What Triggered the Shia Insurrection?
What Triggered the Shia Insurrection?
The insurrection in Shia areas of
The whole story began last year when the
In Shia areas, the new policy basically meant that Coalition troops became barely visible, and -- in response -- the various armed militias set aside their arms. This included the Mahdi Militia loyal to Muqtada Sadr and the Badr Brigade, representing the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, but reputedly loyal to Ayatollah Al-Sistani. This did not mean, however, that the Shia religious leaders passively accepted Coalition rule. Quite the contrary, during this period of quiescence, which extended from last December until late March, they were the principle organizing force within southern cities: the militia members, without their guns, were still responsible for keeping order and suppressing hooliganism; the Sharia courts, run by the Shia clergy, became the key judicial institutions in these cities, adjudicating all matters from personal disputes to major crimes; and there arose a lively press, most notably Sadr's Baghdad newspaper, Al Hawza (John Burns, "7 U.S. Soldiers Die in Iraq as a Shiite Militia Rises Up," New York Times, 4/5/04). In fact, most reporters, even those from mainstream outlets, acknowledged that it was already dangerous for Americans (or anyone associated with Americans) to travel alone or at night in these areas (Christine Hauser, "Foreign Civilians in Iraq Are Armoring Up and Keeping Under Guard,"
This nervous truce was definitively threatened on March 25, when Bremer announced that the
4. The $18.4 billion in congressionally mandated reconstruction aid would be used as a guarantor of
In summary, the Bremer pronouncement made it clear that the Bush administration expected to retain a large military force in
Even the New York Times, which treated this as a secondary off-the-front-page story, felt compelled to remark on the significance of this document in its hallmark understated style: "A European diplomat said that continued American military control 'sends the wrong signal' and 'gives an impression of continuing foreign occupation' in Iraq."
Needless to say, the reaction within
"Among the key promises that the occupation authority gave to the Shi'i leadership is the restoration of national sovereignty on a date not to go beyond next June.... The supposed restoration of national sovereignty, of course should be preceded by an end to
According to the Voice of the Mujahidin, this represented the moment when even the moderates, led by Ayatollah Al-Sistani, concluded that the June 30th transfer of sovereignty had no hope of allowing the Iraqi people to exert real control over government policy. Of course, the reaction of the militants was far more electric and, among other things, their news outlets were increasingly energized and their militiamen, who had never disposed of their weapons, began to see them as once again of immediate relevance.
It seems likely that the Bremer announcement would eventually have led to some sort of definitive confrontation around the issue of "sovereignty," though it might have been less violent and/or much more broadly supported by the full range of the religious leadership. As it was, however, the Coalition did not wait to see how the resistance was going to develop. Instead they began an immediate assault against the young cleric and head of the Mahdi Army, Muqtada Sadr, whom they saw as the key figure among the militants.
Sadr had long been their target, as this account by Douglas Jehl in the New York Times (
"The question of what to do about Mr. Sadr, 31, the leader of the most anti-American Shiites in Iraq, has been debated actively for months by senior American officials, the Defense Department officials acknowledged....A secret plan to have American forces snatch Mr. Sadr was scrapped last fall only days before it was to have been carried out, senior Bush administration and military officials said, confirming a report in The Wall Street Journal."
However, in late March they reactivated their plans and began what was clearly a campaign aimed at removing him as a viable force in
All this led Sadr to believe that the occupation authorities were definitively moving against him. Whether or not he was already planning an insurrection, this certainly forced his hand, leading him to call out his armed supporters to preempt the attack on him. Mahdi's Army, his militia, retrieved their arms from caches in and around their residences and, together with a number of other religious militias, moved to expel the coalition from the cities where they were strongest. The fact that they were able to move so quickly demonstrates that the long period of quiescence had actually been one in which they continued to organize, unhindered, while they waited to see if the U.S. would peacefully begin to withdraw in June. When Bremer's announcement dashed those hopes, the whole organization was primed for action.
The year of preparation was vividly caught by Jeffrey Gettleman of the Times in the final paragraphs -- where the best material often is -- of an April 7 piece, "At Word of U.S. Foray, a Baghdad Militia Erupts":
"Mohammed Kadem, a 23-year-old Mahdi Army fighter from Khadamiya, said the force had been lying quietly for months, with arms they looted nearly a year ago. 'We just kept them in our homes,' Mr. Kadem said. 'We knew this time might come.' Mr. Kadem detailed a training program in which he and other Shiite youths took buses to
The fact that the militias accomplished the capture of all or part of as many as five cities (mostly with populations of less than 200,000, but cities nevertheless) with almost no casualties is testimony to four underlying facts about the current situation in Iraq: that the Coalition forces had very little presence or legitimacy within the cities -- despite a year of unhindered opportunity; that the newly formed police have neither the interest, nor the ability to resist the militias -- and that they therefore have little hope of becoming an adequate force for law and order; that the people of these cities (tacitly or overtly) supported the uprisings -- however uncomfortable they may be with the Islamist ideas and policies of Sadr himself; and that the militants are very well organized indeed -- and will remain so even after this episode is over.
The current situation is the result of an entire year of political process. When the
But there is much more to come. Sooner or later, the Coalition will reestablish itself in the epicenters of this insurgency. That is inevitable, but if the insurgents do not ravage the cities while they are in control, and if they "melt back into the population" (to use the classic image of guerilla war) without being destroyed by the Coalition counterattack; then they will be even stronger after this episode. It will only be a matter of time before the next uprising occurs. In the meantime, the Bush administration and its allies will need magnitudes more troops -- or ever more brutal suppressive measures -- to try to pacify a country in arms.
For the occupiers, the quagmire that so many observers predicted has arrived.
Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has written extensively on the dynamics of popular protest and insurgency. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure and The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz). He is currently completing The Rise and Fall of Detroit, a book analyzing the dynamics of the automobile industry and the United Auto Workers from 1900 to 1990.
Copyright C2004 Michael Schwartz
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]