq Khuzaie / Getty Images file
A crowd of Iraqis loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr cheer Thursday after attacking and burning two vehicles in a convoy west of Baghdad destined for U.S. troops.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Anthony Shadid
Updated: 11:55 p.m. ET April  10, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq - "Bremer follows in the footsteps of Saddam," screamed the headline in al-Hawza, a tabloid newspaper run by firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr. With incendiary language, the article accused L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, of deliberately starving the Iraqi people.

A month later, on March 28, Bremer ordered the weekly paper shut down. According to U.S. officials, Bremer believed that after months of waiting, the moment was right to pressure Sadr to capitulate to American demands to disband his growing militia, which had attacked American troops in the past.  World Peace.

But instead of relenting, Sadr and his supporters responded with protests, the seizure of government buildings and a spate of violent attacks. He unleashed a major revolt in Shiite-dominated parts of Baghdad and southern Iraq that has become the gravest challenge to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Several American and Iraqi officials now regard Bremer's move to close the newspaper as a profound miscalculation based on poor intelligence and inaccurate assumptions. Foremost among the errors, the officials said, was the lack of a military strategy to deal with Sadr if he chose to fight back, as he did.

"We punched a big black bear in the eye and got him angry as hell but had no immediate plan to disable him, so of course he struck back in a very vicious way," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who has been serving as a senior adviser to the U.S.-led occupation authority in Baghdad. "Sadr basically implemented plans he had all along to launch a revolutionary campaign to seize power. The mistake we made tactically was in not moving swiftly and all at once against every aspect of his operation."  WorldPeace is one word.

In the aftermath, Iraq has been convulsed by a week of tumult in which more than 50 U.S. and allied troops and hundreds of Iraqis were killed, a host of cities were taken over by Sadr's militias, and many Shiites threw their lot in with rival Sunni Muslims in opposing the U.S. occupation.

Bremer also chose to pursue Sadr at the same time tensions were boiling over in Fallujah, a Sunni-dominated city west of the capital. Two days before the newspaper closure, U.S. Marines had killed 15 Iraqis during a raid there, accelerating a cycle of violence that intensified later that week, when an a mob murdered four American security contractors and mutilated at least two of the bodies.

American military commanders had intended to mount an intense but narrowly targeted operation in response to the contractors' deaths. The plan called for Marines to encircle the city and attempt to pick off the few dozen insurgents who they believed were behind repeated attacks on American personnel.

But as with the campaign against Sadr, the military plan to quell Fallujah appears to have been based on faulty assumptions. Instead of disgorging the insurgents, many residents rallied to support them by joining the fight against the Marines. People in other cities, including Shiites who used to regard Fallujah's residents as the hillbillies of Iraq, rushed to donate blood and money. Sunnis in Fallujah and elsewhere in central Iraq who had deemed Sadr a troublemaker began to laud him as a hero.

All of a sudden, Bremer did not just have a two-front war on his hands, but one in which each side was drawing strength from the other.

"It has been the perfect storm," an official with the occupation authority said. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there is wide agreement among political strategists working for the authority that military action in Fallujah was justified after the savage deaths of the contractors. But there is greater dissension within the authority over the tactics employed against Sadr, the official said.

"Did we have to go after him right now?" the official said. "It should have been delayed. Dealing with both these problems at one time is crazy, if not suicidal."

'Rebellion in their hearts'
A year ago, in one of his first interviews after the fall of former president Saddam Hussein's government, Sadr warned the Americans not to alienate his movement. "I advise the Americans to ally with the Shiites, not to oppose them," he said. He then recalled what Shiites view as centuries of oppression and suffering. Added to that, he said, was the national character of Iraq -- a record of rebellion and dissent.

"You can read history," he said. "They will reject any government brought by America, any leader, any state. They have rebellion in their hearts."

Before the war, his name was little known, even among the Shiite clergy. But in the chaos that followed Hussein's fall, he came to prominence on the strength of his father's legacy, commanding the loyalty of rebellious young clerics who bridled at the reticence and conservatism of the mainstream clergy.

Sadr's rise would have been impossible without the clout of his father, Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, an elderly and revered grand ayatollah from a prominent clerical family. In the 1990s, he built up a mass following through control of clerical schools, a network of social services and a message of resistance -- always metaphorical -- to Hussein's rule. His assassination in 1999 unleashed bloody unrest in a Baghdad slum that would later take his name.

