Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Iraqi Shi’ite cleric who ordered his fanatical militia to attack coalition troops, is being supported by Iran and its terror surrogate Hezbollah, according to military sources with access to recent intelligence reports.
Sheik al-Sadr’s bid to spark a widespread uprising in Iraq comes at a particularly pivotal time. The United States is conducting a massive troop rotation that leaves inexperienced troops in some locations, including Fallujah, which is west of Baghdad and where Sunnis have mounted another series of rebellions.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that he will consider more U.S. forces for Iraq if his top commander there, Gen. John Abizaid, requests them. There are about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and the force strength is scheduled to shrink by 15,000 once the rotation is completed.
“The commanders are using the excess of forces that happen to be in there because of the deployment process,” Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters. “They will decide what they need, and they will get what they need.”
Sheik al-Sadr, who has traveled to Iran and met with its hard-line Shi’ite clerics, is an ardent foe of the United States who wants all foreign troops to leave.
The United States suspects that his goal is to create a hard-line Shi’ite regime in Iraq modeled after Tehran’s government. Military sources said Sheik al-Sadr is being aided directly by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which plays a large role in running that country, and by Hezbollah, an Iranian-created terrorist group based in Lebanon.
One of the sources said these two organizations are supplying the cleric with money, spiritual support and possibly weapons. “Iran does not want a success in Iraq,” the source said.
“A democratic Iraq is a death knell to the mullahs.” Sheik al-Sadr upped the ante during the weekend by calling for his 3,000-strong militia, the Army of the Mahdi, to begin attacking coalition forces. His fiery words touched off attacks throughout southern Iraq.
The Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad announced on Monday that an Iraqi judge months ago had issued an arrest warrant for Sheik al-Sadr on a charge of murdering a moderate Shi’ite cleric.
The question for U.S. commanders is how to arrest Sheik al-Sadr without further enraging his small but violent group of followers. “Let the Iraqis kill him,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney. “We should not kill him, but we may have to. He’s trying to create an uprising. This is their Tet offensive. We’re going to kill a lot of them just like we did at Tet.”
John Hillen, a former Army captain who fought in Operation Desert Storm during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, said the first step should be to try to discredit the cleric, using the condemnation of moderate Shi’ite leaders, before arresting him.
“You need to defuse the situation,” Mr. Hillen said. “You need to make it Iraqi versus Iraqi. You’ve got to discredit him by his own people and find legitimate sources on our side. Make this as much a Shi’ite-to-Shi’ite issue as opposed to the Americans versus Sadr.”
The U.S. military is trying new tactics to try to quell insurgents in Fallujah, avoiding time-consuming house-to-house sweeps in favor of targeted raids based on hard intelligence. When the 82nd Airborne Division first tried to subdue Fallujah in the summer, units went block by block to locate insurgents. Now, in the second intense battle for the city of Saddam Hussein loyalists, intelligence collection has improved and U.S. Marines can target specific dwellings.
“The plan is not to go house to house, street to street. We are trying to get insurgents,” Capt. Ed Sullivan told Agence France-Presse.
Mr. Hillen said such precision operations mean that the Marines are getting good intelligence. “If you have good intelligence beforehand, which is the key to the whole Fallujah-type operations, you can at the same time be precise and overwhelming. We’ve been in and around Fallujah for quite some time, and I’m sure we have some pretty good intelligence sources there.”