Chaos among the Shi’a

Sunday was bad. Very bad.
Across Iraq, Coalition troops clashed with supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the “firebrand” cleric who — until now — has denounced the Coalition and its occupation, but has refrained from calling for an uprising. Sunday, that restraint ended.
“There is no use for demonstrations, as your enemy loves to terrify and suppress opinions, and despises peoples,” he said in a statement.
“I ask you not to resort to demonstrations because they have become a losing card and we should seek other ways,” he said. “Terrorize your enemy, as we cannot remain silent over its violations.”
The uprising started with protests called because of the shuttering of _al-Hawza_, an al-Sadr newspaper, last week and the arrest of Mustafa al Yacoubi on Saturday on charges he murdered a senior Shiite cleric who returned to Iraq after the American-led invasion.

At nightfall today, the Sadr City neighborhood shook with explosions and tank and machine gun fire. Black smoke choked the sky. The streets were lined with armed militiamen, dressed in all black. American tanks surrounded the area. Attack helicopters thundered overhead.
“The occupation is over!” people on the streets yelled. “We are now controlled by Sadr. The Americans should stay out.”

Up to 8 U.S. troops were killed in Baghdad in clashes with Sadr’s supporters in Sadr City, the sprawling Shi’ite slum, and other hotbeds of Shi’a support in eastern Baghdad. The Americans called out the tanks. Sadr’s militia has taken the city of Kufa and police stations in Baghdad, Najaf and possibly elsewhere. Between 8 and 14 protesters were killed by Spanish and Salvadoran troops in Najaf. An Italian officer was wounded in Nasiriyah. British troops also came under attack in Amarah, although it was unclear if there were any casualties on among either the British or Iraqis.
Two U.S. Marines were killed in the al Anbar province in separate clashes.
The CPA issued the following press releases:

CJTF-7 Public Affairs
914 360 5082/5089
DNVT 302-550-2522/23
Date: April 4, 2004
CAMP GOLF, Iraq — A large number of men, many dressed in black, have attacked a Coalition base with small-arms fire today in An Najaf. Coalition forces, including U.S. Air Force fighter jets and U.S. Army gunship helicopters, are responding to the attack. A number of Coalition soldiers on the ground have been wounded. There is no word on their condition.


Baghdad, Iraq, April 4, 2004 — Mustafa Al-Yaqubi was detained on April 3, 2004 in connection with the April 2003 murder of Ayatollah Sayyed Abdul Majeed al-Khoei — one of Iraq’s leading advocates for human rights.
An Iraqi judge issued a warrant for Mr. Yaqubi’s arrest as a result of an Iraqi criminal investigation and indictment. He was taken into custody at his home in An Najaf.
The unlawful action of which Mr. Yaqubi has been accused endangers the safety and security of the citizens of Iraq. His apprehension reinforces the principles that those who engage in murder and violence against the citizens of Iraq will be found and tried in a court of law, criminals will face justice and no one is above the law.

Coalition authorities issued a statement that the reports of hundreds of civilian casualties were “incorrect.”
“Any notion that the Spanish fired on the protesters in the middle of a peaceful demonstration would not be consistent with what we saw on the ground,” a senior military official said.
Earlier in the day, Coalition Administrator L. Paul Bremer III said that Iraqis had gained the freedom to demonstrate but “those freedoms must be exercised peacefully,” according to a CPA statement. “This morning a group of people in Najaf crossed the line and they have moved to violence. This will not be tolerated. This will not be tolerated by the coalition, this will not be tolerated by the Iraqi people, and this will not be tolerated by the Iraqi security forces.”
[UPDATE 4:38 A.M., EDT Sadr is now “an outlaw,” according to Bremer.
“We have a difficult security situation. We have a group under Moqtada al-Sadr that has basically placed itself outside the legal authorities, the coalition and Iraqi officials,” said Bremer. “”Effectively he is attempting to establish his authority in the place of the legitimate authority. We will not tolerate this. We will reassert the law and order which the Iraqi people expect.”
Bremer was addressing the second meeting of the Ministerial Committee for National Security (MCNS) Monday morning. The MCNS facilitates and coordinates national security policy among the Ministries and agencies of the Iraqi government with responsibility for national security.]
This is a dramatic turn for the worse. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has called for calm, but blames the violence on the Coalition troops.

