August 10, 2004
George Bush seems prepared to grant Muqtada al-Sadr his wish to become a martyr.
Al-Sadr, the peculiar, defiant young cleric who is leading his militia into battle against the Americans, vows to "defend Najaf until the last drop of my blood."
And I believe him.
The Progressive ran an article in our June issue about al-Sadr, and the guy has a serious martyr complex, according to reporter Nir Rosen. Al-Sadr's father and his great uncle both were killed for resisting Saddam Hussein's regime, and al-Sadr wants to become the "third martyr," as he puts it.
When he accuses Dr. Allawi of behaving like Saddam Hussein, his charge carries some weight, especially among the Shiites, whom Hussein so oppressed.
Al-Sadr is uncouth. "He is very aggressive and tactless," Rosen reported. And other journalists say that his militia has behaved thuggishly in Najaf.
But Bush will be making a bad mistake by making him into a martyr.
Bush would be risking nothing less than all-out insurrection throughout Shiite Iraq if he does so.
The cost in human lives could be enormous.
The cost to Dr. Allawi's puppet government would be great.
And the cost to the U.S. economy could be high, as the oil facilities in Basra might go up in flames.
With oil at $45 a barrel now, just imagine where it would shoot up to then.
The Bush Administration erred by shutting down al-Sadr's newspaper, Al-Hawza, earlier this year. This "only swelled the ranks of his supporters," Rosen reported.
And it will err again by making al-Sadr the third martyr in his family.
The Americans believe that "arresting or killing Muqtada will end the resistance," Rosen wrote. "But that will make no difference. Muqtada knows there were anti-Baathist riots when his father was killed, and the Americans are not as scary as the Baathists were."
Bush has no good option left. But the worst of the bad options is to escalate the war.