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Religion and Politics

April 13, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: In an interview with a Lebanese television station today, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanded that the 2,500 U.S. forces now surrounding the holy city of Najaf withdraw. The U.S. has threatened to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr, and today he said he was willing to die for his cause.

MUQTADA AL-SADR (Translated): I am only afraid of god. I am ready to sacrifice. I call on the people not to view my killing as a collapse of their rejection of the occupation and their demand for independence, freedom, spread of Islam, and peace in the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Al-Sadr has refused to talk directly with the U.S.-led authority. But he has reportedly met with the sons of Iraq’s three grand ayatollahs, including the son of the most powerful Shiite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, to discuss disbanding al-Sadr’s militia, called the al-Mahdi Army.

At a briefing in Baghdad today, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition was asked about efforts to negotiate with al-Sadr.

DANIEL SENOR: We have been approached by a number of individuals who are trying to seek a peaceful resolution to the situation with Sadr’s militia, and we respect and appreciate their good intentions. We too want to minimize the bloodshed, but we have a few principles that are very clear: The rule of law must prevail in Iraq; there is no role for illegal militias and illegal mobs and mob violence; there is no role for individuals or organizations that take control of government properties.

RAY SUAREZ: An Iraqi judge has issued a warrant for al-Sadr’s arrest in connection with last year’s murder of a rival religious leader. Sayyed Abdel Majid al-Khoei was hacked to death by a mob when he returned from exile in London to help run Najaf.

The recent wave of Shia unrest erupted late last month after the coalition shut down al-Sadr’s newspaper on the grounds it was inciting violence. About two weeks ago, one of al-Sadr’s top aides was arrested for alleged involvement in al-Khoei’s murder. Since then, members of al-Sadr’s Mahdi army have taken over government buildings and clashed with coalition forces in Baghdad and other mainly Shia cities, including Kufa, Kut and Najaf. Today, U.S. forces detained another al-Sadr aide — his spokesman Hazem al-Araji — this morning in Baghdad, but they later released him. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt provided details.

BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT: We wanted him for questioning. After questioning, we determined that he was not an imminent threat to security.

RAY SUAREZ: Iraqi police now patrol Najaf, while coalition troops remain on the city’s outskirts.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the Shia struggles, we get two perspectives. Juan Cole is a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. He recently authored Sacred Space and Holy War about Shia Islam. And Reuel Gerecht was in the CIA’s clandestine service focusing on the Middle East and terrorism from 1985 to 1994. He’s now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Professor Cole, who is Muqtada al-Sadr and why has he become a catalyst for this confrontation, civil and military, against the U.S. authority?

JUAN COLE: Muqtada al-Sadr leads a sectarian group within the Iraqi Shia who expect the end of the world, the coming of the promised one any moment. They are largely poor. They live in ghettos. And they have few prospects. They believe that the world is about to be turned upside down and justice established.

Muqtada inherited an extensive network of mosques, soup kitchens, informal courts and canvassers from his father who had established this organization in the last years of Saddam Hussein as a way of opposing the Baath regime.

So it is a dissident movement and its dissident character has been transferred from the Baath to the United States now that the United States rules Iraq. The United States provoked a fight with this organization by coming after Muqtada and his aides with these arrest warrants. It was an unnecessary move and it had stirred up a hornet’s nest that the Coalition Provisional Authority was clearly unprepared to deal with.

RAY SUAREZ: Reuel Gerecht, given the family background that Professor Cole mentioned, the network of social service agencies in addition to mosques, should we see this really as a religious question, a political challenge, a little of both?

REUEL GERECHT: Well, I think it’s definitely both. I mean I think that Sadr is a very, very militant cleric as Professor Cole has said. I think that he is very much inclined to use violence, to achieve his ends. I don’t think that — I think we tend to forget that if in fact the traditional Shiite clergy led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani continues to cooperate with the Americans, I don’t think individuals like Sadr and his followers, the Sadriyyun have much future in Iraq and I think the young man who has collided with the grand ayatollah — and this is not the first time. He’s actually had problems with the traditional establishment in Najaf at least twice since the fall of Saddam Hussein — I think he intends to continue his efforts to cause us trouble and also cause the grand ayatollah trouble.

RAY SUAREZ: Causing the grand ayatollah trouble or not, other clerics have been meeting with U.S. forces, meeting with U.S. civil authorities trying to work out a compromise of this. Are they closing ranks and defending Sadr, presenting a united Shia front?

REUEL GERECHT: No, I don’t think you’ve got a united front against the United States. I think that’s something that Sadr might like to provoke. And certainly if the Americans were to invade the holy city of Najaf, he might actually be able to provoke it. I think it is a good idea for the Americans to allow Sistani to take the lead on this, to negotiate with Sadr. Although I think it needs to be remembered — I think Sadr has an appetite for this violence. And if eventually I think we’re going to have to deal with him, I don’t think Sistani by himself will be able to.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Cole, are the other clerics supporters, rivals? How do we understand their role in confronting the Sadr problem that they have now?

