Friday, August 04, 2006
Mookie Wilson's War - Continued
Hundreds of thousands of Shiites chanting "Death to Israel" and "Death to America" marched through the streets of Baghdad's biggest Shiite district Friday in a massive show of support for Hezbollah in its battle against Israel.
The demonstration was the biggest in the Middle East in support of Hezbollah since Israel launched its attacks against the guerrillas in Lebanon on July 12. The protest was organized by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political movement built around the Mahdi Army militia has been modeled after Hezbollah. [...]
Demonstrators, wearing white shrouds symbolizing willingness to die for Hezbollah, waved the guerrillas' yellow banner and chanted slogans in support of their leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, which has attained a cult status in the Arab world for its defiance of Israeli military power.
"Allah, Allah, give victory to Hassan Nasrallah," the crowd chanted.
"Mahdi Army and Hezbollah are one, let them confront us if they dare," the predominantly male crowd shouted, waving the flags of Hezbollah, Lebanon and Iraq. [...]
"I am wearing the shroud and I am ready to meet martyrdom," said Mohammed Khalaf, 35, owner of a clothes shop in the southern city of Amarah.
Al-Sadr followers painted U.S. and Israeli flags on the main road leading to the rally site, and demonstrators stepped on them — a gesture of contempt in Iraq. Alongside the painted flags was written: "These are the terrorists."
Protesters set fire to American and Israeli flags, as well as effigies of President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, showing the men with Dracula teeth. "Saddam and Bush, Two Faces of One Coin" was scrawled on Bush's effigy.
The fact that the Iraqi government signed off on the protest is worth noting. This would seem to indicate one of two things - neither of which is particularly comforting. Either the Iraqi government approves of the message, or it is too fearful of al-Sadr's power and influence to try to put the brakes on public displays such as this. Of course, al-Sadr himself is a major player in that government, which certainly constrains its latitude (and belies its will) to act against him.
Iraqi government television said the Defense Ministry had approved the demonstration, a sign of the public anger over Israel's offensive in Lebanon and of al-Sadr's stature as a major player in Iraqi politics.
"I consider my participation in this rally a religious duty. I am proud to join this crowd and I am ready to die for the sake of Lebanon," said Khazim al-Ibadi, 40, a government employee from Hillah.
As I cautioned in my prior post on this subject, the conflict in Lebanon has the potential to spill over in Iraq and further empower firebrands like al-Sadr which would, in turn, set off a dangerous spiral of radicalization - possibly sucking in moderates such as Sistani. In many ways, it already has.
Although the rally was about Hezbollah, it was also a show of strength by al-Sadr, and many worried that the presence of so many Shiite demonstrators — most of them from the Mahdi Army — would add to tensions in the city that has seen almost daily clashes between Shiite and Sunni extremists.
With this in mind, does anyone seriously think that the Maliki's government, or US forces (or both), could in any serious way attempt to disarm Shiite militias at this point in time? An exceedingly difficult task under optimal conditions, with fighting in Lebanon as the backdrop upon which al-Sadr can project his influence, I'd say it approaches impossible.
American troops opened fire today on a vehicle carrying armed Shiites to an anti-Israel demonstration in Baghdad, killing two occupants and wounding at least 16, officials said.
. . . An official at the Ministry of Interior said the vehicles’ occupants were followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr....
Er, oops. As I alluded to in this post, the recent muscle flexing on the part of Sadr is occurring at least in partial response to his organization being targeted by US forces for disarmanent and dismantling:
The shooting comes at a time of rising tensions between the American military and Mr. Sadr’s organization.
In recent weeks, American and Iraqi forces have conducted a series of raids against bases of Mr. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, and have arrested high-ranking militia leaders.
American commanders say they are intent on destroying the country’s death squads, Sunni Arab and Shiite alike, that have fomented the sectarian violence ravaging this country.
I have a very low opinion of al-Sadr, and would be more than pleased to see him and his organization fade into obscurity and irrelevance. Problem is, that isn't exactly likely to happen on its own. And as I mentioned, any prospects for marginalizing him are being made next to impossible by events in Lebanon.
Further, I think that US forces are playing with fire by openly antagonizing him while he is at hhis apex of power, influence and respect. Remember those vulnerable supply lines in the south? Now may not be the time to start throwing matches on to the tinder pile. As Swopa noted:
That's a lot of powder, just waiting for a spark. And the midday temperature in Bagdhad in August tends to get fairly high.