By Clive Bradley
The Iraq war itself was declared over last May. But in a real sense, the fighting in Iraq, which reached a new intensity this week, is the same war, still being fought. The American and British military machines won the official war quickly. But they prepared very badly for the peace. Now, there is no peace.
The decision to provoke the Army of the Mahdi, the militia of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, into open rebellion, seems typical of the incompetence of the US administration. First, they closed the newspaper of Muqtada's group; then they shot down demonstrators. By the weekend of April 3-4, there was fierce fighting, prompting widespread speculation that a "second front" had opened up against the occupation. Previously, almost all the insurgent activity has been by Sunni groups; the majority Shi'a Muslims had remained politically peaceful. Shi'a leader Ayatollah Sistani called massive demonstrations in January - 100,000 in Baghdad - demanding elections; but even the more militant Muqtatda group held back from military action.
All that has changed. Estimates of the size of Muqtada al-Sadr's support vary widely; the militia is reckoned to be between 5,000 and 10,000 strong (though in a country so flooded with weapons, militias can grow fast). Earlier in the year, calling mobilisations independently of Sistani's, al-Sadr could only muster a few thousand. But his support among the poorest Shi'a neighbourhoods in Baghdad, Najaf, and now Basra, seems much greater than that. Recent council elections in Shi'a areas have been a surprising success for secular parties, with religious groups scoring badly. But as violence continues, the Army of the Mahdi looks set to grow.
At the time of writing, al-Sadr is in Najaf, protected by thousands of his supporters against the threat of arrest. It is hard to imagine anything likely to further inflame the situation than a smash-and-grab operation to seize him. Sistani has called for calm; but it would seem that his more moderate movement is losing ground. Indeed, another symbol of US incompetence is that they sidelined Sistani for so long, believing it was possible to construct a new government in the face of opposition from the most powerful Shi'a leader.
The US needs to hand over "sovereignty" to an Iraqi government at the end of June if it is to stick to its current plans. To fail to do so would be politically embarrassing for the Bush administration - already under heavy political fire domestically - in an election year. If, as some have suggested, the provocation of al-Sadr was to create a situation in which this handover would have to be abandoned - it would be worse still if the new government collapsed - the occupation is playing with fire.
Muqtada al-Sadr's movement is based among the poor Shi'a; in the north it seems to have built some base among minority Turkmen opposed to Kurdish autonomy. But there is nothing progressive about it.
It is an extreme Islamist group; its local "courts", enforcing Islamic law even on other pious Shi'as it considers too liberal, are notorious. The charge that the Sadrists have been involved in the murder of moderate religious leaders (on which the warrant for Muqtatada's arrest is based) is almost certainly true.
Last month, the Army of the Mahdi reduced the town of Kawlia, inhabited mainly by gypsies, to rubble.
A joint "uprising" by Sadrist Shi'a and the "resistance" based in the Sunni part of the country is not a national liberation movement. Moreover, whatever apparent common ground they have now, al-Sadr and the Sunni Islamists (not to mention others) would be violent competitors for power in the future.
As in Sunni Falluja, and in British-run Basra. the failures of the occupation to deliver even basic amenities and jobs, and the routine and increasingly desperate repression it metes out, are driving thousands of Iraqis into the arms of reactionary forces. The building of a democratic, secular alternative to both - to the occupation and the Islamist and other movements - is an urgent priority.
Most ordinary Iraqis are not fighting on the streets or burning foreigners alive, but regard the current violence as a further deterioration of their security and a source of fear. Our task is to build solidarity with them.