- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

The Marine raid yesterday on the Najaf home of rebel Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr crossed a line that U.S. and Iraqi officials had shied away from for months, personalizing the struggle with one of the regime’s most implacable critics.

Top officials of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s government said the raid and the larger offensive against members of the Mahdi’s Army, led by Sheik al-Sadr, signaled a decisive end to efforts to strike a deal with the cleric.

“What is happening is the murdering and the massacring of the Iraqi people, and the destroying of public institutions,” Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Nakib said in Baghdad yesterday.

Sheik al-Sadr’s supporters “are trying to derail the rebuilding of Iraq, trying to prevent Iraqis from carrying out their normal lives and threatening their future,” he said.

But U.S. officials and private analysts acknowledge that targeting Sheik al-Sadr himself — in the heart of a city considered holy by Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority — carries massive political risks.

More than half of Najaf’s provincial council resigned in protest following yesterday’s raid. The joint U.S.-Iraqi operation that began Aug. 4 has been criticized by some members of Mr. Allawi’s own government, including Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi’ite who ranks in opinion polls as one of the most popular political figures in the country.

The death or detention of the charismatic 30-year-old Sheik al-Sadr would bring new problems for the shaky Iraqi government.

“The rapidly increasing number of casualties that the Mahdi Army is sustaining is already translating into mass anger at the United States and the [Allawi government],” according to Texas-based private intelligence service Stratfor.

“Even his death would likely have undesirable consequences for Washington and Baghdad.”

Sheik al-Sadr, the youngest son of a well-known Iraqi cleric assassinated under the regime of Saddam Hussein, has unexpectedly emerged as the most vocal Shi’ite opponent to the U.S. postwar-construction effort.

While Mahdi’s Army fighters have clashed with Iraqi and coalition forces in Najaf and other southern Iraqi cities in the past week, the cleric’s power base is among young, disaffected Shi’ite Muslims in Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City district.

His calls for violent resistance to the U.S. “occupiers” have put him at odds with more moderate senior Shi’ite clerics, notably Najaf’s Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, considered the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shi’ite community, who is in London for medical treatment.

Mahdi’s Army forces agreed to a truce in June, and Mr. Allawi, a Shi’ite himself, as recently as last week was saying he was ready to grant Sheik al-Sadr and his followers amnesty and allow them to compete in next year’s parliamentary elections.

But with the Iraqi government struggling to assert its authority, the hostile rhetoric on both sides has increased.

Michael Young, opinion editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star, said that “both Allawi and the U.S. realize that now is the time to break the back of Sadr’s Mahdi Army.”

“The Iraqi prime minister in particular is gambling that he will be able to get away with this and begin a process of consolidating state authority.”

Sheik al-Sadr has been wrapping himself in the symbols of past Shi’ite martyrs. His forces are reportedly establishing ties with Sunni Muslim forces battling U.S. troops in Fallujah and other cities.

Ahmed al-Shaibany, Sheik al-Sadr’s spokesmen, said, “Occupation forces have come to realize that there will be no stability in Iraq unless Muqtada al-Sadr is gone. Similarly, Muqtada al-Sadr realizes there will be no stability unless the occupying forces are gone.”

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