Violence in Iraq has, since the end of “major combat operations,” been largely identified with the “Sunni Triangle” in the center of the country.  The Shia—who make up almost two thirds of Iraq’s 25 million people—were glad to see Saddam fall.  They were prepared to accept the occupation and cooperate with the new authorities on the assumption that there would be an election, after which the United States would transfer power to the new representative government and leave.  Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, knew that his people would benefit more than any other group from the promise of democratic elections.  His followers and allies accordingly accepted appointments to the Iraqi Governing Council.

Another Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, disagreed with al-Sistani’s approach.  He suspected that the United States would never agree to leave Iraq in the hands of her Shia majority, especially if the leaders of that majority were identified with political Islam and potentially friendly to the theocrats in Teheran.  Al-Sadr was far from enjoying the reputation and following of al-Sistani, but his anti-Western radicalism has attracted a hard core of several thousand mainly young and dirt-poor recruits for his militia, the “al-Mahdi Army.”  These “Sadriyyun” clashed with U.S. forces in late March when the authorities shut down al-Sadr’s newspaper on the grounds that it was inciting violence.  Within days, al-Sadr’s men took over government buildings and fought coalition forces in Baghdad and predominantly Shia centers such as Kufa and Kut.  Particularly significant was their control of the central shrine in the city of Najaf, the holiest site for all Shia Muslims.

The standoff at the “Shiite Vatican” in Najaf has played into the hands of the radicals.  While reluctant to be seen as supportive of the younger firebrand who had even threatened him in the past, al-Sistani can no longer afford to support the Coalition and be accused of treason.  Al-Sadr may have been the enfant terrible of the Shia establishment, but, if he and his men are attacked, they would soon become heroes or—worse still—martyrs to their coreligionists.  The two Shia militias that have avoided clashes with the U.S. military thus far—the Dawa and the Badr Corps—would probably join the fray.  The nightmare of “two fronts” would become reality.

The U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, made a serious mistake by trying to deal with al-Sadr by force.  Encouraging the traditional Shia establishment to keep him under control would have been far less costly, politically and militarily.  Shutting down his paper, arresting his aides, and laying siege to his offices gave al-Sadr prominence disproportionate to his influence and forced more moderate Shia leaders into expressing solidarity with him.

The situation is further complicated by the deeper political cause of the deteriorating Shia relationship with the Americans.  Their leaders see the recently passed interim constitution as unfair, deliberately aimed at limiting their power as the majority.  The Bush administration needs to address their concerns.  It still has a narrow window of opportunity to restore order before a new interim Iraqi authority takes control on June 30.

If the Bush administration wants to regain the support of the mainstream Shia establishment, the price is clear: The administration must promise that elections for the constitutional assembly and the national government will be held next year, come what may, and will no longer be subject to delays and extensions.  That government is likely to be Shia-dominated, Islamist in outlook, and friendly to Iran, all of which is disturbing but inevitable.  There is no hope that a more secular, Western-friendly political force—a Baath with a human face—will emerge over the next few months.  It is therefore preferable to cultivate the devil we know, such as al-Sistani, than to risk the rise of al-Sadr and his ilk.

The neoconservative cabal in Washington will try to prevent this outcome.  Come January 2005, we will be told that it would be “premature,” if not outright “irresponsible,” to let the Iraqis decide what form of government they desire.  This time, such voices must not be heeded.  It is in the interest of the United States to hand over power in Iraq to a local government—or perhaps several governments, running the Kurdish north, Sunni center, and Shiite south, respectively—and to withdraw.  The democratic credentials and ideology of those authorities taking over from the United States are immaterial.  As we enter what promises to be a long, hot summer of Arab discontent, the mission in Iraq must not be subjected—yet again—to manipulative shenanigans by special-interest groups within and around the Bush administration.