Speaking on the campaign trail in Kentucky on October 10, George W. Bush brushed aside the embarrassing failure of US officials to find the weapons of mass destruction that he had made the centrepiece of his case for war in Iraq, saying that the US invasion "thwarted future plots against the US by the madman Saddam." If that is an accurate reflection of Bush’s grasp of reality, it is also possible that he really does believe that the US administration of Iraq is on course and going well, as he keeps telling people. But, six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, few others believe it.
Where once the US could hope to convince people that military resistance was limited to remnants of Saddam’s regime in the "Sunni triangle" around his hometown of Tikrit, it is now clear that popular armed resistance has spread to all parts of the Iraqi community and all parts of the country. Writing in the Independent newspaper in London on October 19, Patrick Cockburn acknowledged that "US soldiers are now dying in a much larger area of Iraq, and at the hands of a more diverse group of Iraqis, than was true two months ago." During October, US soldiers died in places as diverse as the Sunni triangle, Baghdad, Falluja in the south of the country, and the Kurdish city of Mosul in the north, which had previously been quiet.
Cockburn also said, in a telling comment, that "the guerrilla attacks on US troops are not very intense -- they everage about 30 a day." One wonders how many it would take to constitute intense attacks.
The US military are also utterly unable to do anything about the armed men roaming Iraqi towns, as was shown in photos of well-armed young Iraqis celebrating the destruction of an American ammunition truck in Falluja on October 19 (see front cover).
Shi’a Muslims in southern Iraq, who make up a clear majority of Iraq’s population, have long spoken of the impact that a "golden fatwa" -- a fatwa declaring jihad against the US forces -- from one of senior Shi’i ulama would have. Muqtada al-Sadr, the young leader of one of the Shi’i community’s leading families, came a significant step closer to issuing one on October 10, when he announced at juma’ prayers in Kufah that he has established a ‘shadow government’ as an alternative to the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and the US’s Provisional Coalition Administration (PCA).
In a clear challenge to the US, al-Sadr said that he has established ministries of awqaf, culture, finance, foreign affairs , information, interior, justice and the promotion of virtue. The next day, al-Jazeera reported that al-Sadr’s followers had taken over buildings in Najaf that hey intended to use as the headquarters of their shadow government.
Al-Sadr discussed his newly formed shadow government in a press conference broadcast by al-Jazeera on October 14 (picture above). He claimed that his shadow government had found "credibility and support" abroad, and that it was more legitimate in the eyes of the Iraqi people because it was not subject to a US veto.
Asked whether his announcement of a shadow government could be considered an uprising against the US occupation, al-Sadr replied "This could be an uprising, but it would be a peaceful uprising in which the Iraqi people would express their opinion, nothing more and nothing less."
Despite al-Sadr’s careful words, it is clear that he is posing a major challenge to the US occupation and the legitimacy of the political structures the US has established, carefully designed to give the impression of Iraqi participation without US domination being threatened.
The fact that the US has failed to respond to such a challenge in any meaningful way, restricting itself to dismissing al-Sadr as a marginal figure and his challenge as insignificant, is a reflection of the Americans’ weakness in Iraq and their fear of tal-Sadr’s supporters should they take him on.
This is despite the fact that many of the armed groups which operate freely in Sadr City in Baghdad -- named after Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Ayatullah al-Uzma Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadrshaheed -- and other towns such as Karbala, Falluja and Najaf are his suuporters, whether or not they are actually part of his militia. Many of the clashes in these towns in which US and others troops have been killed and wounded have involved these groups; and still the US is powerless to act against them.
The reality is that where the Americans once hoped to come as popular liberators, they now venture only reluctantly, in heavily armed groups, treating all Iraqis as potential enemies, and treated as enemies, or at best barely tolerated, by an Iraqi population that is used to having to deal with powerful and established governing institutions which they hate and cannot trust.
The question which arises is, of course, how serious a threat al-Sadr poses to the US administration, and whether he has the position and standing to establish a genuine government in future. The answer is unclear. The much vaunted divisions in Iraqi society are real, and al-Sadr -- despite his standing as the son of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and the respect and popularity he is now gaining for being the most forward of Iraq’s political leaders in opposing the US occupation -- is relatively junior even among Shi’i leaders. Ayatullah Sistani, Abdul Aziz Hakim, who has succeeded his brother shaheed Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim as head of the Hakim family and of the Majlis al-Ala al-Thawrah al-Islamiyya fi’l-Iraq (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI) and other ulama in the hawsa at Najaf are senior to him in terms of age, learning and experience. If al-Sadr’s initiative is to come to anything, he must carry these leaders and their followers with him, setting aside their different approaches to coping with the US occupation at this time. He will also have to ensure that Iraq’s non-Shi’i populations do not oppose him.
Many people doubt whether al-Sadr has the political experience or maturity to achieve this degree of consensus., or the patience to wait until circumstances make it possible before acting. The fact that his supporters have already clashed with supporters of other ulama in Najaf and Karbala over control of buildings and access to the Shi’i shrines there suggests that those who consider him to be little more than a hot-headed firebrand may be right. The US, unable to take him on directly, may be hoping that his movement will self-destruct by getting into internecine quarrels with other Iraqis.
Meanwhile, the US continues to struggle to cope with Iraq. In two separate but revealing incidents, there were protests against them in Khaldiya, west of Baghdad, on October 18, and Baghdad itself on October 21, provoked by male US soldiers trying to search Iraqi women, either themselves or by using sniffer dogs. In the Baghdad incident, US troops first physically assaulted protestors, then had to fire into the air to disperse angry crowds, demonstrating both their heavyhandedness and their unpopularity. If, six months after arriving in Iraq, they have not yet learnt the basic courtesies and etiquettes Iraqis expect in daily interraction, it seems they never will.
One witness to the Baghdad incident summed up the feelings of most Iraqis: "We don’t just want the dogs to leave," he said. "We want the dogs who are holding the dogs to leave -- every last one of them."