Iraqi students hold national flags during a demonstration outside Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University March 13, in protest against the new U.S.-backed interim constitution. Photo: AFP

WASHINGTON (IPS) – With U.S. Marines effectively locking down the defiant city of Fallujah in the rebellious ”Sunni Triangle”, other U.S. military forces in Iraq opened a new front Monday to quash an apparent uprising by a Shiite militia in Baghdad and the south, in what some experts warn could be a major turning point in the year-old occupation.

U.S. officials appear to believe that the two shows of force — coming in the wake of some of the worst U.S. losses since the official end of major hostilities in Iraq 11 months ago — will remind both rebellious Sunnis and increasingly impatient Shiites that Washington remains very much in charge of the ongoing ”transition” that is supposed to end in a U.S. transfer to power to Iraqis by Jun. 30.

But some experts believe that both actions could well trigger even greater resistance in the Sunni heartland of north-central Iraq, and, more dangerously, among the Shiite community, which, with roughly 60 percent of the country’s total population, could create overwhelming problems for an increasingly beleaguered occupying force.


Independent analysts, such as Anthony Cordesman of the conservative Centre for Strategic and International Studies here, have long warned that active opposition by the Shiite population would doom the occupation and make Iraq ungovernable.

Monday’s actions followed the killing and mutilation of four private U.S. security contractors in Fallujah and the deaths of five U.S. troops in a roadside bomb explosion about 15 kms from the predominantly Sunni city last Thursday.

They also followed the killings of eight U.S. troops in gun battles with members of the Mahdi Army headed by the radical, outspoken anti-occupation Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, in the Sadr city section of Baghdad on Sunday.

His militia and supporters, who had carried out increasingly confrontational demonstrations after Sadr’s ‘Al Hawza’ newspaper was closed down last Sunday, also mounted uprisings in Najaf, Kufa and Amara in southern Iraq, where they quickly took over police stations and clashed with Iraq and occupation troops.

One soldier from El Salvador and at least two dozen Iraqis were reported killed.

To reassert their power, U.S. forces flew Apache gunships over Sadr City on Monday, but journalists reported that the Mahdi army appeared to remain in control of the streets.

Sadr reportedly retreated to a mosque in Kufa that has been surrounded by coalition troops after an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for him in connection with the killing of Ayatollah Abdel-Majid al Khoei in Najaf shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the regime of former President Saddam Hussein.

While U.S. officials downplayed any sense of crisis over the situation in Fallujah or the unprecedented crackdown against the Mahdi, U.S. President George W Bush insisted that Washington would ”stay the course” on Iraq, including handing over sovereignty to an interim government Jun. 30, but others — both for and against U.S. designs in Iraq — depicted a much more dire scenario.

Chris Toensing, editor of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), who visited Iraq last month, agreed that the situation, particularly regarding the Shiites, has reached a potentially decisive moment, but warned that shows of military force of the kind the coalition appears to have embarked on are likely to be counter-productive.

”This is what Sadr wants”, said Toensing. ”His father was a martyr to Saddam (Hussein); he wants to be a martyr of the U.S. occupation, so, in a sense, the U.S. is playing right into his hands” by issuing the arrest warrant.

Hunkered down in Baghdad ”Green Zone” and in U.S. bases across the country, the occupation’s military and political leadership, according to Toensing, fails to appreciate how distrustful most Iraqis are of U.S. intentions.

Rather than persuade Iraqis that the crackdown on Sadr is designed to protect the transition process, according to Toensing,” it will be largely understood as a provocation in order to create violent conflict that will, in turn, justify the continuing U.S. presence”.

The move also risks radicalising Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, who has generally co-operated with the CPA, although his recent ruling, or fatwa, that declared the interim constitution approved by the CPA-selected Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) illegitimate, has clearly clouded the transition process.

While Sistani is considered a political moderate who is reported to personally detest Sadr, he has also publicly supported some of his positions.

Indeed, while a close aide of Sistani’s reportedly urged in the ayatollah’s name that Shia demonstrators ”remain calm” Monday, he also noted their demands were ”legitimate” and that Sistani ”condemns acts waged by the occupation forces”.

”Sistani has been following rather than leading Shiite opinion”, according to Toensing, who added that while Sadr is only one actor in the Shiite community, ”it’s also true that the most prominent poster on display on the highway from Sadr City to the south is of his father. The U.S. has a vested interest in keeping him alive”.

But Iraq expert Juan Cole at the University of Michigan said that might be difficult to accomplish, given Sadr’s ”apocalyptic mindset” that left him convinced after the closure of his newspaper that the ”U.S. planned to silence him and destroy his movement, leaving him no choice but to launch an uprising”.

”Muqtada saw his father and brothers cut down by Saddam and he is clearly a paranoid personality deeply traumatised by Ba’ath terror against Shiites, and he views the Americans as little different from the Ba’athists”, Cole wrote in his Web log, adding that perhaps at least one-third of Iraqi Shiites are sympathetic to his ideology.

Hussein led Iraq’s Ba’ath Party.

Cole wrote that he could not fathom why the coalition acted against Sadr now, given that the indictment of the cleric was issued last November and that he and his followers ”haven’t been up to anything extraordinary as far as I can see in recent weeks …. this is either gross incompetence or was done with dark ulterior motives”.

The latter could include, according to Cole, the provocation of greater sectarian violence or casting blame on Iran, thus halting any progress towards detente with Tehran in its tracks.