The U.S.-led coalition began a campaign last summer to dilute the power of Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, methodically arresting his leaders and taking back control of mosques he had seized.
But U.S. officials, who asked not to be named, now concede their response to the anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric was too slow and gave him time to build an army of fanatics that he unleashed over the weekend against coalition troops.
One military officer said in an interview that he believes the radical Sheik al-Sadr issued his call for terrorism against allied troops over the weekend once he realized the United States was making progress in taking down his leadership.
The sheik had to either attack or risk losing his bid to control much of southern Iraq and its holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, the officer said.
Sheik al-Sadr began the post-Saddam occupation with a small base of support in his home of Najaf and in the slums of Baghdad’s Sadr City, a teeming section of 2 million Shi’ites named after a late al-Sadr relative.
Sheik al-Sadr, whose cleric father was killed by Saddam, immediately capitalized on his new freedom by delivering fiery anti-American speeches. He ordered his followers to begin taking over the mosques of moderate Shi’ites. He set up an illegal Islamic court in Najaf.
Soon, money began flowing in from followers, both in Iraq and in Shi’ite-dominated Iran. By last summer, he had built a large force of fanatical fighters, dubbed the Mahdi Army. The Pentagon says his following is small. In a country of 15 million Shi’ites, his ardent followers are estimated at 1,000 to 6,000. His army is pegged at 3,000 fighters.
The money also allowed Sheik al-Sadr to set up a network of social services, such as medical care and hot meals, to further increase his flock.
“He was trying to gain control of more mosques prior to the spring pilgrimages, because that’s when the money flows in and that’s what he uses to fund the militia,” said a senior military officer who has studied the cleric’s ways.
“Money is an army. Money is social services provided so he can appear as a benefactor. Money is the principal source of power for him. This is a business enterprise as much as it is a religious movement,” the officer said.
Like a gangland chieftain, the 30-year-old Sheik al-Sadr was building a territorial empire based on fear and reward. Some in U.S. Central Command called it “Sadr Bureau.”
The senior military officer said it was at this point that the Coalition Provisional Authority and allied Iraqis decided to move against Sheik al-Sadr. Iraqi authorities, backed by the U.S. military, began arresting his lieutenants. They also seized his mosques and returned them to moderate Shi’ites.
This officer said the final straw, from the sheik’s point of view, was the coalition’s decision to shut down his newspaper, which had increasingly encouraged violence and harshly denounced the United States and the occupation.
“We knew about Sadr before the war,” this officer said. “But it was not clear how much influence he would have. He’s very young, with unimpressive religious credentials. He’s basically living on the reputation of his father,” a leading Shi’ite cleric.
Yesterday, the coalition raised the stakes by vowing to destroy the Mahdi Army. Military officers say they would prefer for the allied Iraqi forces to deal with Sheik al-Sadr, either arresting or killing him.
“If you can adopt some type of a representative government, he loses,” said the senior military officer. “He’s a demagogue.”
The Washington Times yesterday quoted military sources as saying Sheik al-Sadr is receiving money from the Revolutionary Guard in Iran, and from Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored terrorist group in Lebanon. Iran is a theocracy also run by hard-line Shi’ite clerics, with whom Sheik al-Sadr has consulted.
Asked yesterday at the Pentagon if Iran was “meddling” in southern Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said: “We know the Iranians have been meddling, and it’s unhelpful to have neighboring countries meddling in the affairs of Iraq. And I think the Iraqi people are not going to want to be dominated by a neighboring country — any neighboring country. No country wants to be dominated by its neighbors.”