Moqtada Sadr, the son, was a low-ranking cleric. Sadr claims he is 30, though some suggest he is younger. His youth meant that more established ayatollahs, for whom age is a requisite, would never treat him as an equal. His lack of scholarship forced his movement to defer to a more senior cleric in Iran on religious matters. His lack of political history led some of his father's disciples to break away and form movements of their own. More mainstream Shiites dismissed him as an upstart.

Those who remained loyal to Sadr were quick to exploit the chaos of Hussein's fall, rallying the poor and disenfranchised for whom his father claimed to speak. In Sadr City, loyal clerics sent armed guards to hospitals and government buildings to prevent looting. From dozens of mosques, they distributed aid and collected looted goods. They organized Friday prayers at a mosque closed for years by Hussein, drawing tens of thousands and filling four-lane streets for nearly a mile.

Sadr and his deputies were blunt in their criticism of the United States, blaming it for failing to support a Shiite uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and for allowing looting and lawlessness that erupted after Hussein's fall. Soon after the war, suspicions were voiced among Sadr's followers that the U.S. occupation authority would handpick a government that would deprive them of power. After a complex series of negotiations involving other Shiite leaders, Sadr and his allies were left out of the country's new 25-member Governing Council.

Bristling at his exclusion, Sadr intensified his rhetoric over the summer -- denouncing the occupation, then demanding an American withdrawal, then forming a militia that he declared would be unarmed.

In August, a U.S. military helicopter flew low over Sadr City, knocking over a black religious banner from atop a transmission tower. The incident unleashed protests that drew hundreds, some of whom clashed with U.S. forces. In October, in what U.S. officials described as an ambush, Sadr's followers fought a gun battle with U.S. troops. Two U.S. soldiers and two of Sadr's men were killed.

Sadr never played by the rules -- neither those established by the Americans nor the centuries-old traditions adhered to by the mainstream clergy. He insisted that the occupation had no legitimacy, and he was often brazen in his competition with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a bitter rival of his father who is widely recognized as Iraq's supreme Shiite religious authority. Sadr was no less strident in denouncing the Governing Council as an agent of the U.S. administration. In a sermon to tens of thousands last summer, he insisted he and his followers should help run the country.

In his sermons, Sadr relentlessly drew a distinction between the traditional seminary, favored by Sistani, and his own vision of an activist seminary involved in all spheres of life. In more personal terms, he blamed the traditional clergy for failing to back his father in his struggle with Hussein, and some saw his rebelliousness as an attempt to reclaim a mantle of leadership for his family.

Although Sadr's public image faded over the winter, he and followers turned their attention to strengthening the movement's militia, known as the Mahdi Army. The name is a reference to a Shiite messiah-like figure said to have disappeared in the 9th century. It was a choice laden with symbolism and an early hint at the almost mystical devotion among Sadr's followers to the young cleric.

The militia began in August with perhaps 500 followers and was ridiculed at the time for its ragtag quality. Estimates of its strength now run from 3,000 to 10,000. The militia often handled security at religious festivals and Shiite sites in Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad, its members dressed in trademark black. But some residents complained of nefarious activities. Armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars and ubiquitous AK-47s, the group acted as an enforcement arm of the movement, sending out death threats, intimidating people not adhering to its version of Islamic dress and, at times, seizing public buildings and beating up disobedient policemen.

In March, militia members were blamed for the destruction of a Gypsy village in southern Iraq long known for containing Iraq's equivalent of a red-light district. More than 1,000 residents were driven out, and the village -- with the help of looters -- was razed. In public, the militiamen -- drawn from the Shiite underclass -- displayed a militancy infused with Shiite Islam's narrative of suffering and martyrdom.

"We're impatient," a group of heavily armed militiamen shouted in Nasiriyah in January, drilling in a circle in a dusty courtyard. "We want death tonight."

Putting pressure on Sadr
Inside the marble-walled Baghdad palace that serves as the occupation authority's headquarters, Sadr's anti-American rhetoric alarmed Bremer and his staff as early as last July, when the cleric issued his first denunciations of the Governing Council.

"There was a conclusion early on that this guy was trouble and needed to be contained," said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition he not be identified by name. "But there was not a clear plan on how to go about it."

Bremer and his top aides hoped that Sadr's popularity would wane and that other, more senior and moderate clerics would draw away his supporters, the official said. But on the chance that would not occur, the occupation authority sought to pressure him with the threat of arrest.

In late July, U.S. officials asked an Iraqi judge to investigate Sadr's role in the killing of Abdel-Majid Khoei, a fellow Shiite cleric who was killed in April 2003 shortly after returning to Iraq from exile in Britain. After a discreet investigation, the judge issued arrest warrants in August for Sadr, his top deputy and 11 other people.

