Waco in Baghdad?


Geraldine Sealey
April 5, 2004 11:48PM (UTC)

The president was in North Carolina today to promote his job training initiative, but touched on the escalation of violence in Iraq, describing it to his audience this way: "We're still being challenged in Iraq, and the reason why is a free Iraq will be a major defeat in the cause of terror. Terrorists can't stand freedom. They hate free societies. And yet, we know that free societies will be peaceful societies. We also believe that freedom is the Almighty's gift to every person in this world. It's one of the values that we hold dear. These killers don't have values. They want to shake our will. So we've got tough action in Iraq."

He continued: "But we will stay the course. We will do what is right. We will make sure that a free Iraq emerges, not only for our own security, but for the sake of free peoples everywhere. A free Iraq will change the Middle East. A free Iraq will make the world more peaceful. A free Iraq will make America more secure. We will not be shaken by thugs and terrorists."

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The president's Iraq-for-dummies version of the story does not reflect the complexity nor the volatility of the situation. Two U.S. Senators, a Republican and Democrat, warned Sunday that Iraq could be headed to a civil war if the Bush administration sticks with its plan to hand over sovereignty on June 30. (Speaking to reporters after his North Carolina speech today, Bush said he's sticking with the June 30 deadline.)

Democratic Sen. Joe Biden told the New York Times he thinks the administration faces its own civil war as it debates how to handle the unraveling situation in Iraq: "I predict to you -- I hope I'm wrong -- that your colleagues writing about this 10 years from now are going to look at 9/11 and they're going to look at 6/30. This administration, as far as I can tell, is at odds with itself, being pulled apart -- one portion saying we're going to keep it under our tent and the other half saying, 'Let's give it to the U.N.' "

To get an idea of just what we're dealing with in Muqtada al-Sadr, University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole posted this on his blog today, quoting the radical cleric before he retreated into a mosque, surrounded by U.S. troops sent to arrest him. Muqtada said: "Make your enemy afraid, for it is impossible to remain quiet about their moral offenses; otherwise we have arrived at consequences that will not be praiseworthy. I am with you, and shall not forsake you to face hardships alone. I fear for you, for no benefit will come from demonstrations. Your enemy loves terrorism, and despises peoples, and all Arabs, and muzzles opinions. I beg you not to resort to demonstrations, for they have become nothing but burned paper. It is necessary to resort to other measures, which you take in your own provinces. As for me, I am with you, and I hope I will be able to join you and then we shall ascend into exalted heavens. I will go into an inviolable retreat in Kufa. Help me by whatever you are pleased to do in your provinces."

Cole writes: "The bit about going into a retreat and hoping to join his followers later so that they could ascend to the heavens shows an apocalyptic imagination at work. The US is facing another Waco, and what we know is that military sorts of force are the worst way to deal with apocalyptic groups like the Branch Davidians and the Sadrists. That approach only confirms their conviction that the forces of this world are attempting to prevent them from attaining paradise."

Muqtada al-Sadr is not the most influential Shiite cleric, of course, and he is estranged from the more powerful and moderate Shiite cleric Ayatollah Sistani. But al-Sadr has tens of thousands of disciples. As Josh Marshall points out on Talking Points Memo, the long-term impact of the weekend uprising he led is so far unclear. "It will be critical to see, in the coming days, whether this is one spasm of violence (organized by the young firebrand Muqtada Al-Sadr in response to being shut out of the political process by the Americans) which can be brought under control or whether this is the first day of a new phase of violence or even uprising."

"The reality is that the U.S. doesn't have anywhere enough soldiers in the country to control the place if there's this sort of widespread violence on an on-going basis. That could quickly lead to a vicious cycle which will put a virtual end to reconstruction and prevent the coming into being of any entity for us to hand the place off to. In Jefferson's ugly phrase, we may end up holding the wolf by the ears."

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Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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