Bloodbath A Bad Omen
For Coalition Forces
By Robert Fisk
06 April, 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 at least 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
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 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battle, only weeks from being withdrawn from Iraq by Spain's new Socialist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 the shooting. Mr Sadr himself called for an end to
the fighting, with his spokesman, Abdulhadi al-Daraji, claiming that
the "arrogant powers say thank you for your peaceful protests and
then fire on the demonstrators". The demonstrations had their roots
in the decision of Paul Bremer, the US proconsul, to close Mr Sadr's
small circulation weekly newspaper al-Hawza 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 far greater scale than Mr Bremer 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 they have 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
The trouble is that
Mr Bremer 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, Ayatollah
Ali Sistani, Mr Sadr has for months attempted to present himself as
the putative leader of the Shia community.
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 aaide to Mr Sadr, remains
a political mystery. Mr Bremer, it seems, has now helped to bring that
A newspaper that
was ignored by millions of Iraqis, but whose sarcastic criticism of
Mr Bremer 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
The Spanish base
in Najaf is located 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 the 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.