To the horror of the occupying powers in Iraq, the country’s ever more bloody insurgency has at last spilled over into the majority Shi’ite Muslim community.
Coalition soldiers fought gunmen in the holy city of Najaf yesterday with the loss of at least 20 lives.
The shooting started after protesters gathered at the Spanish base on the outskirts of the city following the arrest of an aide to Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shi’ite cleric whose “Army of Mehdi” has never before fired its guns.
That the latest bloodbath should have occurred in Najaf–one of the holiest places in Islam–was as dangerous as it was painfully symbolic. Even as bullets skittered past them, protesters held up pictures of the imams Ali and Hussein, whose epic martyrdom is mourned in every Shi’ite home.
That it should be Spanish troops who were engaged in the battle, only weeks from being withdrawn from Iraq by the new Spanish socialist government, was a final irony.
More than 200 people were also wounded during the three-hour gunbattle. At Najaf’s main hospital, many of the dead were wearing the black uniform of al-Sadr’s army, but two Iraqi police officers, one American and a soldier from El Salvador were also among the dead.
Each side claimed the other had started the shooting.
Al-Sadr himself called for an end to the fighting, his spokesperson Abdulhadi al-Daraji claiming that the “arrogant powers say thank you for your peaceful protests and then fire on the demonstrators”.
The demonstrations had their roots in the decision of the US administrator, Paul Bremer, to close al-Sadr’s small- circulation weekly newspaper, al-Hawza, in Baghdad a week ago for “inciting violence against coalition forces”.
It now seems that his decision to shut down the paper has incited violence on a far greater scale than Bremer could have imagined.
Yet he managed to say all the wrong things again yesterday. “This morning, a group of people in Najaf have crossed the line and they have moved to violence,” he announced. “This will not be tolerated by the Iraqi people and by the Iraqi security forces.”
The trouble is that Bremer has said all this before–but about Sunni insurgents–and his warnings almost always increase the anger of his antagonists and bring no end to violence.
Al-Sadr, of course, has his own reasons to find political satisfaction in this bloodshed.
In the shadow of his infinitely more learned–and judicious–clerical superior, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Al-Sadr has for months attempted to present himself as the putative leader of the Shi’ite community.
The Anglo-American occupying powers have long suspected that al-Sadr wanted just such a confrontation to rally support for his minority movement, although why they should have arrested Mustafa Yacoubi, al-Sadr’s aide, remains a mystery.
Bremer, it seems, has now helped to bring that confrontation about. A newspaper that was ignored by millions of Iraqis, but whose sarcastic criticism of Bremer is said to have personally annoyed him, might henceforth be known as the paper which started a Shi’ite insurrection.
Al-Sadr might be gambling that the other Shi’ite militias will fall into step with his own armed men. If this happens and the insurgency spreads to other Shi’ite cities, then the entire occupation of Iraq could become untenable.
The Americans can scarcely contain the Sunni Muslim revolt to the north; they cannot fight another community, this one representing 60% of Iraqis, even if British troops who control the largely Shi’ite city of Basra become involved.
The Spanish base in Najaf is located in the campus of Kufa University, a broad expanse of land close to the Euphrates River and defended by troops from El Salvador.
The Spanish–their total force contains 1 300 men and women, but only a few hundred are stationed in Najaf–are due to leave on June 30, but they were anyway never part of the occupying power. Many of the soldiers in Najaf are involved in irrigation and agricultural projects.
When bombs killed almost 200 people in Madrid last month, Shi’ite clerics visited the Spanish troops in Najaf to express their condolences. That is unlikely to happen again.
More Shi’ite protests occurred in the centre of Baghdad where American-paid Iraqi police fired rifles into the air. The crowd carried a coffin, draped with an Iraqi flag, which they said contained the body of a demonstrator killed in the city on Saturday.
In Anbar province, two more US soldiers were killed close to the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah, where four American mercenaries were murdered last week.