Al-Sadr: The first Shi’ite leader openly to urge violence against coalition forces (Reuters)
More on the volatile situation in Iraq from The Telegraph, :
When thousands of Shi’ite Muslims massed around a military base outside the Iraqi holy city of Najaf yesterday, the Spanish soldiers on duty might have thought they were facing another angry demonstration.
Yet the protest was about to escalate into a brutal gun battle, claiming at least 22 lives, while in Baghdad seven American soldiers were killed and at least 24 wounded in fighting with militiamen from Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.
The young, bearded figure of Muqtader al-Sadr, a radical Shi’ite leader, was the guiding hand behind the protests. The first Shi’ite leader openly to urge violence against coalition forces, Mr al-Sadr is the son of Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered ayatollah who was murdered five years ago, probably on the orders of Saddam Hussein.
Mr al-Sadr, 30, inherited his father’s following among Iraq’s impoverished, urban Shi’ites and has become a thorn in the flesh of the coalition. The spark that provoked the crowd to gather in Najaf was the arrest on Saturday of Mustapha Yacoubi, one of Mr al-Sadr’s closest aides. More than 5,000 people massed outside the base used by soldiers from Spain and El Salvador, demanding Mr Yacoubi’s release.
Among the crowd were gunmen from the al-Mahdi army, Mr al-Sadr’s banned militia. Accounts of how the shooting began vary, but a Spanish military convoy seems to have been stoned and the militiamen opened fire. Spanish soldiers and Iraqi police responded and the crowd scattered as a gun battle began.
In the ensuing chaos, 20 Iraqis were shot dead and some 210 wounded. One soldier from El Salvador also died and an American was killed. The base came under heavy fire from Shi’ite militiamen.
The violence in Baghdad erupted after militiamen occupied police stations and government buildings in Sadr City, the Shia-dominated slum named after Mr al-Sadr’s murdered father.
Earlier thousands of his supporters had taken to the streets of Baghdad to protest over the closure of his newspaper by coalition forces last week. The authorities had accused the weekly paper of inciting violence and banned it for 60 days. US forces responded in strength last night and 10 tanks, supported by two helicopter gunships, were seen to enter the area.
In the city of Amarah, 200 miles south-east of Baghdad, Mr al-Sadr’s supporters clashed with British troops. Four people died and five were injured. No British soldiers were hurt.
Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, accused Mr al-Sadr’s militiamen of “crossing a line”. He said: “This will not be tolerated by the coalition, it will not be tolerated by the Iraqi people and it will not be tolerated by the Iraqi security forces.”
After the turmoil, Mr al-Sadr’s office issued a statement telling his followers to “terrorise your enemy”.
Saddam heavily repressed the Shi’ites, who comprise about 60 per cent of Iraq’s population. So far, most have been quietly acquiescent in the American-led occupation. Sunni Muslim supporters of Saddam’s ousted regime have largely mounted the daily round of attacks on US forces.
If the Shi’ites were to rise against the coalition, Iraq would swiftly become ungovernable. Yet despite Mr al-Sadr’s private army and his ability to mobilise tens of thousands of demonstrators, he is far from supreme.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the overall leader of the Shi’ites in Iraq, has frequently criticised the American occupation but has so far pointedly refrained from calling for an uprising. This has left Mr al-Sadr with an opening to mobilise the younger, radical Shi’ite masses.
If the Shi’ites do join the violent resistance, the situation will become incomparably worse.