Today anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the terrorist death squad militia known as the Mahdi Army, openly called on his followers to attack American troops with the objective of driving them from Iraq. This is an open declaration of war, and must be answered as such.
Al-Sadr should have been taken out or arrested back in April 2003, when it is believed that he ordered the assassination of pro-U.S. Shiiate Imam Abdul Majid al-Khoei. A warrant for his arrest was actually issued in April 2004, and an armed confrontation began between U.S. troops and al-Sadr's followers, which was going rather badly for the Mahdi Army gunmen. However, at that point, the U.S. agreed to a compromise at the request of the Iraqi government, in which al Sadr agreed to disband his militia and participate peacefully in the political process. Accepting this truce with al-Sadr and allowing him to retain his freedom and political influence was one of the major blunders of the Bush Administration in Iraq. To all factions in Iraq, it did not demonstrate compassion or good will, but rather weakness, an indication that the U.S. could be pushed around and eventually pushed out of Iraq.
Of course, al-Sadr never held up his end of the bargain. The Mahdi Army continued in existence and established al-Sadr as the defacto ruler of the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, effectively outside the authority of both the Iraqi government and coalition forces. In addition to importing weapons and trainers in their use from Iran, and regularly attacking coalition forces, the Mahdi Army, through the use of its death squads, has terrorized the Sunni population, causing Sunnis who might otherwise have cooperated with coalition forces and the Iraqi government to support the Baathist and Al Qada led insurgencies. Al-Sadr's goal from the beginning has been to prevent the emergence of a democratic regime in Iraq that had the support of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. He is backed by the Mullahs ruling Iran, who want to replace the Iraqi government with a Shiite-dominated dictatorship that is within the Iranian sphere of influence.
Prior to the onset of the "surge," President Bush extracted a promise from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki that Maliki would not oppose a crackdown on al-Sadr if al-Sadr defied the U.S. pacification effort. At first, al-Sadr appeared to back down. There were reports that he had fled to Iran, and the Mahdi Army disappeared from the streets of Sadr City as the U.S. and Iraqi Armies moved in.
However, now al-Sadr has thrown down the gauntlet. The Bush Administration must not ignore this provocation. It must come down hard on al-Sadr, either arresting him or, if he resists arrest, killing him, even if it means an open armed confrontation with al-Sadr's followers. If the U.S. feels it cannot prevail in such a confrontation, or if the Maliki government does not fully back the U.S. in taking out al-Sadr, then it is indeed time to withdraw from Iraq. Al-Sadr and Iran will have prevailed.