Baghdad. The Bush administration was last night facing a nightmare scenario in Iraq, fighting on two fronts against Sunni and Shia militants less than three months before it is due to hand over power to an Iraqi government.
Facing a critical moment in the effort to pacify the country, President George Bush vowed he would not budge from his June 30 deadline for the transition to self-rule, while US forces in Iraq opted for a high-risk strategy of attempting to crush both insurgent groups simultaneously.
American officials in Baghdad announced an arrest warrant for a radical Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, whose black-uniformed Mahdi militia revolted against coalition forces at the weekend, killing seven American soldiers in the Baghdad district known as Sadr City. Up to 30 Iraqis were also killed in the clashes, the worst the capital has seen since its fall to US troops a year ago.
In another sign of their tougher strategy, US forces used Apache gunships to attack targets in Baghdad for the first time since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. The helicopters opened fire over the Shia neighbourhood of Shulla after militants destroyed a US armoured vehicle.
Meanwhile, a force of 1,300 US marines and Iraqi troops began moving into the town of Falluja in an attempt to regain control of the Sunni stronghold, which signalled its defiance last week by the torching, dismemberment and display of the bodies of four American private security guards, ambushed in the town centre by insurgents. The marines imposed a curfew and closed the Baghdad-Amman road that runs past the town.
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, the foreign minister of US ally Qatar, said last night: “We fear that we are facing a civil war in Iraq, reminding me of what happened in Afghanistan and Lebanon.”
Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation and the prospect of a civil war following the transfer of power to a yet-to-be-determined Iraqi government, the US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, cancelled a visit to Washington to deal with the crisis.
The US military commander, General John Abizaid, was considering the reinforcement of his 105,000-strong army of occupation. According to Pentagon officials, Gen Abizaid gave his aides 48 hours to come up with ideas on where fresh troops, American or allied, could be found.
Mention of reinforcements has been taboo in the Bush administration as it faces re-election in November, but the revolt in Shia majority areas on Sunday, a few days after the Falluja killings, triggered profound anxiety in Washington.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said last night: “The administration really seems to be stubbornly refusing to do what’s necessary to avoid the kind of disintegration that’s taking place, and now we see continued violence.”
Mr Kerry echoed senior Republicans and Democrats who called for a rethink of the June 30 deadline. But Mr Bush insisted the date remained firm.
“The message to the Iraqi citizens is they don’t have to fear that America will turn and run, and that’s an important message for them to hear,” he said. “If they think that we’re not sincere about staying the course, many people will not continue to take the risk to ward freedom and democracy.”
The president committed US forces to tracking down Mr Sadr. “This is one person who is deciding that rather than allow democracy to flourish, he’s going to exercise force. And we just can’t let it stand. As I understand, the CPA today announced the warrant for his arrest.”
However, officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority said the warrant was issued months ago by an Iraqi judge investigating the murder a year ago of a rival Shia cleric, Abdel Majid al-Khoei. The warrant remained secret and no overt effort was made to detain Mr Sadr. Making the warrant public staked the credibility of the occupation authorities.
Asked when Mr Sadr would be picked up, Dan Senor, a CPA spokesman, said: “There will be no advance warning.”
Mr Sadr, 30, the scion of a line of revered Shia leaders, was reported to have sought sanctuary in a mosque in his home base of Kufa near the holy city of Najaf, and his supporters pledged to fight to the death in his defence.
“I’m accused by one of the leaders of evil, Bremer, of being an outlaw,” Mr Sadr said in a defiant statement. “If that means breaking the law of the American tyranny and its filthy constitution, I’m proud of that and that is why I’m in revolt.”
He ordered his followers into the streets after the arrest of one of his top aides, Mustafa al-Yakoubi, and 13 other followers, for al-Khoei’s murder, and the closure a week earlier of his movement’s weekly newspaper, al-Hawza.
At the same time as Sunday’s clashes in Baghdad’s Sadr City, 24 Iraqis died in gunfire between Mahdi militiamen and Spanish-led forces in Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, where a Salvadorean coalition soldier was reported killed. Mr Sadr’s forces also demonstrated in the British-run cities of Basra, Amara and Nassiriya.
Western diplomats had predicted that the occupation would remain tenable as long as the Shia majority acquiesced in the expectation that transition to a representative democracy would bring it political power.
Yesterday, US officials played down the significance of Mr Sadr’s movement. The Pentagon said he commanded only 600 militiamen and a few thousand supporters. However, the Iraqi Shias’ most senior religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a relative moderate, was reportedly ambivalent in his response to the Mahdi revolt.
“The good news here is Sadr is just one extreme cleric we already knew was an extremist and by resisting firmly we will send a message,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a strategic analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The more nerve-racking news is that Sistani seems to be divided in his instincts.”
Senator Joseph Biden, the Democrats’ most prominent voice on foreign policy, compared the US quandary to a 1920 revolt against British colonial rule. “We are caught in the middle. The greatest concern here is a two-front war like the Brits faced.” The 1920 revolt was suppressed only after 2,200 British troops and an estimated 8,450 Iraqis were killed or wounded.
The UN special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, arrived in Baghdad on Sunday to discuss the transition and elections scheduled for January, but there is no consensus on what form of government should take office in the interim.