American commanders in Iraq vowed yesterday to arrest Muqtada Sadr, the young Shia leader, and crush the black-clad militiamen of his Mehdi Army amid signs that US actions are alienating the Iraqi Shia community as a whole.
US soldiers do not seem able to distinguish between the Army of the Mehdi and ordinary Shia pilgrims on their way to the holy city of Kerbala to commemorate the feast of Arbain, which starts today, forty days after the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, one of the founders of their faith.
"The Americans are just as bad as Saddam Hussein," said Hamid al-Ugily, the leader of six men from Sadr city carrying a green flag who are spending two to three days walking to Kerbala. "We think they will attack Muqtada in Najaf. We will defend our religious leaders."
What is menacing for the US is that all of the men marching to Kerbala, something they once did secretly under Saddam Hussein, are soldiers in the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps (ICDC). This paramilitary body, created by the Coalition Provisional Authority, is set to take over duties currently undertaken by the American soldiers.
Abbas, one of the marchers, said: "I have been in the ICDC one year and the Americans didn't do anything for Iraq." The friction between US soldiers and Iraqi Shias, some 15-16 million of the 25 million population, is becoming more intense by the day.
On another road into Baghdad another group of Shia pilgrims about a hundred strong from the town of Dejali were being detained and forced to sit on the ground by heavily armed US soldiers who were eyeing their green flags with suspicion.
In the past, 30-year-old Muqtada Sadr, whose authority stems from fact that he is the son of Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, the revered Shia clerical leader assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999, has had only limited popular support.
But there are signs that this is growing after a US-appointed Iraqi judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
The Army of the Mehdi has shown that it has greater military strength than had been supposed in fighting since the weekend.
It is reportedly in control of most of Najaf where Sadr himself has taken refuge. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmit, deputy director of operations for the US army in Iraq, said that Sadr would be arrested and "the coalition and security forces are conducting operations to destroy the Mehdi Army."
This will be sooner said than done. If the US army uses its massive fire power to fight its way into Najaf in pursuit of Sadr it well be seen by Shias as a repetition of the Iraqi army offensive. This was against rebels in Najaf and Kerbala during their great uprising against Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991.
In many of the southern cities of Iraq where Shia are the majority of the population, the local Iraqi police and paramilitary units - supposedly under orders from the coalition - have shown they are not prepared to fight fellow Shia in the Mehdi army.
In Kut, a city on the Tigris river south of Baghdad, the Ukrainian army contingent has withdrawn from the local government headquarters. A British civilian working for a private security company in Kut was reported killed.
The US is now facing a two-front war against Sunni and Shia Iraqis. Earlier in the week militiamen supporting Sadr entered the Sunni neighbourhood of Azamiya in Baghdad to shoot at US Humvees.
Sadr is not revered as a clerical leader by many Shia because of his youth and lack of religious training. But whatever their misgivings they may support him in a direct confrontation with the US.