Failing Schools

Failing Schools

By Christopher Chantrill

For six generations, writes the military historian Victor Davis Hanson, the government has been educating his family in his hometown in California.  But things are not going well on the hometown education front any more.

“[A]fter a haircut, I noticed that the 20-something cashier could not count out change. The next day, at the electronic outlet store, another young clerk could not read – much less explain – the basic English of the buyer’s warranty. At the food market, I listened as a young couple argued over the price of a cut of tri-tip – unable to calculate the meat’s real value from its price per pound. “

It’s not just California.  In Washington State Bruce Ramsay writes in the Seattle Times:

“At community colleges, half the students take remedial math. At the University of Washington, atmospheric-sciences professor Cliff Mass says, ‘I saw a profound drop in math skills starting in the mid-’90s.’ New-age math, he says, has created ‘a whole generation of students who can’t do fractions.’

“The official measure of math skills is the Washington Assessment of Student Learning… a new-age test…  [C]onsultant Michael Cohen, who has reviewed the WASL, says the actual math in it is seventh-grade level.”

So, in left-coast Washington State half the kids entering community college can’t do seventh-grade math. To Hanson what’s needed is some top-down authority.  “We should scrap… sermons on race, class, gender, drugs, sex, self-esteem, or environmentalism,” and encourage the rational ability to make sense of the presence from a knowledge of the “abstract wisdom of the past.” We should allow teacher credentialing from academic subjects as well as teaching credentials.  And we should end lifetime tenure.
But Rep. George Miller (D-CA) has another idea.  According to Debra J Saunders, he wants to broaden the mandatory testing of students under the federal No Child Left Behind Act to provide

“multiple measures of success. These measures can no longer reflect just basic skills and memorization, but rather critical thinking and the ability to apply knowledge to new and challenging contexts.”

You mean like in new-age math? This top-down political centralization is exactly the problem, according to David Green, Director of Britain’s conservative think-tank Civitas.

“Some services just can’t be subject to remote central direction because, by their very nature, what makes for success is local and personal.”

And that applies in particular to education.  Politicians, tenured bureaucrats and organized special interests don’t do local and personal.  And yet “we should” do something. 
Given the manifest failure of education under compulsion, it is time to think about the very nature of education and the social environment under which it can flourish. Danny Kruger, a staffer fop British Conservative Party leader David Cameron, has done so.  In On Fraternity he analyzes the three enthusiasms of modernity: Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! Liberalism reduces everything to the individual and the egoic demand “I shall.”  Socialism with its ethic of equality reduces everything to coercion and “You must.”
Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority-the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community.  It says “We should…” Our current education system is a blending of the individualist “I shall” and the socialist “You must.”  It reflects a social and political philosophy which understands only a bipolar world consisting of the individual “creative” will and centralized state coercion.  It hates the notion of authority and uses all its power to destroy the “non-coercive social persuasion” that lies at the center of conservative philosophy in Burke’s “little platoons” and Berger and Neuhaus’ “mediating structures.”  No wonder it is failing.
We conservatives know what needs to be done.  We know that the only way to solve the education crisis is to break the monopoly of government education and establish the principle of parental control and education choice. But even if school choice did not deliver better results than monopoly government education there is still the principle that a child belongs to its family before it belongs to the state.  Writes Danny Kruger:

“To the Right… the education of children is the supreme, almost exclusive responsibility of the parents who brought them into the world.  Not the state, not ‘society’ in the abstract–which is the state–but the family, is rightfully responsible for a child’s schooling. Parents should be in charge.”

And let us be clear about this.  This parental right includes the right to be wrong, even against the weight of the education experts. But a parent would have to be a real doofus to match the experts that are sitting around watching half of our high school graduates failing seventh-grade math.
Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his and His Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.

The Real Self-Esteem Crisis in Education

The Real Self-Esteem Crisis in Education

By Onkar Ghate | 8/23/2007

The beginning of the school year is an appropriate time to question how our schools propose to teach our children.

Today’s educators, observing widespread self-doubt among the young, believe that the way to get a student to learn is to inflate his self-confidence. They believe that the curriculum should be designed, in the words of a resolution from the National Education Association, to “foster positive self-esteem.”

There is indeed a lack of self-esteem among our students. The real tragedy, however, is that the educators’ irrational view of “positive self-esteem” not only prevents a solution to this problem–it is itself part of the very cause.

