The US should be locking these radicals into democracy, not blasting them out of it

Any moment the Shia turn against the occupation, the clichés about Vietnam become true

Saddam Hussein could only ever have been dealt with by force. There was no way he was going to give up or moderate his tyrannical power except at the barrel of a gun. The Saddamist-Sunni insurgents - who are systematically targeting Shia civilians - can similarly only be dealt with by force. There is no way their agenda of restoring Sunni supremacy over the Shia majority can be haggled over by the coalition authorities.

But force is emphatically not the way to deal with the Shia insurgents. Now that the Americans are withdrawing from the rubble of Sunni-dominated Fallujah and handing the city over to Iraqi troops, it seems they are revving up for a repeat performance in the Shia holy city of Najaf. Muqtada Sadr is armed and waiting in one of the city's mosques with his ramshackle Mahdi army. The signs are now clear: Paul Bremer, the American administrator of Iraq, has demanded that Muqtada dissolve his army and hand himself over to the Iraqi judiciary. If Sadr refuses, his tinpot militia will be met with a firestorm of US force, and Najaf, like Fallujah, will burn.

The Americans are strutting into this disaster because they have badly misunderstood the nature of the Shia resistance. Muqtada Sadr is being inflated into the United States' Villain of the Week, a mini-Bin Laden bent on destroying America and poisoning slices of apple pie. Sadr's rhetoric plays to this perception: he has described Bush as "the father of all evil", and proclaimed he stands alongside Hamas and Hizbollah. Yet below the bluster, is there an absolutist who can only be dealt with by bombs and guns?

Muqtada owes his high profile to the widespread love and respect among Iraqis for his father, Mohammed Sadr. His Friday prayers attracted hundreds of thousands of worshippers when he began to make subtle political demands on behalf of the Shia population for greater religious and political freedom. This kind of behaviour was not tolerated under Saddam. He was murdered in 1999.

Mohammed Sadr was not a fundamentalist. He vehemently opposed the Iranian system of rule by the ayatollahs, describing it as "completely wrong". The Iranian ayatollahs labelled him - preposterously - as "Saddam's puppet", and accused him of syphoning off Shia anger and quelling its revolutionary rage. He defended religious pluralism, and, while his political agenda could not be publicly expressed, he seems to have believed broadly in democracy.

When Saddam's regime was belatedly destroyed, Muqtada emerged as a fairly moderate voice. He called for "peaceful resistance" to the occupation, and went on al-Jazeera to condemn violence against coalition troops. He said he wanted a pluralist "Islamic democracy", but did not elaborate.

So what happened? The Americans clearly believe Muqtada was lying when he talked of peace, and that, all along, he was planning violent attacks. But there's another, more plausible explanation. Ahmed Shames from the Iraqi Prospect Organisation, a group of young Iraqi democrats campaigning for their country to become free and prosperous, recently journeyed to the heart of Sadr City, the slums in Baghdad where Muqtada's support is strongest.

"Like Muqtada, they were delighted when Saddam was overthrown by the coalition. The Americans entered Baghdad through Sadr City because they knew it was such a friendly area," he explains. "Their main grievance - the thing that is really radicalising them - is that, since then, their representatives have been excluded from all the Iraqi institutions. They aren't on the Governing Council. They aren't even on the local councils appointed by the Americans. Understandably, they blame this exclusion for the fact that their neighbourhoods are stinking and collapsing."

So they could have been co-opted into the system? "Of course. They aren't die-hard anti-Westerners. Sadr's supporters don't have fully formed political views. Look, they've lived all their lives under a tyranny that made everybody too afraid to even whisper about politics, so they are only now finding their political bearings. It is a very fluid time. Muqtada's supporters, like everyone else, are evolving and changing."

Most of the dozens of people Ahmed spoke to - loyal Sadrists - don't even want the occupation to end immediately. Like most Iraqis, they want the transition to proceed pretty damn fast, and they want it handled much better than at the moment. Ahmed explains: "They certainly aren't fundamentalists. I didn't hear anyone talk about Shariah law or any of that. Muqtada is leading a populist movement with a light Islamic coating. Attacking them will only make it grow. The solution is to integrate them, talk to them, deal with them. If the militias eventually have to be disarmed - and they will - let a democratic Iraqi government do it."

At the moment, the Sadr army is still a populist movement without much popularity. The majority of Iraqis, according to the polls, oppose Sadr. It's easy to forget, given the lurid media focus on Fallujah, but most of Iraq is fairly stable and at peace, and most Iraqis say their lives are better than under Saddam. Kurdish northern Iraq, in particular, remains the dazzling success story it has been for over a decade since it was reclaimed from the Baathist dictatorship. Yet every Iraqi democrat I've spoken to agrees that US-led violence in Najaf threatens to inflate Sadr into a popular hero. If he is killed, he will become an icon, and Shia opinion may begin to tip in his direction.

The Americans are failing to sensibly distinguish between the Sunni resistance and the Shia resistance. Talk of the two sides "coming together" to resist the occupation has been wildly misleading. The Sunni resistance is murdering Shia civilians, including buses full of their toddlers. This seems an odd way of uniting with them.

The Sunni insurgents are unappeasable, because they are opposed to the direction in which most Iraqis want to carry the country - towards being a pluralist state whose fate is determined by Shia majority rule. The Shia resistance, in contrast, is fairly easy to calm down. The Shia know that once there's a democratic transition, they've won. They are the majority. They need to be soothed and rewarded as much as possible until then. The cost of failing to do this would be terrible. Any moment the Shia turn against the occupation, the clichés about Vietnam become true. The dream of Iraqi liberation would die.

The Israeli methods for dealing with insurgents will be no more successful in Najaf than in Nazareth. Slaughtering their leaders (and killing swathes of innocent civilians in the process) will not shut them up. It will radicalise the resistance and make a peaceful transition much less likely. It is still not too late. The most radical wing of the Iraqi Shia can be locked into Iraq's emerging democracy, not blasted out of it - but can George Bush, with his rhetoric of "ending evil", be made to appreciate this grey-hued compromise?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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