Shiite Resistance in Iraq
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GWEN IFILL: For more about the latest Shiite uprising, and what it means for the continuing occupation, we turn to Samer Shehata, a visiting assistant professor of Middle East politics at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, and Adeed Dawisha, professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio — he’s written extensively on the politics of the Middle East.
Professor Shehata, we’ve heard about the general reluctance of the Shia population to this occupation and to the legal steps which are being put in place to, for the handover on June 30. What do we see over the weekend with this new uprising that tells us what effect that will have on the prospects for the handover?
SAMER SHEHATA: Well, what we’ve seen is a Shia leader who has been the most vehement in his criticism of the occupation in his calling into question the legitimacy of the Iraqi governing council, someone who’s been excluded from the political process — not easily willing to go way or to succumb to the rule of the Coalition Provisional Authority. It’s not clear how powerful al-Sadr is. It’s not clear how many people are in his militia as it were. But these are the types of difficulties that the CPA is going to face in the future because this isn’t the only militia, it’s not the only Islamist based militia either.
GWEN IFILL: He is 30 years old, relatively new to any positions of leadership. But is he someone that the United States or the Coalition Provisional Authority has been taking seriously?
SAMER SHEHATA: Not really. He is young, there’s no question about that, and he’s also politically inexperienced, which is not a very good combination. But he comes from a long lineage of Shia clerics who have a significant amount of standing in Iraq. Muhammad Sadiq al-al-Sadr, is his father was of course killed by Saddam Hussein or Saddam Hussein’s agents, as well as two of al-Sadr’s brothers. His father was also in prison for some time and has established a charitable network of welfare, education and other organizations that have real resonance in the kind of disenfranchised Shia community of Baghdad and beyond. But the United States has not been taking al-al-Sadr very seriously.
GWEN IFILL: Adeed Dawisha, should they have been taking him seriously?
ADEED DAWISHA: Well, it depends on what you mean by taking him seriously. They’ve been eying him very closely, and last fall, for example, when some of his people ambushed an American group and killed two or three Americans, the CPA actually went in and threatened him with imprisonment, and as a result of that in fact you find that for about September, October, up until very recently about a month ago his rhetoric had been toned down considerably.
It’s only in the last two or three weeks that he’s kind of upped the ante again and began calling for violence against the Americans and insurrection, and that’s when the Americans began to do something about it, or at least in a sense it began with closing down his newspaper, and imprisoning his main lieutenant.
GWEN IFILL: Why the suddenly stepped up rhetoric? What was it that triggered that which led to this?
ADEED DAWISHA: You know, it’s very difficult to know why. I think that a lot of these groups, including his are now jockeying for power in anticipation of the transfer of power that the CPA is going to be doing, and in June. It also probably is a result of what’s been happening in Fallujah, which has been creating an image of the Americans as being somewhat weak, unable to quell the insurrection in the town like Fallujah, and with these people, especially the — al-Sadr and his group, any sign of weakness is immediately pounced upon. So I think that the events of the last month or so have had a major impact on the change in strategy of al-Sadr
GWEN IFILL: And Professor Shehata, the events of the last month or so have been all centered in the Sunni Triangle — the only concerns about the Shia population had been revolving around Ayatollah al-Sistani, who is obviously, what is his relationship to al-al-Sadr, if any?
SAMER SHEHATA: Well, it’s not a very good one, it’s a rival relationship really, over influence on the Shia majority in Iraq. Although publicly, Sistani has not said anything negatively against al-al-Sadr, al-al-Sadr has criticized al-Sistani and other religious leaders in Iraq who have been willing to engage in some kind of negotiations as it were with the coalition provisional authority and the Americans. So they can be seen as rival religious leaders, vying for the allegiance of Iraq’s Shia population.
GWEN IFILL: But rival on the same level?