Too many educators believe that self-esteem can be achieved simply by encouraging a child to “feel good” about himself. They continually exhort students to praise themselves causelessly, by such means as chanting in class: “I am me and I am enough.”

The actual reality of the child’s life–the choices he makes, the thinking he engages in, the effort he exerts, the actions he takes–is disregarded. As one guidebook on self-esteem explains: “Children have the right to feel good about themselves exactly as they are. . . . A child’s value is unconditional. Nothing the child does, says or chooses can change it.”

This is absurd. Real self-esteem consists not in unearned self-praise, but in an earned conviction about yourself. It is the unshakeable knowledge that you–by your choices, effort and actions–have made yourself into the kind of person able to deal with reality. It is the conviction–based on the evidence of your own volitional functioning–that you are fundamentally able to succeed in life and, therefore, are deserving of success.

Since it is only through careful, logical thought and action that one develops the ability to cope with reality, self-esteem results from an individual’s commitment to reason. A rational, productive person will possess self-esteem; a drug-addicted bum will not.

In the view of our Dewey-inspired educators, however, logic is a “straitjacket.” Students are taught by “progressive” educators that there are no rigid principles in life, and that emotion, not reason, is one’s link to reality; the purpose of education is to teach the child to effectively express his feelings.

But a child who makes bad choices because he feels like it–who does not think but drifts in class, who shuts down his mind at the first sign of difficulty, who heads for the mall instead of exerting the effort that learning requires–will not acquire self-esteem. Constantly getting the answers wrong in class and feeling bewildered by the world outside, such a child will experience only uncertainty, helplessness and self-doubt.

How then will these educators make him “feel good” about himself? By attempting to obliterate any facts that lead him to a negative estimate of himself. More and more, they teach him that there are never any

“Social Engineering Is Dumbing Down Education”

Ignorance, Cognitive Dissonance, and al-Sadr

Ignorance, Cognitive Dissonance, and al-Sadr

By Andrew G. Bostom

Re-emerging publicly on Friday May 25, 2007  for the first time since he went underground 4-months ago, Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr journeyed in a long motorcade from Najaf to the adjacent city of Kufa where he delivered a fiery sermon before 6,000 worshippers. “No, no for Satan. No, no for America. No, no for the occupation. No, no for Israel,” he intoned-and his audience obligingly repeated-at the opening of this address. Al-Sadr then demanded that U.S. forces leave Iraq, and called upon Sunni Muslims to join his Shi’ite followers in fighting the American occupiers. “To our Iraqi Sunni brothers, I say that the occupation sows dissension among us and that strength is unity and division is weakness…I’m ready to cooperate with them in all fields.” He was also critical of the nascent Iraqi government’s inability to provide basic services.
While his major rival, Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and is undergoing treatment in Iran, it was speculated that al-Sadr, backed by Iran, may have returned to parlay this Iranian support into efforts to consolidate his own power in Iraq. Al-Sadr’s strategy hinges in part on his apparent belief that inevitably (and soon) the U.S. will reduce its troop strength, leaving behind a vacuum in Iraq’s security and political power structure that he and his followers can fill. He is also said to believe that Iraq’s current al-Maliki government may collapse in the near future because of its failure to improve security, public services, and the economy.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe’s comments on al-Sadr’s reappearance — punctuated by the cleric’s belligerent sermon — can only be characterized as bizarre and delusional. Johndroe opined — without any apparent attempt at deliberate irony —   that al-Sadr’s diatribe somehow  indicated a desire “to play a positive role inside Iraq.”  Added Johndroe,  “He [al-Sadr] has an opportunity to be a part of the political reconciliation process. We’ll see if he and his followers participate.”
Fifty years ago (1957), social psychologist Leon Festinger published his seminal analysis, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, in which he observed

[P]ersons are not always successful in explaining away or in rationalizing inconsistencies to themselves. For one reason or another, attempts to achieve consistency may fail. The inconsistency then simply continues to exist. Under such circumstances-that is, in the presence of an inconsistency-there is psychological discomfort…The existence of dissonance [inconsistency], being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance [consistency]. When the dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance…Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads to activity oriented toward hunger reduction.