JUAN COLE: Well, they’re both rivals and supporters. You have to think about the Shiite establishment as a group of cousins. Some of them might not like some of the cousins very much but if a group of outsiders came and beat them up, all the cousins would get together to defend the one beaten up whether they liked him or not. And it’s the same thing with Muqtada.

He is a black sheep and has formed this militia. He speaks very militantly. He has threatened Sistani in the past, so he’s not liked. But the Shiite clergy of Najaf is not going to sit idly by while the United States invades their holy city and takes one of their own into captivity or kills him. If the United States proceeds in that manner, it will be the beginning of a long-term, low-grade Shiite guerilla insurgency in the south similar to what we have seen in the Sunni Arab areas.

RAY SUAREZ: Reuel, do you agree?

REUEL GERECHT: Yes. I can’t think of a worse move for the United States to do than to invade Najaf. I think that would essentially accomplish the mission that Sadr is ultimately after, and that is to use violence as a tool to, one, drive the Americans out of Iraq and also intimidate the traditional clergy. So I don’t think the Americans are going to do that.

I certainly hope the troops that are gathering outside of Najaf is used as a negotiating tool and does not actually mean that the Americans are prepared to go into the holy city.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Cole, the commanding officer of those troops, U.S. troops outside Najaf, said today, “Look at this as the Shiite Vatican, a single shot in Najaf could outrage the Shia majority.” He seems to be well aware of the delicacy of his mission. Is that a good analogy? Is Najaf the Shiite Vatican?

JUAN COLE: It is an excellent analogy and it should be remembered that the implications of U.S. invasion of Najaf would go far beyond Iraq.

All the Shiites in the world, in Lebanon, in Iran, in Bahrain and Pakistan and Afghanistan would be outraged by such an action and there would be terrible repercussions possibly for the United States in moving in this way.

And the problem is the U.S. military authorities have said that they want to either capture or kill Muqtada al Sadr. I don’t understand this aspiration. If they capture him, there will be demonstrations by all of his fanatical followers — and they are not miniscule in number. Every day in many cities until he is released, there will be hostage taking in hopes of trading hostages for him. If he is killed, then they will go into a guerilla insurgency. There has to be a third way — possibly finding a way to exile him to a neighboring country without harming him.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Reuel Gerecht, the capture or kill quote didn’t come out of thin air. The coalition authorities say they suspect al-Sadr is responsible for the deaths of American troops and American citizens in Iraq and allies of the coalition. Is there a risk? We’ve just heard from Professor Cole on the risk of going after him. Is there a risk of letting him stand, letting his militias remain organized and letting him remain holed up in Najaf?

REUEL GERECHT: I think yes. Right now I think Sistani has to have the lead on dealing with the young man. However, I mean, the Americans have made mistakes in the past. I mean, back in August and September, there was a serious debate inside the Pentagon and also in the provisional authority in Baghdad on whether to arrest him at that time because the Pentagon believed that he was at that time culpable for the death of American soldiers. They chose not to do that. They chose to blink. They also reached some modus vivendi in October when Sadr declared a shadow government, was attempting to make a march on Najaf.

The longer this goes on, I really don’t think that Sadr is likely to give up on the tactics that he has been using since April. I don’t think no matter what Sistani does that he’s going to forsake violence. I think it’s a question of time. I regrettably, we may now have to deal with his followers. I just — we should not enter Najaf under any circumstances and if he leaves Najaf, then that’s a different situation. I’m skeptical he’s going to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this, Professor Cole, give also a particular challenge to the Shiite members of the provisional governing council, the government in waiting after June 30?

JUAN COLE: Well, the Shiite members of the governing council have their own militias. The Dawa Party, which is an ally of the United States, is an old-time revolutionary Shiite party, has covert cells all across the country and fields a paramilitary that has patrolled the streets of cities. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq has a paramilitary, the Badr Corps, which is trained by the Revolutionary Guards which continues to operate. Ahmad Chalabi has his own militia and indeed the U.S. Pentagon flew Ahmad Chalabi and his militia into Iraq, establishing that militia.

The way you deal with a militia is that you provide employment. Nobody wants to be in a militia unless they’re poor and don’t have money. In fact, in Lebanon during the civil war I remember very well in order to get people into militias, the people used to bomb the factories so as to make people unemployed. If the United States had used a carrot kind of approach and kept people employed, there wouldn’t be a lot of young men milling around who were eager to join militias in the first place.

RAY SUAREZ: Can, Reuel Gerecht, those militias remain organized, can there be more than one army on the ground in Iraq?

REUEL GERECHT: No. I think eventually they’re going to have to deal with those militias. I think it would have been a very good idea early on to forcibly disband those militias. We didn’t do that. I think now we probably only have one alternative and that’s eventually to try to incorporate some of those militias into a standing army. I’m a little bit skeptical that you can buy out some of those folks. I think particularly with the Dawa Party and the Islamic — and the Sadriyyun I’m not sure poverty is the driving force behind them. I do believe they in fact do have a millenarian impulse. Eventually we may have to deal with them in a fairly forceful way.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you both.

REUEL GERECHT: My pleasure.