Telegraph | News | 34 killed after Shia call to revolt

Al-Sadr Gets Scared:

Muqtader (also Moqtada) al-Sadr, always called a "firebrand" by whoever is writing about him, has inherited a lot of followers from his father's fame. He's a politician as much as a cleric--the fellow has worked every angle he's come across since the invasion began. There are also lingering rumors that the assassinations of a number of Shi'ite clerics in Iraq have been done at his orders, to solidify control of Iraq's Shia muslims under his voice.

Last week, the Coalition arrested one of his aides in connection to one of these killings, that of Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was stabbed to death inside the Tomb of Ali in Najaf. In response, al Sadr has called the Shia to revolt. Thirty-four are dead already.

My reading of this is that al Sadr is playing for his life. He's got a number of loyal followers, but a lot of other followers who are partisans of his father's, but who wouldn't approve of an assassination inside the Tomb of Ali. Al-Sadr can't afford to become associated with that in any sort of authoritative way. He needs the Coalition to release his man, and stand down from claims that might suggest al-Sadr was guilty by association. Not only might he lose a lot of his power base, but he might open himself up to revenge from the broader Shia community.

Al-Khoei isn't the only cleric al-Sadr is rumored to have had killed. At the time of the Najaf bombing over the summer, in which Baqir al-Hakim was killed, there were rumors that it was part of al-Sadr's attempt to take over. There were even rumors that the Coalition might arrest him.

Of course, there are rumors about everything in Iraq. Almost none of them prove to be true. There is a tipping point on these things, though, and al-Sadr knows it. This arrest is going to read like a confirmation in the minds of many Iraqis. Al-Sadr has to change the subject, and make the Coalition afraid to touch him or his people. His life depends on it, and he knows it. As a consequence, we see the risk of a real battle developing in this conflict between him and the Coalition. He'll pull out all the stops because, if he doesn't, this could be the endgame for him.

UPDATE: The morning proves that things are worse for al-Sadr than thought. An Iraqi judge has issued a warrant for his arrest in connection with the murder of al-Khoei. Although the report says this was done months ago, it's only been made public today. Meanwhile, Ambassador Bremer, head of the CPA, has branded al-Sadr an "outlaw," and US gunships are over Sadr City. Enforcing that warrant will be one of the hardest pieces of postwar Iraq.

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