The US offensive against the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr‘s forces in Baghdad, and the southern towns of Karbala, al Kut and Diwaniyah, and the systematic breakup of his forces and strongholds were made possible by two events.
The first was the understanding the US command reached with the Four Grand Ayatollahs of Najef, reported in previous DEBKA-Net-Weekly issues, which permitted American troops to fight Sadr’s militia in Najef, Karbala and al-Kufa, as long as the holy mosques and shrines remained untouched by hostilities, while the clerics undertook to persuade the rebellious cleric’s militiamen to lay down their arms and abandon their leader.
The second factor was Tehran’s restraint. In secret diplomatic exchanges with the American command in Iraq and Washington, the Iranians pointed out they controlled tens of thousands of fighters in Iraq who, if ordered, would rush to Sadr’s aid and turn the military tide in his favor. However, Tehran did not give that order and so Sadr’s strength was destined to gradually decline until he was left with the choice of running for his life or turning himself in.
Tehran was telling Washington for the umpteenth time that in return for holding its horses in Iraq, it expected the Bush administration to cut some slack in the matter of Iran’s nuclear program.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say Iran is not exaggerating. Intelligence reports reaching Washington indicate that Iran has invested millions of dollars and substantial logistical resources in recent months to build up a force of 35,000 to 45,000 Iraqi fighters divided into units serving under Iranian officers who have taken up residence in Shiite towns and village of southern Iraq.
In this framework, the Badr militia has been reconstructed. Last summer, it was dispersed in battles fought with the Americans around Baquba with some help from the Iranian opposite guerrilla group Mujaheddin Khalq.
This new force, which has nothing to do with Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia, is based on one of the crack foreign brigades of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which is manned mostly by Afghans and Pakistanis.
But neither factor would have caused Sadr’s downfall as precipitately as his own foolhardy misstep.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources have discovered that around mid-April, the radical cleric instructed his followers to adopt his own amendment to the Shiite Muslim prayer book. The blessing for Allah and the Prophet Mohammed includes one for the coming Mahdi, the Muslim messiah, and his son. Sadr’s amendment inserted his own name into that blessing, so that it reads, the coming Mahdi and his son, Moqtada Sadr.
Never in modern times has a Shiite cleric been known to confer on himself the rank of messiah’s son. The Four Grand Ayatollahs of Najef and also religious leaders in Tehran branded Sadr’s act as outrageous heresy. The Mahdi, according to Shiite tradition, must be born of Imam Ali‘s family; no scion of the Sadr clan may usurp this honor.
Some knowledgeable intelligence officers in the US command decided to take advantage of Sadr’s hubris to drive an additional wedge between the rebel and the mainstream Iraqi Shiite establishment and press on with a full offensive to break the back of his militia.
However, Thursday night, just before closing this issue, the American campaign came up against an impasse. According to our military sources in Iraq, Mehdi Army militiamen in Karbala began withdrawing from the town center into the compound of the Imam Hussein Mosque, the holiest of Shiite shrines the world over.
US troops may not stop Sadrist fighters entering the mosque. They are also bound by their pact with the senior ayatollahs not to violate the sacred precinct; in any case they would not take the risk of inflaming Shiites everywhere.
The US command had expected the senior ayatollahs to step in and prevent the militiamen and presumably Sadr himself from sheltering inside the mosque, but a dispute sprang up at the crucial moment among the high-ranking clerics – Ali Sistani‘s son claimed to be second in line to his father and was challenged by the other ayatollahs. The son refused to join in the condemnation of Sadr or send his men to block off access to the Imam Hussein Mosque. The gates were left open long enough for the Mehdi Army militiamen to slide in and take over the sacred precinct.