NEWSWEEK COVER: The Most Dangerous Man in Iraq

Profile of Moqtada al-Sadr Shows U.S. Hesitancy, Missteps and Confusion in

Dealing with the Radical Cleric

Paul Bremer: 'I First Wanted to Go After Him When He Had Probably Fewer

Than 200 Followers. I Couldn't Make it Happen ... '

Nov 26, 2006, 00:00 ET from Newsweek

    NEW YORK, Nov. 26 /PRNewswire/ -- American soldiers who patrol Moqtada
 al-Sadr's turf in Baghdad understand the extent of his power, which isn't
 obvious to the untrained eye. They can spot his men. "They look like
 they're pulling security," First Lt. Robert Hartley, tells Newsweek in the
 current issue's cover story about the Shiite cleric. Hartley plays cat and
 mouse with Mahdi Army in the Iraqi capital. The Sadrists use children and
 young men as lookouts. When GIs get out of their Humvees to patrol on foot,
 one of the watchers will fly a kite, or release a flock of pigeons. Some of
 Sadr's people have even infiltrated top ranks of the Iraqi police. Captain
 Tom Kapla says he knows who they are: "They look at you, and you can tell
 they want to kill you."
     (Photo: )
     More than anyone, Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, personifies the
 dilemma Washington faces: If American troops leave Iraq quickly, militia
 leaders like Sadr will be unleashed as never before, and full-scale civil
 war could follow. But the longer the American occupation lasts, the less
 popular America gets -- and the more popular Sadr and his ilk become. In
 the December 4 Newsweek cover, "The Most Dangerous Man in Iraq" (on
 newsstands Monday, November 27), a team of correspondents profile Sadr,
 examining his background and how he grew to be as popular -- and dangerous
 -- as he is today in Iraq.
     Newsweek reports that the story of the U.S. confrontation with Moqtada
 al-Sadr is, in many ways, the story of American folly in Iraq. It's a story
 of ignorance and poor planning, missteps and confusion. Key policymakers
 often disagreed about the importance of Sadr and about how to deal with
 him. The result was half-measures and hesitation. But the story isn't just
 about past failures. It also contains lessons -- and warnings -- about the
     In August 2003, there was a plan to arrest Sadr, after an Iraqi judge
 had secretly issued a warrant for him in connection with the murder of an
 Iraqi exile who had helped the U.S. "The pivotal moment was Aug. 19, 2003,"
 Dan Senor, a senior official in the Coalition Provisional Authority at the
 time, tells Newsweek. "We were down to figuring out the mechanisms of
 ensuring that the operation was seen as Iraqi, executed on an Iraqi arrest
 warrant. I remember it was late afternoon and we had just received a
 snowflake from [U.S. Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld ... with nine
 different questions, rehashing how we were going to do this, to make sure
 it was not seen as an American operation." (A "snowflake" was a Rumsfeld
     Suddenly word came that insurgents had detonated a massive truck bomb
 at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. Senor recalls rushing to the
 scene with Hume Horan, a top U.S. diplomat and Arabist. Horan leaned over
 to Senor and said, "We should take down Sadr now, when no one's looking."
 But there was enough chaos to deal with already. The U.N. bombing was "a
 huge distraction," says Senor, "and the Sadr operation was forgotten."
     In the winter of 2004, a senior adviser to Ambassador Paul Bremer, the
 American proconsul in Iraq, was traveling in the south, meeting with
 friendly clerics and community leaders. "I could see how frightened they
 were of [Sadr] and his Mahdi Army," recalls the aide, Larry Diamond. "I was
 driven past an area, a kind of compound where his black-clad army was
 training for the upcoming revolution to seize power and take over. It just
 dawned on me that these people were going to make this place an
 authoritarian hell of a new sort, Taliban style, and would murder a lot of
 our allies in the process."
     Diamond told Bremer the U.S. urgently needed to act against Sadr,
 Newsweek reports. Bremer responded that he was waiting for a new plan from
 Coalition forces. "I first wanted to go after him when he had probably
 fewer than 200 followers," Bremer recalled in an interview with Newsweek
 last week. "I couldn't make it happen ... the Marines were resisting doing
 anything." But in the meantime, on March 28, 2004 Bremer suspended
 publication of Sadr's newspaper after it ran an editorial praising the 9/11
 attacks on America as a "blessing from God."
     The response was swift: mass demonstrations, which would lead to the
 first of two Sadr uprisings in 2004. In a final meeting between Diamond and
 Bremer on April 1, Diamond pressed the point that the U.S. needed more
 troops in Iraq. It was around 8 p.m., and Bremer's dinner was sitting on a
 tray uneaten. He looked exhausted. "And he just didn't want to hear it,"
 says Diamond. "In retrospect, I think he had gone to the well on this issue
 of more troops during 2003, had gotten nowhere ... and had just resigned
 himself to the fact that these troops just weren't going to come. I think
 the tragedy is that everyone just gave up."
     The movement may now be more important than the man, Newsweek reports.
 Sadr "is faced with a common problem," says Toby Dodge of the International
 Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "He can't control the use of his
 brand name, the use of his legitimacy." Some elder followers of Sadr's
 father have broken away, disillusioned with the son. And some young toughs
 seem to be freelancing where they can. If Sadr were to fall, "you'll end up
 with 30 different movements," says Vali Nasr, a scholar and author who has
 briefed the Bush administration on Iraq. "There are 30 chieftains who have
 a tremendous amount of local power. If you remove him, there will be a
 scramble for who will inherit this movement ... It's a great danger doing
 that. You may actually make your life much more difficult."
                     (Read cover story at

SOURCE Newsweek