Washington has sanctioned the plan put together by American Iraq administrator Paul Bremer, and Iraq military commander, Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, to remove from Iraq’s political stage the man they brand “the most dangerous Shiite cleric in Iraq”, 32-year old Sayed Muqtada al-Sadr, scion of an important Iraqi Shiite clerical dynasty.
US troops in Baghdad, Karbala and Najef are preparing to raid his fortress-like home in Najef and arrest the hotheaded cleric and his close associates. Moderate Shiite militias, such as the one controlled by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose brother, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, was assassinated in the Najef Massacre on August 29, will participate in the operation.
Sadr will be arrested on a charge of orchestrating the brutal murder of a fellow youthful Shiite cleric, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, at the entrance to the Ali Mosque in Najaf on April 10. US troops were advancing on Baghdad at the time. Khoei, son of Ayatollah Khoei, the highly revered Iraqi Shiite leader executed on Saddam Hussein’s orders, had just returned to Iraq from exile in London.
Before the war, US war commander General Tommy Franks and CIA director George Tenet designated him “our man in Najef”.
Ahead of the US invasion, Khoei spent time at Franks’ headquarters in Kuwait, setting up and whipping into shape a pro-US Shiite militia to help him take over government at the Iraqi Shiite power centers.
That plan came to naught on April 10, when the long knives came out and Khoei and his attendants were butchered just outside the Grand Mosque of Najef.
Sadr has often been accused of staging the assassination.
Now, the Americans and the newly-established Iraqi prosecution service have taken into custody 23 people who have confessed to taking part in the crime. They all finger Sadr as the master plotter who told them to execute the killings. US intelligence believes the accused cleric was acting on orders from Tehran in a bid to prevent the Americans from gaining a foothold among the 12 million Shiites who make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s population.
Sadr and his spokesman deny complicity in the murder.
But the Americans, despite his large popular following, deny him a seat on the provisional governing council in Baghdad and a role in the provincial administrations of Shiite towns. They regard him as Tehran’s stooge and an inveterate agitator.
Anxious to get their own back, the fiery young cleric and his men have been acting openly and covertly to fight the interdict. A pro-Sadr armed militia stands ready to take on US forces if Sadr continues to be frozen out of Iraq’s governing institutions.
For most of September, US special units kept Sadr’s home and his main headquarters in Najef surrounded. But late last month, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Baghdad report a secret agreement was struck by the besieged cleric and the US officers outside his home, to let him make public speaking appearances – even to criticize and threaten the US administration in Iraq – on one condition: He must drop his paramilitary project and disarm his men.
The understanding was approved by Bremer and Sanchez.
But the deal never got off the ground. The United States accused Sadr of deceit. Instead of carrying out his side of the bargain, he was accused of ordering his loyalists and his militia chiefs to continue building up their strength. The fractious cleric, for his part, accused US authorities of double-dealing. While he had ordered his men to lay down their weapons, he charged the Americans with employing the newly-constituted secret service (Muhabarat) to pursue them, infiltrate their ranks and arrest key figures.
Frictions finally boiled over last weekend in a firefight that erupted in Karbala between Sadr’s supporters and US troops. Four American servicemen were killed, including Lieutenant-Colonel Kim S. Orlando, the highest-ranking US officer to die in Iraq. US authorities gave no details of the circumstances of the colonel’s death beyond accusing the young Shiite’s men of a rooftop ambush of his convoy.
Sadr’s version is that the American convoy was on its way to arrest his supporters and they engaged the soldiers in self-defense.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Baghdad report that, immediately after the battle, the maverick cleric announced that the Americans’ perfidy had rendered their deal null and void. He promised to announce his next two steps Wednesday, October 22:
One, the establishment of an interim Shiite government to challenge the authority of the US-appointed governing council in Baghdad. Sadr threatened to appoint cabinet ministers and district governors in areas under his control. Bremer and Sanchez viewed Sadr’s move as a bid for Shiite separatism to match Saddam’s covert partition of the country into districts ruled by his appointees. (See separate article in this issue)
Two, a military parade of his supporters would march through the Shiite districts of Baghdad as a demonstration of strength. This would have been the first armed demonstration in Iraq since the war ended in May.
However, US intelligence was tipped off that regular Iraqi army units, along with their commanders and regimental colors, were to march in the Shiite parade – some bearing arms. On hearing this, the Kurdish Democratic Party leader, Massoud Barzani, warned Sadr that if his men marched bearing arms, they would be tackled by Kurdish military forces. To avert a bloodbath, the Americans scrambled to put the young Shiite on notice that he would be arrested unless he called of the parade.
Seeing his quarrel with the Americans going from bad to worse, Sadr sent messengers to the Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najef, asking him to mediate between them. Sistani refused.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources describe the two sides as girding now for a final showdown. The Americans not only stand by their refusal to give the young cleric a role in government; they intend to bring him to justice for the murder of Abdel Majid Khoei.
Sadr is taking counter-measures to ward off his arrest.
A volatile situation is unfolding. Sadr’s trial would be the first involving a senior Shiite leader with a following of tens of thousands of adherents who are prepared to fight for him and millions of Shiite sympathizers who will watch from the sidelines.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Baghdad cite Bremer, Sanchez and moderate Shiite leaders as holding to the opinion that once Sadr is locked up, his massive support will fade after a short period of tension. Sadr thinks otherwise.