Supporters of maverick Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr controlled government, religious and security buildings in the holy city of Najaf early Tuesday evening, according to a coalition source in southern Iraq.
The source said al-Sadr’s followers controlled the governor’s office, police stations and the Imam Ali mosque, one of Shia Muslim’s holiest shrines.
Iraqi police were negotiating to regain their stations, the source said.
The source also said al-Sadr was busing followers into Najaf from Sadr City in Baghdad and that many members of his outlawed militia, Mehdi’s Army, were from surrounding provinces.
But don’t worry, be happy:
Despite the rising death toll, Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, said “there is no question we have control over the country.”
“I know if you just report on those few places, it does look chaotic,” Bremer said on CNN’s “American Morning.” “But if you travel around the country, what you find is a bustling economy, people opening businesses right and left, unemployment has dropped.
“The story of the house that doesn’t burn down is not much of a story in the news,” he said. “The story of the house that does burn down is news.”
Lord. Hey, Mr. Bremer, you’ve been in-country for a while now, so you should know that when Baghdad, Fallujah, Basra, Amarah, Nasiriyah and now Najaf are seeing heavy fighting, you should know that _that’s most of the country._
(There has been underreported fighting and assassination attempts in Mosul, and Tikrit is probably locked down tight by the American military.)
Iraq is heavily urbanized, with the west and south of the country largely uninhabited. Almost 77 percent of the population lives in those cities. So when Bremer refers to those “few places” he’s actually talking about the majority of the Iraqi population (with the exception of the Kurdish area.)
But more important, where the hell is Sistani? He’s being awfully quiet after an earlier announcement calling for calm, but saying al-Sadr’s grievances were “legitimate.”
There is some suspicion that al-Sadr is working for the Iranians. His _marji’ya_ — religious advisors — are based in Qom, Iran, and I’ve heard from Iraqis that he’s getting instruction from them. Speculation is that he’s deliberately trying to open up a second front, as that would suit Tehran just fine. Having America bogged down just as Iran is making concessions — maybe — on nuclear programs could be the working plan. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence.
Or maybe al-Sadr is just greedy. Back in October, he tried a similar tactic in Karbala by taking eight hostages in the al-Mukhaiyam mosque. People in Karbala thought al-Sadr’s militants were really after the money in the mosques left by worshippers. At the time, he failed, but this time, he has control of Imam Ali’s mosque, one of the holiest shrines in Shi’a Islam — and one that is considerably richer. The amount of wealth in the mosque is unknown, but it would be considerable.
If he does attempt to take the mosque’s wealth, he will cause a split among the Iraqi Shi’a between his followers and Sistani’s. And if the Americans go into the mosque to get him, they will unite _all_ the world’s Shi’a against them.
One interesting aspect of all of this is al-Sadr’s tactics. If he leaves Najaf after a short period, he’s probably “taking coup.” Taking coup was a Native American tactic in warfare that involved touching the enemy with a blunt stick but not killing him. It was the equivalent of saying, “I could have snuffed you … But I didn’t.” Sadr may be doing the same thing by coming into a city, taking it over for a day or so and then leaving it. He gets all the PR benefits of taking over a city, but doesn’t actually have to expend resources on dealing with it. If he leaves Najaf like he did Kufa, this may be what he’s doing.
But regardless of his tactics, he is fated to be a prisoner or a martyr. Either way makes this is a no-win game now. Nothing I see coming looks good.