BAGHDAD, Iraq - If U.S. forces arrest or kill Shia Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the reverberations will be felt far beyond Iraq.
Al-Sadr could become the newest martyr for Shia from Lebanon to Pakistan, scholars say. And if U.S. troops have a bloody confrontation with al-Sadr's militia in the holy city of Najaf, it could set the United States toward a collision with the world's 150 million Shia Muslims.
U.S. forces were massing yesterday around Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, raising the prospect of a battle near the Imam Ali Mosque, Shiism's holiest site. The gold-domed mosque lies in the center of Najaf, and al-Sadr has taken refuge there. About 2,500 U.S. troops gathered outside Najaf and set up roadblocks around the city to prevent al-Sadr's militia from leaving.
"We see a significant threat in the vicinity of Najaf by the name of Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military's deputy director of operations in Iraq, told reporters. "We will get the forces to the place, at the time when it is necessary, to go after him and his militia to end this violence. It is that simple."
'A very dangerous moment'
Iraqi politicians and representatives of the country's four most senior Shia clerics rushed to defuse the situation. Al-Sadr's followers have fought with occupation forces in Baghdad and southern Iraq for 10 days, but their revolt has not yet spread to most segments of Iraq's Shia majority. By arresting or killing al-Sadr, analysts say, the rebellion could expand to the rest of the Shia community, which makes up 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people.
"This is a very dangerous moment in Iraq. If the Americans launch an attack on al-Sadr in Najaf, it could ignite a broad Shia uprising," said Jalal Mashita, editor of Al-Nahda, an independent newspaper in Baghdad. "That would make the occupation impossible to sustain."
Since the violence began April 4, members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and leaders of the main Shia parties have warned about trying to crush al-Sadr's militia, especially in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Iraqis have urged U.S. officials to delay arresting al-Sadr on a warrant issued against him months ago in the murder of a rival cleric.
Instead, according to people involved in the negotiations, the Iraqis have urged U.S. officials to accept a compromise in which al-Sadr would disarm his militia and stop calling for armed resistance to the occupation. In exchange, the United States would defer the arrest warrant to the interim Iraqi government that is expected to assume sovereignty on June 30.
But Iraqi officials say Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, has resisted a compromise that does not involve al-Sadr's arrest. "For U.S. domestic political reasons, they don't want to appear to be soft on Muqtada al-Sadr," said an Iraqi official involved in the negotiations who asked not to be named. "This has more to do with President Bush's re-election campaign than with Iraq."
Many Iraqis say the Bush administration made a serious mistake by precipitating a showdown with al-Sadr three months before the transfer of power to an Iraqi government.
"The Americans, and whoever was advising them to go after Muqtada, underestimated the force that he could rally around himself," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "After the explosion of violence, Muqtada was able to rally a lot of Shia and Sunnis."
U.S. actions in Iraq are being closely followed throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, and a move against al-Sadr in Najaf could galvanize Shia and even Sunnis across the region.
"There is a sense that even Saddam Hussein shied away from fighting near the Shia shrines in Iraq," said Hazem al-Amin, an editor at the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat and an expert on the Shia.
The Shia are about 15 percent of the world's 1 billion Muslims. While the majority of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis, the Shia are a majority in several countries, including Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Bahrain. Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have sizable Shia minorities that are marginalized.
Pledge of martyrdom
Al-Sadr remained defiant yesterday, and in a move apparently calculated to increase his support among Shia outside Iraq, he made his only public statement in an interview with Al-Manar Television, a station run by the Lebanese Shia guerrilla group Hezbollah.
"I am ready to sacrifice myself, and I call on the Iraqi people not to allow my death to cause the collapse of the fight for freedom and an end to the occupation," al-Sadr said. "I am not important, I am just a body."
In a recent sermon, al-Sadr said he wanted to become the "striking arm" in Iraq for Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Al-Sadr, 30, is the only surviving son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Hussein's regime in 1999. Since the fall of Hussein's government, al-Sadr has tried to win support by creating a social service network in Shia cities, fiercely criticizing the U.S. occupation and modeling himself after his father's vision of an activist clergy.
Al-Sadr has been hampered by his youth and lack of religious credentials. In the Shia hierarchy, al-Sadr is a low-level cleric many years away from attaining the title of ayatollah, which would allow him to issue religious rulings.
Iraqi experts estimate that al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, has from 3,000 to 10,000 fighters. The Pentagon has said the number of hard-core members could be as low as 1,000.
Al-Sadr's supporters vow to fight to the death if he is arrested or killed.
"At the moment, the Americans are facing an uprising, but if they harm Muqtada al-Sadr, a massive revolution will take place all over Iraq," one of the cleric's top aides, Qais al-Khazali, told reporters in Najaf. "We will be a time bomb."
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