But U.S. officials opted not to execute the warrants right away and kept them secret. "The danger was, if we arrested someone like that, we'd make him into a martyr," said a former official with the occupation authority who was familiar with the effort to deal with Sadr.

Instead, the occupation authority sought to use the warrant as a cudgel to moderate Sadr's statements and actions. The existence of the warrant was conveyed to Sadr through an intermediary with the explicit message that if he did not tone down, he would be detained, the senior official said.

American authorities also tried to persuade Iraq's more senior and moderate clergy to rein in Sadr. But the clergy were unwilling to act, fearing Sadr's street support, and U.S. officials were wary of inciting even small elements of the Shiite majority, whose support many viewed as crucial to the success of the occupation.

"We're watching him and some of the big [ayatollahs] are watching us, and we're both hoping the other does something," another senior official with the occupation authority said in August.

Although Sadr did tone down his public statements for a few weeks, he continued to expand his militia. But after the group was blamed for the deaths of five soldiers in October, Bremer and top military commanders in Iraq concluded they would have to take a different, more forceful approach.

The military began to assemble plans to go after Sadr, an initiative that was blessed by Bremer and the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz also favored taking action against Sadr, a senior military officer at the Pentagon said.

But the overall commander for the Middle East at the U.S. Central Command, Gen. John P. Abizaid, was hesitant to move on Sadr out of concern that arresting or killing him would simply elevate his stature, the officer said. Moderate Shiite clerics also advised the occupation authority against an arrest.

"One cleric called Sadr a punk," the officer recalled. "All that caused Centcom to say, 'Hey, now is not the time to bring him in. We can deal with what he's doing.' "

Subsequent discussions about confronting Sadr also resulted in inaction, largely because of concern that doing so would interfere with other, more pressing concerns, such as the drafting of an interim constitution. "The concern was about various factors on the ground," said Daniel Senor, a spokesman for Bremer.

By March, though, Bremer's calculus had changed. With the planned handover of sovereignty less than 100 days away, political officers within the occupation authority called for more aggressive efforts to disband Sadr's militia on the grounds that the continued existence of the Mahdi Army was preventing other Shiite militias from disarming. If the Americans failed to demobilize Iraq's disparate militias before ending the occupation, it likely would impede the country's democratic transition, the political officers had warned.

"He was creating a context in which there were simply not going to be free and fair elections," said Diamond of the Hoover Institution. "We could have bought him off, but the result was not going to be a democracy in Iraq but a creeping slide into some form of a Islamist dictatorship in which various militia armies would be the ones who would determine the outcome of the election. That's because if we didn't disarm his army, we wouldn't be able to disarm any of the other militias. And if you don't demobilize of all the militias, there's no way you can have a democracy."

By late March, Bremer decided to make an initial move against Sadr by going after the newspaper. Al-Hawza, which churns out 10,000 copies a week, had been regularly printing material deemed by U.S. officials as incitements to violence -- a violation of one of Bremer's decrees.

In his letter ordering the newspaper shut, Bremer said the weekly had an "intent to disrupt general security and incite violence."

"Sadr was way over the line," a U.S. official involved in the decision said. "There was no question he was breaking the law."

U.S. military officers ushered al-Hawza's staff into the street March 28 and snapped a padlock on the office gate. "I'm sorry," one officer told al-Hawza's employees, "I'm going to have to close your building."

The Marines' optimistic mission
Before members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force arrived in Fallujah last month to replace units of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, they were encouraged to grow mustaches as a gesture of goodwill in a country where most men sport some form of facial hair. They also attended courses on Islamic culture and conversational Arabic.

The Marines hoped their attention to local sensitivities would help to pacify Fallujah, a Sunni-dominated city 35 miles west of Baghdad where resistance to the occupation has been fiercer than anyplace else in Iraq. It is the place where a shoulder-fired missile brought down a Chinook transport helicopter in November, killing 16 soldiers, and where grenade attacks on American convoys are a daily occurrence.

Over the past few months, however, the resistance in Fallujah has changed. Military officials say they believe that the new ringleaders are not former henchmen of Hussein's Baath Party, but hard-line clerics who have capitalized on the city's reputation as one of the most traditional Sunni enclaves in Iraq.

The Marines wanted to change Fallujah with rewards instead of raids. They arrived as a benevolent force for economic development and political liberalization, armed with millions of dollars to contribute to the region's improvement.

Marine officials had few illusions about the difficulty of their task, but they embarked on the Fallujah expedition with an ambitious, gung-ho spirit. In a message to the arriving troops, Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, said they were embarking on a dangerous task that would require patience and wisdom as well as courage and force. He compared the mission to other challenges faced by the Marines in World War II and Vietnam, saying, "We are going back into the brawl. ... This is our test -- our Guadalcanal, or Chosin Reservoir, our Hue City. ... You are going to write history."

The Marines were cautioned by local tribal and religious leaders that the best way to avoid violence was to stay away from the city. "People here don't like to see American troops in their streets," said Khamis Hassnawi, Fallujah's senior tribal leader. "If they want to prevent bloodshed, they should stay outside the city and allow Iraqis to handle security inside the city."

But on March 26, two days before the closure of al-Hawza, the Marines entered Fallujah to conduct a raid on suspected insurgents. What began as an early morning search operation spiraled into a day-long firefight with residents in which 15 Iraqis and one Marine were killed.

In the course of a day, all the goodwill the Marines had tried to build evaporated.

'A huge mistake'
When Bremer ordered the shutdown of al-Hawza, there was no intention to use force to apprehend Sadr or leaders of his militia, according to occupation authority officials familiar with the decision.

One U.S. official said there was not even a fully developed backup plan for military action in case Sadr opted to react violently. The official noted that when the decision was made, there were very few U.S. troops in Sadr's strongholds south of Baghdad. That area has been under the jurisdiction of multinational military divisions that had failed to move aggressively against the cleric's militia.

The newspaper closure was intended "to send another signal to Sadr, just like telling him about the arrest warrant," the official said. "In hindsight, it was a huge mistake. The best-case scenario was that he would ignore it, like the earlier threat, or that he would capitulate. The worst case was that he would lash back. But we weren't ready for that."

At the time, occupation authority officials figured that Sadr had between 3,000 and 6,000 militiamen, only 2,000 of whom were armed fighters -- a figure that turned out to be a vast underestimate. "We were relying on the most optimistic predictions possible," the official said.

Officials in Washington familiar with the deliberations of both the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff said they knew of no high-level meetings before the closure of Sadr's paper in which either group reviewed military plans girding for a possible violent backlash.

But the officials said that the decision to move against Sadr was fully supported by senior Bush administration officials. And while top officials may not have been familiar with military details, one senior administration official said that Washington had repeatedly advised Bremer and U.S. commanders in Iraq to ensure they were prepared for trouble if they went after Sadr.

"Every time we talked with Baghdad about taking any action against Sadr, we always talked about the need to have proper preparations in place to deal with a violent reaction," the official said.

Senor said the decision to move against Sadr in late March was prompted by "a real trend in the ramping-up of very inciteful, highly provocative rhetoric" from Sadr "that was directed at promoting violence against Americans during a very emotional time."

"We believe we had a responsibility to address it head-on," he said. "We had a concern that if he was left unchecked, Americans could wind up getting killed."

Mobilizing the militia
For months, Sadr's lieutenants believed their leader's arrest was imminent. The rumors surged at each crisis -- in August, with the protests over the flag in Sadr City; in October, after the gun battles with U.S. troops; and again in April, after the paper's closure.

Mustafa Yaqoubi, one of his top deputies, warned in November against a crackdown. "No one can control people's passions, their reaction and their behavior," said Yaqoubi, wearing the black turban of a descendant of the prophet Muhammad and sitting in Sadr's two-story office in Najaf. "What they would do is unpredictable."

His confidence was inspired in part by knowledge of the popular disgust at arresting clergy. Particularly for religious Shiites, such arrests smacked of Hussein's repression. Over three decades, his Baath Party arrested, executed and expelled thousands of clerics, effectively muzzling the institution. Even critics of Sadr warned against detaining muammimeen, or the turbaned ones.

"The arrest of scholars is a grave mistake," said Abdul Aziz Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and one of Sadr's main rivals.

When Bremer moved against the newspaper, the clerics around Sadr saw it as the first step in a long-anticipated attack. They concluded it was time for a showdown. Without a show of force, they feared, U.S. officials would only be encouraged to take further steps.

"They wanted to hide the Shiite voice by closing the newspaper," said Fuad Tarfi, a spokesman for Sadr in Najaf.

Within hours, the clerics ordered a full mobilization. Protesters flooded the traffic circle in front of the newspaper's offices for a noisy rally, an action they would repeat over the next two days.

Three days after the newspaper was closed, on March 31, the demonstrations escalated. Instead of loitering in front of al-Hawza's offices, hundreds of Sadr supporters marched in a tight military formation to the fortified entrances of the occupation authority.

"We are followers of Sadr!" they shouted. "All the people know us. We will not be humiliated! Why is America against us?"

Many of the young men wore only black, save for green sashes on their brows. Marshals rushed between the units shouting warnings to keep the ranks sharp. Clerics in white turbans swept down the fringes with a proprietary air.

"Just say the word, Moqtada," they screamed, "and we'll resume the 1920 revolution!"

Later, the chants became more ominous. "Today is peaceful," they warned. "Tomorrow will be military."

That same day, in an unrelated incident, four American civilians working for a private security firm were ambushed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades as they drove through Fallujah. Residents mutilated the bodies of at least two of the men, dragged them through the streets, hung them from a bridge and burned them while a crowd cheered.

As soon as word of the incident reached Baghdad, "it was clear we would have to deliver a serious response," a senior U.S. official said. "We were going to have to do something significant to clean up the town."

With Fallujah having become the most immediate crisis, officials with the occupation authority assumed moves against Sadr would be put on hold.

"We didn't want to fight two fires at once," the senior official said.

'Terrorize your enemy'
In the days that followed, most communication between Sadr's staff and the occupation authority occurred through public statements. The U.S. administration had few if any interlocutors to call upon, and given their dismissiveness of Sadr for months, officials showed little willingness to negotiate with him.

Instead of de-escalating, the Americans kept increasing the pressure on Sadr. On Saturday, April 3, U.S. forces arrested Yaqoubi, Sadr's top deputy, on charges of involvement in the killing of Khoei, the Shiite cleric.

"We didn't choose the time for the uprising. The occupation forces did. It's clear that by arresting Sheik Yaqoubi and closing the Hawza newspaper, they wanted to provoke the Shiites," Tarfi said. "We didn't want to choose this time for the uprising."

After Yaqoubi's arrest, Sadr followers began boarding buses and trucks for Kufa, a town next to Najaf where Sadr the day before had called for direct attacks on occupation forces.

The protest was scheduled for 5 p.m. on Saturday. Afterward, people kept coming. At 3 a.m. on Sunday, buses were still crossing the bridges over the Euphrates River and depositing young men from Baghdad into the crowded square in front of Sadr's headquarters.

After daybreak on Sunday, hundreds of Sadr loyalists took over the headquarters of the city's traffic police station and a second government building, both surrendered by local police and officials without a fight. The next target was the coalition headquarters, which was protected by private guards and Salvadoran troops.

Alarmed to see the throng moving toward them, the soldiers and guards fired percussive rounds designed to break up the crowd. Some witnesses said the sound rounds were followed by mortars. The defenders also took up firing positions on the roof of the building adjoining the coalition headquarters, a hospital named for Sadr's father.

At one point, a vehicle carrying four Salvadoran soldiers was caught outside the gate. Demonstrators overwhelmed its terrified occupants, seizing and killing one prisoner on the spot by putting a grenade in his mouth and pulling the pin. Two other soldiers, their faces bruised from recent beatings, were later seen being led by armed men into the mosque.

By 1:30 p.m., the loudspeakers of the Kufa mosque announced that the Mahdi Army held Kufa, Najaf, Nasiriyah and Sadr City, Baghdad's teeming Shiite slum. The checkpoint controlling access to the bridge into Kufa and Najaf was staffed by young militiamen. Many Iraqi police officers, paid and trained by the U.S.-led coalition, had joined the assault on its quarters.

At 4:30 p.m., Sadr issued a typewritten statement. He called on his followers to stop the protests, describing them as futile. But he then gave a new order.

"Terrorize your enemy. God will reward you well for what pleases him. It is not possible to remain silent in front of their violations," the statement read.

Within the hour, a U.S. patrol was ambushed in Sadr City. The platoon from Comanche Company was on the street precisely because the 1st Cavalry Division suspected something was amiss. But none of the soldiers saw the rocket-propelled grenades fired from an alley into the platoon's Humvees. At least four soldiers were killed on the scene and four more died in the next few hours.

Survivors radioed for reinforcements. The unit racing from the base camp into the massive slum was met by a hail of fire from rooftops, alleys and upstairs windows. Every road was barricaded with concrete blocks, construction debris and trash.

By nightfall, both sides had reached a point that neither anticipated. "This morning, a group of people in Najaf have crossed the line, and they have moved to violence," Bremer said. "This will not be tolerated."

On Monday, more than 1,000 U.S. Marines sealed off Fallujah and set in motion an operation aimed at tracking down people responsible for the slaying of the four Americans. The same day, Bremer called Sadr an outlaw and "pledged to reassert the law and order which the Iraqi people expect."

The two-front war had begun.

  2004 The Washington Post Company


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