Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sadrists Flex Their Muscles

Tensions between US troops and followers of radical Shia preacher Muqtada al-Sadr threatening to spiral out of control.
By Naser Kadhem

The Office of the Martyr in the northwest Baghdad slum of al-Shuala bristles with clerics and armed militiamen of the so-called Army of the Mahdi.

Outside, demonstrators shout defiance at American soldiers in their Humvees parked down the street.

Mahdi militiamen on the rooftops flash the soles of their shoes at the US troops in a gesture of contempt, as their colleagues rush to fit a heavy machinegun onto a tripod ready for action.

On a nearby street, where Coalition soldiers and Iraqi gunmen clashed earlier, residents stand in triumph on a burnt-out US supply truck.

Others brandish the cartridge casings from 30mm rounds fired by a US Apache attack helicopter, which witnesses say punched holes through walls killing two bystanders.

The director of the Office of the Martyr, a black-turbaned cleric named Raad al-Husseini, said, "The best thing is for [the Americans] to withdraw, otherwise I expect massacres."

As he speaks, a chorus of "Allahu Akbar!" or "God is Great!" breaks out from the militiamen as the Humvees depart, at least for the time being.

A fellow cleric rushes in to brief Husseini on the latest development.

"One of the youths outside offered his willingness to conduct a suicide attack, but we want to calm things down," Husseini said.

The stand-off in al-Shuala is one of dozens between US soldiers and followers of radical preacher Muqtada al-Sadr. Since April 4, armed clashes between the two sides have claimed the lives of more than 60 Iraqis and at least a dozen Coalition troops.

In al-Shuala, gunmen ambushed a US column as it moved through the streets near the Office of the Martyr, according to American military spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt.

An Apache helicopter called in to support the column shot back after it was hit by gunfire.

The Sadrists say that the Americans pulled up and opened fire at random, then besieged the office.

Husseini said at least two schoolchildren were killed by helicopter gunfire, and a half-dozen more civilians wounded.

The figures could not be independently verified as the local hospital refused to provide a count of casualties.

The clashes started more than a week ago when US troops shut down the Sadrists' newspaper, al-Hawza, for a period of sixty days.

Tensions increased over the weekend when Coalition forces arrested senior Sadr aide Mustafa al-Yaqubi on charges related to the murder of Ayatollah Sayyid Abd al-Majid al-Khoei in April 2003.

As a result, Sadr's followers seized police stations and municipal buildings in the southern Iraqi cities of Basra, Karbala, Kufa, and in the predominantly Shia slums of northeast Baghdad.

The Coalition also has announced it intends to arrest Sadr himself for involvement in the al-Khoei murder - a charge that Sadr denies.

Indeed, Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer has dubbed Sadr an "outlaw", while US president George Bush said Washington would not tolerate his actions.

Sadr's recent utterances have been interpreted by many as a call to insurrection. "There is no use for demonstrations, as your enemy loves to terrify and suppress opinions..." he said in a statement distributed by his office in Kufa. "Terrorise your enemy, as we cannot remain silent over its violations."

Meanwhile, the Sadrists have issued another statement calling for the reopening of their newspaper.

The Sadrists have also called for the release of detainees, and the formation of a "constitutional Iraqi government that is far away from occupation" - a presumed reference to the Coalition's plans to devolve power to an unelected government in June.

Iraq's leaders have called for an end to the confrontation, amid fears that clashes between American troops and the thousands-strong Army of the Mahdi could delay the scheduled June 30 transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi government.

Senior scholar Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani issued a statement calling for calm to allow the problem to be resolved through negotiation.

Sistani also urged the "demonstrators not to retaliate against the occupation forces in the event of an aggression".

However, Sistani's statement declares that the "demonstrators' demands were legitimate" and "condemns acts waged by the occupation forces and pledges his support to the families of the victims".

Shia members of the Governing Council also blamed the Coalition.

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, "condemned the policy of shooting innocent demonstrators, closing papers, and arresting clerics", according to the party organ al-Adala.

Governing Councillor Abd al-Karim Al-Mohammedawi, an anti-Saddam guerrilla commander and wartime ally of the Americans in the southern province of Amara, said he might resign if the Sadrists' demands were not met, the Coalition-funded al-Sabah newspaper reported.

In the northeast Baghdad slum of Madinat al-Sadr, where fighting on April 4 killed at least seven US soldiers and 39 Iraqis, militiamen carrying RPG rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs gathered at intersections, but scattered whenever US troops approached.

"We don't want to attack Americans right now," said Ali Mustafa, a militiaman with the Army of the Mahdi. "There are no orders from Muqtada to attack yet."

If the order comes, however, "we are ready to sacrifice ourselves for Muqtada", he added.

While many wait to see how things develop, at least one Shia politician has already condemned Sadr and his followers.

Iyad Allawi, head of the Governing Council's Security Committee, told a press conference on April 6, "There is a radical force trying to harm the country, and this force has become known to all - it includes Muqtada Sadr and the group around him."

Omar Anwar, Naser Kadhem and Aqil Jabbar are IWPR trainees