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Monday, August 09, 2004

Sadr City Curfew

Big things are afoot in Iraq, mark these words. Sum up the Chalabi warrants, Sistani out of country, the renewed fierce fighting in Basra and Najaf, and now this, and the clicking of pieces falling into place becomes almost audible. I don't pretend to know what, exactly, Allawi and his handlers/enablers have in mind, but I do fear we're in for some very bloody weeks ahead. From the Financial Times article linked above:

Iraq's interim government on Monday imposed a 16-hour curfew in Baghdad's Sadr City district, a teeming Shia-dominated slum, as fighting raged in Najaf and Basra and Moqtada al-Sadr, the rebel cleric, swore to resist until the "last drop of blood".

Iraq's southern oil company halted production following rebel threats, sending oil prices to new highs, although officials said storage was sufficient to keep exports running for two days.

The government has staked its political future on proving it can put down the five-day uprising by Mr Sadr's Mahdi army...

... In Baghdad, the interior ministry imposed a curfew from 4pm till 8am in Sadr City, after militia took a police commander hostage. But battles continued in the shrine city of Najaf, and reignited in the southern city of Basra....

... "Resistance will continue and increase day by day," said Mr Sadr. "Our demand is for the American occupation to get out of Iraq. We want an independent, democratic, free country." His stance appeared at odds with previous calls for negotiations by his representatives.

The fighting, which US officials say has left more than 360 rebels dead a figure contested by the militia has prompted growing criticism by other Shia political leaders.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), on Monday accused the US of using excessive force, and called for a new security strategy in which tribal leaders had a greater say. The Polish military on Monday said it was ceding control of the two provinces that contain Najaf and its surrounding area. A senior official said the government was trying to reach out to local leaders, but said an example had to be made. "We've got to the stage where enough is enough."

A few days back I posted regarding a piece from the CSM on the de facto control Sadr's Mehdi army seems to have over many parts of Iraq, with great attention paid to their presence in the slums of Sadr City. By trying to impose this curfew, the Iraqi government will unleash Basra style, Najaf style resistance, in the heart of Baghdad. Sadr City is home to a full ten percent of the Iraqi electorate, a population of the poorest of Iraq's poor, for whom, too, it may now be a time of "enough is enough."

One can't help but wonder, also, where the Iranians stand at this point, and whether or not Chalabi's visit to Tehran this weekend may have any bearing on that piece of this puzzle. The story, as they say, is developing, but again, I fear we can be sure of at least one thing to carry us through the second part of August, and that is to see heavy casualties all around. To what degree the Americans become involved in the attempt to put down Sadr City could decide the immediate fate of Baghdad itself.

And of course, for the varied and splintered militia groups, terrorist cells, and mischief makers of all sorts, this intra-Iraqi boiling over provides even more fertile ground for their own chaos. Even more troubling is the frightening prospect of another Saddam-esque clampdown on the wider Shia population by another Baathist strongman.

That Allawi is Shia himself, as opposed to Sunni as was Saddam (to say nothing of the historic oppression of Shia by Sunni Muslims in general), most likely carries less weight than you'd think in his decision-making process; Allawi is renowned for his secularism. If the wider more religious Shia population is seen as a threat to his political power, and they most definitely are, Allawi will hold little back in trying to crush them. Short of American military might, however, he has just as little at his disposal to fight them at all. Americans will be fighting in the streets of Sadr City, and then likely in the streets of wider Baghdad as well.

These will be worrisome days indeed.

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