Johndroe’s views on Sadr’s re-emergence epitomize such cognitive dissonance, exacerbated by our policymaking elites’ ongoing, inexcusable ignorance of regional Islamic history and culture, most notably the well-documented role of the very same Sadr lineage in Iraq’s religio-politics. For example, Mr. Johndroe and equally uninformed policymakers across the political spectrum should read (certainly now, albeit so belatedly) Gertrude Bell’s letters written from Baghdad (especially those composed between 1920 and 1926), which were originally published in a compilation, The Letters of Gertrude Bell (2 volumes, New York, 1927), and are now available to all, online.
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was an archaeologist and explorer, who traveled extensively in the Middle East, and subsequently became a British intelligence officer and diplomat in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Due to her unparalleled knowledge of the region, Bell was made part of the delegation to the Paris Conference of 1919, and worked subsequently with British officials attempting to create the modern state of Iraq from three disparate ethnic and religious vilayets (i.e., Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra) of the collapsed Ottoman Empire. In the last years of her life, Gertrude Bell created, and was the first Director of the Baghdad Archaeological Museum; she died in 1926, and may have committed suicide.
Bell’s overall narrative sounds disquietingly familiar as the cast of characters — from 1920, versus the present — seems quite literally frozen in time despite the passage of almost 90 years. She describes the Shia religious elites [circa March 14, 1920]  led by the very same Sadr family, as,

…the grimly devout citizens of the holy towns and more especially the leaders of religious opinion, the Mujtahids, who can loose and bind with a word by authority which rests on an intimate acquaintance with accumulated knowledge entirely irrelevant to human affairs and worthless in any branch of human activity. There they sit in an atmosphere which reeks of antiquity and is so thick with the dust of ages that you can’t see through it — nor can they. And for the most part they are very hostile to us, a feeling we can’t alter…. There’s a group of these worthies in Kadhimain, the holy city, 8 miles from Baghdad, bitterly pan-Islamic, anti-British…Chief among them are a family called Sadr, possibly more distinguished for religious learning than any other family in the whole Shiah world….

Despite Bell’s own utopian dreams for Iraq, what historian Elie Kedourie aptly termed her “…fond foolishness…thinking to stand godmother to a new Abbasid Empire…”,  at least she — unlike our contemporary U.S. policymaking elites — possessed a very clear understanding of events unfolding before her. Regarding their predilection for unadorned nose-counting democracy, Bell observed [November 1, 1920] that led by Saiyid Hasan al Sadr, the Shia rejected establishing true democratic institutions, maintaining,

…only that they wanted a government elected by the people and that nothing else was of any use…They offered no [further] suggestions and remained obdurately hostile.

When 8-months later [July 20, 1921] Shi’ite wishes went unfulfilled, Bell documented the predictable leading role played by Saiyid Hasan al Sadr’s son Saiyid Muhummad (described  as “a tall black bearded ‘alim with a sinister expression”) in fomenting sanguinary unrest throughout Iraq:

…he [Saiyid Muhummad] leapt into an evil prominence as the chief agitator in the disturbances. In those insane days he was treated like a divinity. Shi’ahs kissed the robe of men who had touched his hand. We tried to arrest him early in August and failed. He escaped from Baghdad and moved about the country like a flame of war, rousing the tribes. It was he who called up the Diyalah [Diyala (Sirwan)] tribesmen and caused all those tragedies of which Mrs. Buchanan’s story * is one. His next achievement was on the upper Tigris. In obedience to his preaching the tribes attacked Samarra but were beaten off. He then moved down to Karbala and was the soul of the insurgence on the middle Euphrates. Finally, when the game was up, he fled with other saiyids and tribal shaikhs across the desert to Mecca [Makkah] and came back, under the amnesty, with Faisal [later installed by the British as Iraq’s monarch]…. You never know what Shi’ahs are up to.

Recently, John Bolton, former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and Security, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., made these candid observations  about the fecklessness of policy decisions in Iraq:

If we had said shortly after that statue (of Saddam) came down in Baghdad, “Here are the keys to the Green Zone, Iraqis – you have our best wishes and whatever support we can give as we are packing up and leaving, or at least moving out of Baghdad,” then I think public opinion in our country might be different…Having overthrown Saddam, we had an obligation – it was a short-term obligation – to provide security until some kind of government of Iraqis could have gotten back up, for us to hold the reins for a short time for them to start forming a government.