An aide to Ayatollah Sistani said he considered the militiamen’s cause to be “legitimate” and condemned the “acts waged by the coalition forces.” But he added: “The ayatollah has called on the demonstrators to remain calm, to keep a cool head and allow the problem to be resolved through negotiation.”

Sistani is trying to stay on the fence. He doesn’t want to distance himself from a popular cause, but neither does he want to become an outlaw himself. I’m working on getting the text of any statement he releases. It should be noted that Sadr is a rival of Sistani’s for leadership within the Shi’a community, and whether Sadr’s followers will listen to Sistani is an open question. So today’s violence also should be seen as part of a power struggle within the Shi’ite community.
Juan Cole, in his excellent coverage of the violence, notes that estimates of Sadr’s popularity ranges from 30 percent to 50 percent of the Shi’ite population of Iraq. As he worries:

So far, about 60% of clashes with Coalition troops had occurred in the Sunni heartland of Iraq. But the violent clashes in Najaf, Baghdad, Amara and Nasiriyah may signal the beginning of a second phase, in which the US faces a two-front war, against both Sunni radicals in the center-north and Shiite militias in the South. The clashes come at a pivotal moment, since on Friday April 9, the Shiite festival of Araba’in will take place, coinciding this year with the anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Have no doubt: This is one of the worst days for the Americans since the war started, despite its rosy statements. Today’s violence spread far beyond the Sunni heartland in the middle of the country, with Sadr forces marching in Kirkuk and the aforementioned clashes in Amarah, north of Basra. If a majority of the Shi’a have lost patience and decided to open a new front against the Coalition, prepare for a complete ceasing of reconstruction efforts and a lot more Coalition deaths.
This affects me directly. One one level, my best friend is walking into this, from Kuwait — straight through territory that once might have been considered if not friendly then at least not actively hostile. I’m not so sure of that now. Secondly, my plans are going through a rapid evolution. My initial plans, once I return in mid-May, were to base myself in Baghdad and work from there. With the recent surge in violence that has led to a number of foreign reporter friends of mine bugging out for fear of assassination, I’m rethinking my home base. Fallujah and now a possible Shi’ite uprising has caused me to consider new means of entry into the country. (Syria and Turkey are shut tight and Iran takes forever to get visas.)
The bottom line is that as a freelancer — and a very independent one at that, with a limited budget based on donations and my own savings — I can’t afford the armored cars and bodyguards that other freelancers on contract with the big media organizations can. That means I have to both make a call for “more donations”: and choose a safer area of the country. Donations now will go almost completely to security arrangements, including an Interceptor vest and short-term protection.
I’m thinking of the Kurdish area to start with — again. (I’m not going to get into details of my plans on a public blog. Call me paranoid, but I don’t want anyone I don’t know in Iraq knowing my precise arrival and travel plans.) I am still planning on going, but I’ll be honest — if it gets too hot, I’m not going in. I want to see for myself, and for all of you, what’s going on, but I’m not willing to get killed or maimed to do it.
This week is a wakeup call for everyone planning on going over there. It is orders of magnitude more dangerous than during the initial fighting, I think. For everyone.
UPDATE 5:13 A.M., EDT As Billmon notes, the revolt has spread to Basra:

Shia militiamen have occupied the governor’s house in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, the day after clashes around the country left at least 34 people dead, including nine allied soldiers.
About 1,000 supporters of the firebrand cleric Muqtader al-Sadr were inside and around the house of the governor, demanding the release of an aide to Sadr arrested by US forces.

2 Comments on “Chaos among the Shi’a”

  1. Shiite Insurrection

    The Marine Corps is poised on the border of Fallujah, or already attacking. The Shiites are rioting and have taken police stations and government buildings from Baghdad to Najaf to Basra. Apache gunships are patrolling the skies above Baghdad, firing…