5 April 2004

Escalation of fighting in Iraq

Foreign Affairs Editor Peter Cave reports from Baghdad.

PETER CAVE: Until the closure last week of his newspaper for allegedly urging violent resistance against the US led occupation, Moqtada al-Sadr and his black shirted private army were a minor irritation to the US civilian administrator Paul Bremer.

Now the young cleric has become a focus of national attention and day and day after day he's turned tens out thousands of supporters out in Baghdad, Basra and around the holy city of Najaf where he has his base and where the protest turned to bloodshed.

PAUL BREMER: This morning a group of people in Najaf have crossed the line and they have moved to violence. This will not be tolerated, this will not be tolerated by the coalition, this will not be tolerated by the Iraqi people and this will not be tolerated by the Iraqi security forces.

PETER CAVE: In Baghdad thousands of Sadr supporters gridlocked the city centre as they laid siege to Paul Bremer's headquarters throughout the day. Shiites were repressed under Saddam Hussein and I asked Imam Hazin al Aaraji, who was leading the protest, if he now saw the American administration as the enemy?

Bremer is a fool. The coalition has maintained order with some difficulty with its current troop levels. The occupation's tactics in the Sunni triangle have not been a spectacular success in garnering popular support. If the Shia governorates are treated the same way they will react the same way.

If the Shia go into active rebellion that will multiply the population of potential rebels by around 5. Is Bremer going to increase the CPA's troops in Iraq by the same multiplier? al-Sadr is certainly the least attractive of the Shia leaders. That is not going to effect his ability to raise hell in Baghdad and the South. Nor are breathless Bremer blustering.

This is a high price to pay for Bremer's desire to close a newspaper despite the freedon of press guaranteed by the interim constitution.

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