Up until recently, most signs of violence against US troops in Iraq could be seen as either isolated incidents or as marginally organized attacks by former Ba'athists and former Iraqi military forces. Shi'ite involvement in violence against the coalition has been marginal. That may change soon, however...
Moqtada Sadr, a 30 year old Shi'ite cleric in Iraq who rose to power when his father, a popular ayatollah, was murdered by Saddam in 1999, has vehemently denounced the US-selected Iraqi Governing Council as illegitimate, and is vowing to build a private paramilitary army inside of Iraq.
Although frowned upon by some of Iraq's less radical Islamic leaders, Sadr has tens of thousands of followers in An Najaf and in the poorer regions of east Baghdad. As an example of his family's popularity, Saddam City, the Shia slum in Baghdad of two million people, has been renamed Sadr City by the local inhabitants.
"It is a fact that we have a lot of support from Baghdad down to Basra and every city in between," Sadr told the foriegn press.
In one example of his power, he led a protest of approximately 10,000 Iraqis against the occupation through the streets of Baghdad in the wake of the war. Needless to say, he has not been looked upon by U.S. forces very kindly since then...
Sadr's influence amongst Iraqi Shi'ites is rivaled by senior, powerful religious leaders, including Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Mohammed Bakir Hakim, who heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a well-funded organization backed by Iran. However, Sistani's and Hakim's strong links to Iran might be weaknesses, in that Moqtada Sadr can brand Sistani and Hakim as disloyal pawns of Iran and the U.S., playing upon Iraqi fears of foriegn interference in their country.
It is unclear what Sadr plans to do in the long run with an army of young, radical, nationalistic Iraqis, but it can't be good news for the U.S. or Britain. It could spread violence against coalition forces to parts of Iraq which were previously peaceful, making the occupation of Shi'ite controlled regions throughout the country and as far south as Basra far riskier and more confrontational, and could increase the need for longterm troop deployments and devisive and confrontational tactics to combat the threat.
In a situation where the return home of U.S. troops depends on winning the heart and minds of the Iraqis, it's hard to see the current situation as anything other than one step forward, two steps back.