But the notion that America had to occupy Iraq or guarantee the country’s security for a protracted time, or indeed indefinitely: I just think that’s a mistake

In essence U.S. policymakers have repeated the misplaced utopian efforts of Gertrude Bell and her British colleagues, compounding this error — as illustrated in Mr. Johndroe’s distressingly ignorant and delusional statements — by being utterly devoid of Bell’s understanding of the irredentist Iraqi culture.
Leon Festinger and his associates (in Festinger et al. When Prophecy Fails 1956) chronicled  the story of a Chicago housewife, Mrs. Marion Keech, who had mysteriously received messages in her house as “automatic writings” from alien beings on the planet Clarion, which revealed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21. Reflecting the degree of commitment to this fanciful notion, the group of believers, headed by Mrs. Keech, had taken concrete behavioral steps — they had left jobs, college, and spouses, and had given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on the flying saucer, which was to rescue the group of true believers. However by 4:00 A.M. on the appointed day — Festinger and his researchers who infiltrated and studied Mrs. Keech’s group — observed  that she and her followers were sitting in stunned silence. When a few attempts at finding explanations failed, Mrs. Keech began to cry. However by 4:45 A.M. another mysterious message by automatic writing was sent to Mrs. Keech. It stated, in effect, that the God of Earth had decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm had been called off: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”
The brutal complexities of Iraq demand strategies informed by a serious, intellectually honest understanding of the local jihadist culture-both Shi’ite and Sunni-and an end to the ongoing cognitive dissonance of our policymaking elites “interpreting” daily events, if we are to avoid a real cataclysm.
* From additional letters by Bell, we learn about Buchanan’s plight: [Sep 13, 1920]  I saw this morning Mrs Buchanan, the woman whose husband was killed 3 weeks ago in Shahraban [Miqdadiyah]. The whole of the tale I sent you about that business was quite untrue. The affair was over in a couple of hours and the Levies melted away when the tribes attacked. Mrs Buchanan saw her husband killed and was then taken to the house of the mayor where she was kindly treated according to their lights. She can scarcely speak a word of Arabic and has been through the most terrible experience. She has a child in England – and I fancy not a sixpence to live on. …[October 10, 1920] She is very pretty and attractive and helpless, about 25 with a baby at home. As far as I can make out they neither of them had anything in the world and as they “invested” all their savings in jewels for her which were all stolen she hasn’t a penny. She is suffering a good deal from nervous shock, and no wonder…
Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism.

Al-Sadr to Supporters: ‘Unify Your Efforts Against’ US Forces

Al-Sadr to Supporters: ‘Unify Your Efforts Against’ US Forces

In a statement distributed Sunday, 8 April, Muqtada al-Sadr appealed for an end to Iraqi infighting, directing supporters to instead “unify” against “the enemy.”  He also warned state security forces not to “follow the occupier.”  The remarks were released a day before rallies called by Al-Sadr in the holy city of Al-Najar to mark the fourth anniversary of the US-led invasion.  The full text of the statement follows.

In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate:

God’s peace, mercy, and blessings be on the people of peace.

God says: “And obey Allah and His Messenger and fall into no disputes, lest ye lose heart and your power depart; and be patient and persevering: For Allah is with those who patiently persevere.” [Koranic verse]

Should I offer my condolences to my country for a plight inflicted on it or for a treacherous occupation that has violated its sanctity? Or, should I offer my condolences to you, my country, over the sedition that it is sweeping you, weep for the blood spilled, or should I seek your help or seek help for you due to the booby-trapped cars that are disrupting your tranquility and security? What should I do?

How beautiful an abode and place of rest you are, my country!

You have been and continue to be the cradle of heavenly lights having received God’s pious holy men, prophets, and messengers.

In your dwelling place, scholars, holy men, and the mujahidin have displayed innovation. So, should I congratulate you for this innovation, or offer my condolences to you over what is happening in this blessed land?

The armies of darkness represented by the occupation spearheaded by America, the overarching evil, have started sowing sedition among the people of the one country directly or through its agents and lowly followers who sold their religion, land, and people. Regretfully, the malevolent fruit of their strange and loathsome actins have transpired. God says:” And the parable of an evil Word is that of an evil tree: It is torn up by the root from the surface of the earth: it has no stability.  Allah will establish in strength those who believe, with the word that stands firm, in this world and in the Hereafter; but Allah will leave, to stray, those who do wrong: Allah doeth what He willeth. Hast thou not turned thy vision to those who have changed the favour of Allah. Into blasphemy and caused their people to descend to the House of Perdition?- Into Hell? They will burn therein- an evil place to stay in!” [Koranic verse]

Now we see what is happening in our beloved governorate, Al-Diwaniyah, in terms of sedition which the occupier has planned to have brothers engage in fighting and killing.

