Why Is the United States Picking a Fight with the Iraqi Shi'ite Community?

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Recent efforts by President Bush to challenge the nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and an attack by U.S. soldiers in Iraq on a Shi’ite mosque has created great controversy in Iraq. Divisions between the United States and Shi’ite leadership are growing at the same time that U.S. rhetoric on the Shi’ite-dominated Iran are growing.

The U.S. mosque raid resulted in the deaths of 21 unarmed worshippers and an imam, most believed to be tied to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The mosque was part of Shi’ite community center and shrine. The U.S. reports at least 16 were dead and denies they were unarmed.

U.S. News and World Report is reporting that: "The U.S. military was trying to send a ‘little reality jab’ to radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr when American and Iraqi troops raided a Shi’ite community center and shrine over the weekend, says a top U.S. military official."

The raid has been very controversial. The governor of Baghdad cut off cooperation with the United States and Shi’ite politicians suspended their work on forming a government. President Jalal Talabani demanded that those “responsible” be punished and launched an investigation. While the U.S. had been critical of Sadr at times, lately they have been praising him because of his calls for calm in the wake of the bombing of a Sunni mosque in Samarra that sparked a wave of sectarian violence.

General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responding to criticism over the controversial raid, acknowledged that the raid included a mosque but claims U.S. forces did not know that until after the raid.

On March 29, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Bush administration notified the leading Shi’ite Muslim alliance that it opposes the nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari for another term in office. Jafari is a Shi’ite religious scholar with close ties to Iran. He has been criticized for allowing Shi’ite sectarian militias to operate death squads within the police force.

On Saturday U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad delivered a “personal message” from President Bush to Abdelaziz Hakim, the Shi’ite alliance leader, and asked that it be relayed to Jafari. The Los Angeles Times reports that Shi’ite politician close to the prime minister, Haider Abadi, said “It is not a friendly message. The ambassador is creating an atmosphere of rejection against Dr. Jafari by saying the United States cannot work with him. That only discourages the Sunnis and other political factions from being open to compromise.”

In a rebuff to Bush, Iraq’s supreme Shi’ite spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was hand-delivered a letter earlier this week from the president but it sits unread and untranslated in the top religious figure’s office. A key al-Sistani aide said the letter reinforced the American position that Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari should not be given a second term. Al-Sistani has not publicly taken sides in the dispute, but rather has called for Shi’ite unity.

Further, the al-Sistani aide said Shi’ite displeasure with U.S. involvement was so deep that dignitaries in the holy city of Najaf refused to meet Khalilzad on Wednesday during ceremonies commemorating the death of the Prophet Muhammad. An American spokesman denied that Khalilzad wanted to meet with them.

The attacks on the Shi’ite community come at a time of escalating rhetoric about Iran. Not only is the U.S. criticizing Iran for moving forward on developing nuclear power but they are claiming that Iranian agents are operating inside of Iraq. The commander of US forces in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, said this week “Inside Iraq, it is clear that Iranian intelligence people, especially from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the Qods Force people, are working with people that are at times working against the government and certainly working against coalition forces, especially in the south,” but he went on to say it was not clear whether this was being done with the Iranian government’s approval.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined in criticizing Iran, telling a Senate panel “I think there’s no doubt that Iran is the single biggest threat from a state that we face" not only for the development of nuclear power, but also, she claimed, bankrolling terrorism in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories and repressing its people.

Growing divisions with Shi’ite leaders, and with Iran which is Shi’ite dominated, may be a prelude to new problems for the U.S. occupation. The primary problem for the United States had been the Sunnis, adding Shi’ites would certainly make the already challenging occupation even more difficult.

Kevin Zeese [send him mail] is director of Democracy Rising.

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