Baghdad, Iraq - Whether or not the resistance here grows to a scale the U.S. cannot control - and such a development depends more on the moderate Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani than on presidential envoy Paul Bremer or George Bush - it is already clear that the events of the last 10 days mark a critical turning point. According to the official story, a few barbaric "isolated extremists" from the "Saddamist stronghold" of Fallujah killed four U.S. private security contractors guarding food convoys in an act of unprovoked lawlessness. Moreover, the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is fighting the U.S. forces right now because, in the words of George Bush, he has decided that "rather than allow democracy to flourish, he's going to exercise force."
The truth is rather different on both counts. First, Fallujah, although heavily Sunni-dominated, is hardly a bastion of Saddam sympathizers. During his regime, its imams got into trouble for refusing to obey his orders to praise him personally during prayers. Furthermore, many of its inhabitants are Salafists (Wahhabism is a subset of Salafism), a group singled out for political persecution by Saddam.
In fact, during the war, Fallujah was not a hotbed of resistance. The origin of its hostility to coalition forces dates back to April 28, 2003, when U.S. troops opened fire on a group of up to 200 peaceful protestors, killing 15. The soldiers claimed they were merely returning gunfire, but Human Rights Watch found that the bullet holes examined at the location were inconsistent with that story. Moreover, Iraqi witnesses at the scene maintained that the crowd was unarmed.
A string of such incidents over the following months caused many people in the area to join the resistance, forming their own groups. Sporadic violence, combined with the Pentagon's policy of responding with blanket punitive measures, quickly left the town seething with anger.
The most recent incident, in which four contractors working for Blackwater Security were killed, did not arise in a vacuum. In fact, just the week before the horrific event, U.S. marines mounted heavy raids on Fallujah, killing at least seven civilians. Residents cite these raids as the reason for the attack on Blackwater and the gruesome spectacle that followed.
Rather than deal with this growing threat of violent resistance in the so- called Sunni Triangle, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has instead chosen to pick a fight with the Shia followers of Moqtada al-Sadr.
Whatever al-Sadr's views about democracy may be, Bush's claim that he started this violence to derail the plan for a free, democratic Iraq is ridiculous. To begin with, for all of al-Sadr's firebrand rhetoric, he and his followers had until now stopped short of violence against the occupying forces.
Moreover, the incident that precipitated this round of violence was the CPA's decision to ban his newspaper, al-Hawza, which in itself was a blatantly undemocratic act. The paper was not shut down for directly advocating violence but for reporting one eyewitness claim that a supposed car bombing that killed numerous volunteers for the New Iraqi defence forces was actually carried out by plane (and therefore by the United States).
As the occupation simultaneously loses control in Iraq, from Basra and Najaf to Baghdad, the U.S. has switched explanations as to why they plan to arrest al-Sadr. Now they claim that he is wanted in connection with the murder of Shia cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei last April. And, indeed, one of the other precipitating factors in the recent violence was the arrest of Mustafa Yacoubi, a top Sadr aide, for the same killing. They even say al-Sadr's impending arrest has nothing to do with his anti-occupation activities or the concerns of the coalition authorities. Rather, an Iraqi judge, acting independently, issued the warrant.
This explanation isn't getting very far with anyone here. It has already been revealed that the warrants were written long ago and have been sitting unused until this time.
Their guilt is, for the most part, beside the point. The signs seem to indicate that the move against al-Sadr's people was deliberately timed. If so, it was presumably an attempt to squeeze him out of the political sphere before the token "transfer of sovereignty" on June 30. Although al-Sadr supporters are probably a majority in Thawra and a very sizable minority in Shuala, the cleric's influence was until now negligible in Kadhimiya.
But most importantly, although the current violence may dominate the headlines, it's not the real story about what is happening on the ground. It is the daily experience of repression that is fuelling the rage, not any misguided loyalty to Saddam. Shaykh Sadun al-Shemary, a former member of the Iraqi army who participated in the 1991 uprising and is now a spokesman for the al-Sadr organization in Shuala, told me, "Things are exactly the same as in Saddam's time - maybe worse." That is all you need to know about the occupation of Iraq.