My brothers in Al-Mahdi Army and in the security services, stop fighting. By fighting, you would be making successful the schemes of our enemy, your enemy, and the enemy of God, his Prophet and kinfolk, God’s peace be upon them.   Our Iraq can no longer tolerate spilling such pious blood on this virtuous land.

Iraq’s army and police: Do not follow the occupier for he is an avowed enemy and I am a sincere adviser.

An honorable resistance man does not hope from God other than one of two glorious things- Martyrdom or victory. But at the same time, a resistance man cannot at all kill an Iraqi for the blood of Iraqis is a red line. This is not only my opinion but also the command of God as He said:” Take not life, which Allah hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law: thus doth He command you, that ye may learn wisdom.” [Part of a Koranic verse]

Infighting among brothers is not right at all nor is following the dirty US sedition. Defending the occupier by some people is not right. Thus, fear God and stand out firmly for justice.

O grass roots of Imam [Al-Mahdi], builders of Iraq, followers of the two Al-Sadr martyrs: You will not be reproached for God has prescribed for you patience in front of the enemy and commanded you to unify your efforts against it but not against the sons of Iraq. They want to drag you into a war to end Shiism or in fact Islam as a whole but we will never submit. You build Iraq, unify its people, defend its land, seek its independence, suppress wrongdoing, follow righteousness, seek martyrdom for the sake of righteousness, and want the occupier to leave Iraq. In order to end the occupation, you shall stage a demonstration.  Do not let them distract you from it or close roads in front of you as our goal is to please God and not incur His wrath. If you love the family members of Al-Sadr and follow your leaders, then listen and obey me, my God have mercy upon you. I have never asked for killing Iraqis but asked for doing things that bring them dignity, honor, independence, sovereignty, and guidance. For as long as I live, I will seek to spare the blood of Iraqis.  Will you do so? I only came out as a liberator asking for promoting virtue and suppressing vice. You have been the best helpers after God. How difficult the liberation would be without Imam Al-Mahdi Army. Hence, be unified and brothers, and renounce division, will you?

Sadr Urges Followers to Resist U.S. Forces; Thousands Rally

Sadr Urges Followers to Resist U.S. Forces; Thousands Rally

Sadr lashes out at the U.S., and while he’s at it, Israel. Oh, and Satan. By Karin Bruillard and Sudarsan Raghavan for the Washington Post:

BAGHDAD, March 16 — Firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Friday called upon followers inside his stronghold of Sadr City to resist U.S. forces who are trying to stabilize the capital. Officials in his organization said the cleric was advocating a peaceful uprising.

“Raise your voices, all of you loving your brothers and united against your enemy saying as your leader taught you, ‘No America, no Israel, no, no Satan,’ by standing and demonstrating that way,” Sadr said in a message distributed at the Kufa mosque in southern Iraq, according to a translation by the Washington-based SITE Institute, which tracks militant groups. In recent weeks, Sadr has appeared to cooperate with U.S. and Iraqi troops as they implement a month-old security plan in Baghdad and other parts of the country, even as he has continued to criticize the American presence in Iraq.

On Friday, thousands of Sadr’s followers demonstrated in several parts of Iraq, including Sadr City, to protest the U.S. role. They denounced the neighborhood security outposts and garrisons being set up under the plan and demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Sadr’s statement came one day after gunmen attacked a convoy carrying the mayor of Sadr City, Rahim al-Darraji, leaving him seriously wounded and killing at least two of his bodyguards. Darraji, a Sadr appointee, took part in negotiations with U.S. officials to allow American troops to conduct security sweeps and build a garrison in Sadr City.

It was unclear whether Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia has often attacked U.S. and Iraqi forces, was issuing a call to arms. “The statement calls for calming down and self-control and to be careful and cautious of the occupation forces and their agents, because we have become surrounded by them from all sides,” said Haider al-Tarfy, a senior Sadr representative. Friday’s communique was not Sadr’s first condemnation of the American presence.

Last week, Sadr asked his supporters to “demand the occupier leaves our dear Iraq so that we could live in independence and stability.” In late February, he said, “The security plan will not be good if it is controlled and ruled by our enemies, the occupiers.” Those statements did not incite violence.