SAMER SHEHATA: Not at all, not on the same level. Al-Sistani is revered, he is a man of religious learning, a scholar, he’s reclusive; he’s not somebody who has dirtied his hands in the day-to-day politics of Iraq. Muqtada al-al-Sadr is the opposite, he’s young and inexperienced and has not had that much religious learning whatsoever. And his main appeal is his fiery anti-American, anti-occupation, nationalism really, a Shia nationalism that appeals to the most disenfranchised elements of the population.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Dawisha, Professor Shehata said he’s not certain how many people that Mr. Al-al-Sadr actually controls. Do you have a sense of that, of who he’s actually speaking to and whether it’s potent?
ADEED DAWISHA: Well, I agree that his main support comes from the disenfranchised section of the Shiite community in Iraq, that’s why you find the demonstrations for example in Baghdad coming out of al-Sadr City, which used to be called Saddam City, which is the worst slums in Iraq — in Baghdad.
Now on the other side of the city, there is [unintelligible] an area which is also heavily Shiite, but this is the area of middle class merchants, professionals and so on, and so far nothing has come out of that area. That tells you something about the kind of support he has.
In terms of militia, he controls a militia called a Mahdi army which is probably about 10,000 men. These are all a bunch of, to be quite honest and to say it plainly, a bunch of thugs who go around these southern cities terrorizing women for not wearing the right clothes, terrorizing professors who are probably secular; in fact last week this Mahdi army went into a small village, which is inhabited by gypsies and because the gypsies in Iraq tend to kind of dance and sing, this village was entirely raised to the ground, and it’s inhabitants of about a thousand or fifteen hundred were either killed or tortured. This is the kind of group that this man is presiding over. And this is why I think the CPA has finally decided to take him on.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Shehata, if there are 10,000 of them and they are thugs and they are organized thugs, what is it that the Coalition Provisional Authority ought to be doing or the United States forces ought to be doing to silence them?
SAMER SHEHATA: Well, this is the crucial question, because Muqtada al-al-Sadr might not be a problem, but how the US deals with him and his militia is a crucial issue. I think that dealing with them as they have over the last couple of days with Apache helicopter gun ships, tanks and so on, my not be the best way to do that, because Muqtada al-al-Sadr could become a martyr. This could embitter a much larger segment of the Iraqi population against the United States.
So I think that’s really the key question. And it’s not clear at all why this arrest warrant was issued right now if it — or why they’re trying to arrest him right now, if the arrest warrant was issued some time ago. So I think probably what’s in the CPA’s minds is this June 30 deadline and the desire to get rid of someone like Muqtada al-al-Sadr and the possible danger that he poses before the symbolic handover of power to a sovereign Iraqi authority.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Dawisha, your thoughts on that, exactly what should the coalition provisional authority be doing if anything if he is that serious a threat?
ADEED DAWISHA: I think the CPA at the moment is walking a very tight rope, and I hope they will come to the right conclusions about what to do. On the one hand, the kind of people al-al-Sadr leads and he himself, they’re not the kind of people who in a sense understand compromise. Any compromise on the part of the CPA is seen as a sign of weakness and will only engender even more violence on their part. On the other hand, if, I agree whole heartily with Professor Shehata, if you make a al-Sadr into a martyr, then whatever support he has might overspill into the larger Shiite community, and then if we’re going to have — the a large segment of the Shiite community against us as well as the Sunni Triangle, then we are having a major problem on our hands. So we need to use — sorry.
GWEN IFILL: But in your opinion, should he be removed, is he a serious enough threat or can he just be set to the side and ignored?
ADEED DAWISHA: I think if we can remove him while at the same time appealing to the Grand Ayatollah Sistani — the people who have a lot of influence amongst the larger Shiite community — if we can bring them in and don’t forget these people detest Muqtada al-al-Sadr; they would be very happy to see him go. If we can do this kind of stick-and-carrot policy, then we might get away with it. But if we just leave him untouched, then he’s just going to continue, because he’s going to see this as a sign of weakness on our part and that’s something which he plays on.
GWEN IFILL: Adeed Dawisha and Samer Shehata, thank you for joining us.