WASHINGTON—Coalition officials in Iraq planned to arrest firebrand cleric Muqtada al- Sadr last October but backed off, leaving him free for six months to incite an increasingly violent campaign against the U.S. occupation.
Officials won't comment on why they decided not to arrest al-Sadr even though he was implicated in ambushes of American troops, bombings and the murder of a pro-western Shiite cleric. But it was known at the time that the U.S.-led coalition was worried about taking actions that might inflame the country's Shiite Muslim majority.
The Army's 1st Armored Division, which controls Baghdad, was assigned the mission of arresting al-Sadr last fall after a series of confrontations with his militia, the Madhi Army, including ambushes in Baghdad and the Shiite holy city of Karbala left five American soldiers dead, including a lieutenant colonel.
Coalition officials also blamed al-Sadr for the murder of Abdel-Majid al-Khoei, a holy leader on whom the United States pinned many hopes. Al-Khoei was killed by a mob outside a shrine in Najaf last April, soon after U.S. troops took over the city. An Iraqi judge has since issued a warrant for al-Sadr's arrest in connection with the murder, and the coalition has announced its intention to capture him.
Arresting al-Sadr last fall was going to be difficult because he spends most of his time holed up in mosques, where any action by foreign troops would be seen as disrespectful of Islam and provocative. Nevertheless, plans for the mission progressed to the point that 1st Armored Division soldiers were awaiting the go-ahead. That approval never came.
Instead, coalition officials pursued a virtual hands-off policy regarding al-Sadr, hoping that his influence, which they always said was negligible, would wane and that more senior Shiite clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's supreme Shiite leader, would keep the young upstart in check.
With al-Sadr's gunmen now waging battles with coalition forces in Baghdad and several cities across southern Iraq, that strategy appears to have backfired.
Pentagon officials declined to comment in any detail on why the plan to arrest al-Sadr last fall was shelved, saying it was an "operational" decision by commanders on the ground.
"You make plans for all sorts of things," said one senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Not all of these plans get executed."
Fighting between coalition troops and al-Sadr's gunmen broke out over the weekend, after his supporters staged massive rallies in Baghdad last week to protest the closing of his party's newspaper, which coalition officials accuse of fomenting violence.
Al-Sadr, who's about 30, favors a strict interpretation of Islam and has called for an Islamic government in Iraq somewhat along the lines of neighboring Iran.
It's unclear why coalition and Iraqi officials waited until now to announce that they planned to arrest al-Sadr in connection with al-Khoei's murder. A senior U.S. official, who also asked not to be identified, said coalition officials in Baghdad "had discussions at length" about al-Sadr's alleged involvement in the crime and that "there were questions about how solid the information was."
"There were also questions about what happens in a somewhat unstable environment if you arrest a religious icon," the official said.
Coalition officials long have maintained that al-Sadr represents only a fraction of Iraq's Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the country's 25 million people. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said al-Sadr's gunmen numbered anywhere from 1,000 to 6,000.
But Juan Cole, an expert on Iraq's Shiites at the University of Michigan, wrote in a recent essay that "perhaps a third of Iraqi Shiites are sympathetic to the radical, Khomeini-like ideology" the young cleric represents. Cole was referring to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who brought Islamic rule to Iran.
Arresting al-Sadr probably will "cause no end of trouble in coming months," Cole said.
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this story.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Moqtada al Sadr
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