As U.S. troops have carried out raids in Sadr City as part of the security plan, the Mahdi Army has lain low. Friday’s statement appeared to address recent public comments by U.S. military officials suggesting that the militia’s low profile represented tacit cooperation with the security plan.

Kill Sadr

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Kill Sadr

Investors Business Daily and Ralph Peters both nailed it today—absolutely nailed it:

Time to get that fat boy Muqtada al-Sadr.

IBD editorial: …Sadr now has more than 5,000 men under arms, according to U.S. intelligence estimates. And as it turns out, Sadr is a major client of Iran’s extremist mullahs. He’ll keep sending young Iraqi Shiites to their death on behalf of a foreign power — particularly if it means destroying any chance Iraq has of being a stable democracy…

Peters in the New York Post:

The first thing we need to do is to kill Muqtada al-Sadr, who’s now a greater threat to our strategic goals than Osama bin Laden.

We should’ve killed him in 2003, when he first embarked upon his murder campaign. But our leaders were afraid of provoking riots.

… Our policy of all-carrots-no-sticks has failed miserably. We delivered Iraq to zealots, gangsters and terrorists. Now our only hope is to prove that we mean business – that the era of peace, love and wasting American lives is over.

And after we’ve killed Muqtada and destroyed his Mahdi Army, we need to go after the Sunni insurgents. If we can’t leave a democracy behind, we should at least leave the corpses of our enemies.

The holier-than-thou response to this proposal is predictable: “We can’t kill our way out of this situation!” Well, boo-hoo. Friendly persuasion and billions of dollars haven’t done the job. Give therapeutic violence a chance….

Count me in my friend Ralph Peters’ camp.

We need to send that murderous, anti-American jerk to jail—or, better yet, send him a one-way ticket to his 72 virgins in Never-Never land.

How is it possible that this miscreant, who has been nothing but trouble, who has been working around the clock to sow seeds of murder, mayhem and unrest, fomenting war against Sunnis, etc, etc, is still on the lam?

This is a major flaw in the operation. I just don’t get it.

Sadr militia takes over Iraqi city of 750,000

Sadr militia takes over Iraqi city of 750,000

“Mahdi Army militiamen have long enjoyed a free rein in Amarah,” the article notes. Sadr’s militia is just making its control official, with little or no expectation of a meaningful response from Nouri al-Maliki’s government. “Shiite militia takes over Iraqi city,” from AP:

BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Shiite militia run by the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr seized control of a southern Iraqi city on Friday in one of the boldest acts of defiance yet by the country’s powerful, unofficial armies, witnesses and police said.

Mahdi Army fighters stormed three main police stations Friday morning, residents said, planting explosives that flattened the buildings in Amarah, a city just 30 miles from the Iranian border that was under British command until August, when it was returned to Iraqi government control.

About 800 black-clad militiamen with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were patrolling in commandeered police vehicles, witnesses said. Other fighters set up roadblocks on routes into the city and sound trucks circulated telling residents to stay indoors.

The militiamen later withdrew from their positions and lifted their siege of police headquarters under a temporary truce negotiated with an al-Sadr envoy. It was not clear on Friday afternoon whether security forces had reasserted control over the city or whether the cleric knew about his militia’s planned takeover in advance.

The Iraqi army dispatched two companies to Amarah from Basra, the south’s largest city. Mohammad al-Alaskari, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said “the situation is still tense.”

The events in Amarah — involving a dispute between the Mahdi Army and local security forces believed controlled by the rival Badr Brigade militia — highlight the threat of wider violence between rival Shiite factions, who have entrenched themselves among the majority Shiite population and are blamed for killings of rival Sunnis.

Badr, of course, was the site of the first major battle fought by Muslims, led by Muhammad: an attack on a Quraish caravan returning from Syria.

Al-Sadr’s envoy, whose identity remains unknown, was due to meet with the provincial governor, the local Mahdi Army commander and al-Sadr’s representative in Amarah, a city of 750,000.

Shiite militia violence, mainly against the country’s Sunni minority, has ravaged Iraq since February when a Shiite holy place in Samara was blown up. The violence has been on the increase, but this is the first recent fighting that has pitted Shiites against one another on such a scale.

Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, a former Shiite activist, won the top government post last spring thanks in part to the support of al-Sadr, who controls 30 of the 275 seats in the national parliament and five Cabinet posts.

In a sign of al-Sadr’s influence, al-Maliki this week ordered the release of one of the young cleric’s top lieutenants, