Shiite Muslim uprising in Iraq

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According to Anthony Shadid and Sewell Chan writing for the Washington Post, the Sunday, April 4, 2004, Shiite Muslim uprising in Iraq, with "mass demonstrations and attacks in Baghdad and southern Iraq, [led by the young, militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr with his Mehdi Army] ... has realized the greatest fear of the U.S.-led administration since the occupation of Iraq began a year ago." [1] See sites of protest.

"The unrest," they write, "signaled that the U.S. military faces armed opposition on two fronts: in scarred Sunni towns such as Fallujah and, as of Sunday, in a Shiite-dominated region of the country that had remained largely acquiescent, if uneasy about the U.S. role. If put down forcefully, a Shiite uprising -- infused with religious imagery, and symbols drawn from Iraq's colonial past and the current Palestinian conflict -- could achieve a momentum of its own.

"During the last year, Sadr has appealed to poor and disenfranchised Shiites, the majority of Iraq's population, with a relentless anti-occupation message. A junior cleric, the 30-year-old's authority is far overshadowed by Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the country's leading religious figure. Sadr and his followers remain distinctly unpopular in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where the more established clergy hold sway. But he commands a street following in Baghdad and the long-neglected cities of the south, and his militia of several thousand men has grown in strength and influence." [2]

"The unrest Sunday followed a series of calibrated moves by each side that appeared to be designed to test the resolve of the other.

"The latest round of tension began March 28, with the U.S. closure of Sadr's al-Hawza newspaper. With an estimated circulation of 10,000, the weekly was mainly marketed at mosques loyal to Sadr's followers and, for months, had printed articles that U.S. officials deemed inflammatory. The closure sent thousands of protesters into the streets, many of them marching in military cadence in Baghdad and Najaf and wearing the black uniforms of Sadr's militia, which is known as the Mahdi Army.

"Supporters of Sadr suggested that a show of force would discourage U.S. officials from broadening the crackdown. In his Friday sermon, Sadr appeared to call for attacks on U.S. forces, crossing a line that he had carefully avoided for months. Citing what he called attacks by 'the occupiers,' he told followers, 'Be on the utmost readiness and strike them where you meet them.'" [3]

"For months, occupation authorities have been divided over how to respond to Sadr's challenge. ... U.S. officials insisted Sunday that they had not decided whether to crack down on Sadr's group. But L. Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator of Iraq, suggested that the violence would have consequences." [4]

"...the crucial element of the escalated rebellion is the armed struggle taken up by prominent Shia leader Moqtada Sadr, who commands the allegiance of a significant and growing portion of Iraq's majority Shiite population, particularly the poor. The emergence of an uprising by that section of society most brutalized by Saddam deals a death blow to two main lines of the Bush administration's war propaganda: [5]

  • First, it is no longer possible to smear the resistance as merely a ragtag collection of terrorists, Ba'athists, or outsiders;
  • and second, it is equally impossible to claim the occupation is being carried out in the interests of any Iraqis"

"The US closure of an irregularly published newspaper with just 5,000 readers seemed a tiny moment in the struggle for stability in Iraq. But the March 28 move to close Al Hawza, controlled by militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, now looks like the edge of a violent storm." [6]

How its twin fronts - of Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents - built and combined to create what might be described as the perfect Iraqi sandstorm is only now coming into focus. At the time, no one would have forecast that the deaths of four US security contractors alone would result in a major military campaign in Fallujah. Similarly, the US coalition hardly anticipated that the closure of just one of 100-plus newspapers in Baghdad would form the genesis of a Shiite revolt in half a dozen cities around Iraq.

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