A violent confrontation between America and the Sadrist movement, popular among the Shia majority, would mark a new stage in the four-year war in which the US has hitherto been fighting the minority Sunni community. Last week the nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his ministers to leave the Iraqi government because of its refusal to set a timetable for US troop withdrawal from Iraq.
The departure of the six ministers will weaken the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who relied on the support of their movement for a majority in parliament. The Sadrists accused Mr Maliki of "ignoring the will of the people" over the issue of a timed American withdrawal.
Muqtada al-Sadr has been hiding for two months but in recent weeks has demanded an end to the occupation. He has organised peaceful rallies attended by tens of thousands of demonstrators in Najaf at which Sadr supporters waved Iraqi flags and chanted their opposition to the continuing US presence.
Menacingly for the US, Mr Sadr called on Iraqi police and soldiers, many of them his supporters, to oppose the occupation. His new anti-American campaign is in keeping with Iraqi opinion going by a recent poll by ABC, the BBC, ARD and USA Today. It showed that 78 per cent of Iraqis oppose the presence of US forces in Iraq. More than 7 out of 10 Shia--and almost all Sunni--say the US military presence makes security worse.
A significant change in Iraqi politics over the past four years has been the growing hostility of the Shia towards the US. Although the government of Mr Maliki is in effect a Shia-Kurdish coalition, 59 per cent of Iraqis think the US controls things in Iraq according to the poll. Many Shia see the US as covertly manipulating the real levers of power in order to exclude them. For instance the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, the main security service, under General Mohammed Shahwani, is wholly funded by the CIA at a reported cost of $3 bn since 2004.
The Sadrists are not likely to move into total opposition to Mr Maliki's government because Mr Sadr has sought to avoid direct military confrontation with the US since his Mehdi Army militia clashed with American forces in 2004. "The Prime Minister has to express the will of the Iraqi people," the head of the Sadrist bloc in parliament, Nasser al-Rubaie, said yesterday. "They went out in their millions asking for a timetable for withdrawal. We noticed the Prime Minister's response did not express the will of the people."
Meanwhile, the US administration has decided to continue to hold five Iranian officials captured in the Kurdish capital, Arbil, on January 11. US officials quoted by The Washington Post confirmed my story of April 3 that the US had originally targeted two senior Iranian security officers, Mohammed Jafari, the deputy head of Iran's National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the head of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, but failed to capture them.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of 'The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq', a finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.
From CounterPunch April 21/22