Robert Fisk – The Independent April 5, 2004
To the horror of the occupying powers in Iraq, the country’s ever more bloody insurgency spilt into the majority Shia Muslim community yesterday as Spanish and other Western soldiers fought gunmen in the holy city of Najaf, with the loss of 22 lives, most of them Iraqis.
The shooting started after protesters gathered at the Spanish military base on the outskirts of the city following the arrest of an aide to Muqtada Sadr, the young Shia cleric whose “Army of Mehdi” has never before fired its guns.
That the latest bloodbath should have occurred in Najaf – one of the holiest shrines in Islam – was as dangerous as it was painfully symbolic. Even as the bullets skittered past them, protesters held up pictures of the imams Ali and Hussein whose epic martyrdom is being mourned in every Shia home. That it should be Spanish troops who were engaged in the battle, only weeks from being withdrawn from Iraq by Spain’s new socialist government, was a final irony.
More than 200 people were wounded during the three-hour gun battle. At Najaf’s main hospital, many of the dead were wearing the black uniform of Mr Sadr’s army but two Iraqi police officers, one soldier from El Salvador and one US soldier were also among the dead.
Each side claimed the other started shooting. Mr Sadr himself called for an end to the fighting, with his spokesman, Abdulhadi al-Darajl, claiming that the “arrogant powers say thank you for your peaceful protest and then fire on the demonstrators”. The demonstrations had their roots in the decision of Paul Bremmer, the US proconsul, to close Mr Sadr’s small circulation weekly newspaper <>al-Hawan<> in Baghdad a week ago for “inciting violence against coalition forces.”
It now seems that his decision to shut down the paper (its circulation of 10,000 was hardly going to arouse Shias to attack Western troops) has incited violence on a scale far greater than Mr Bremmer could have imagined.
Yet he managed to say all the wrong things again yesterday. “This morning a group of people in Najaf have crossed the line and moved to violence,” he announced. “This will not be tolerated. This will not be tolerated by the Iraqi people and this will not be tolerated by the Iraqi security forces.”
The trouble is that Mr Bremmer has said all this before, but about Sunni insurgents, and his warnings almost always increase the anger of his antagonists and bring no end to violence. Mr Sadr, of course, has his own reasons to find political satisfaction in this bloodshed.
In the shadow of his infinitely more learned and judicious clerical superior, Ayotollah Ali Sistani, Mr Sadr has for months attempted to present himself as the putative leader of the Shia community.
The Anglo-American occupying powers have long suspected that Mr Sadr wanted just such a confrontation to rally support for his minority movement although why they should have arrested Mustafa Yacoubi, an aide to Mr Sadr, remains a political mystery. Mr Bremmer, it seems, has now helped to bring that confrontation about.
A newspaper that was ignored by millions of Iraqis, but whose sarcastic criticism of Mr Bremmer is said to have personally annoyed the American proconsul, may henceforth be known as the paper which started a Shia insurrection.
Mr Sadr may be gambling that the other Shia militias will fall into step with his own armed men. If this happens, and the insurgency spreads to other Shia cities, then the entire occupation of Iraq could become untenable.
The Americans can scarcely contain the Sunni Muslim revolt to the north; they cannot fight another community, this one representing 60 per cent of Iraqis, even if British troops, who control the largely Shia city of Basra, become involved.
The Spanish base in Najaf is locted on the campus of Kufa university, a broad expanse of land close to the Euphrates river and defended by troops from San Salvador. The Spanish – their force numbers 1,300 men and women but only a few hundred are in Najaf – are due to leave on 30 June but were never part of the occupying power. Many of the soldiers in Najaf are involved in irrigation and agricultural projects. When bombs killed 200 in Madrid last month, Shia clerics visited Spanish troops in Najaf to express their condolences. That is unlikely to happen again. More Shia protests erupted in the centre of Baghdad where US-paid Iraqi police fired rifles in the air. The crowd carried a coffin draped with the Iraqi flag which they said held the body of a demonstrator killed on Saturday. In Anbar province, two US soldiers were killed near the Sunni city of Fallujah, where four American contractors were murdered last week. In all, 600 US troops have been killed in the year-long war.
Last updated 06/04/2004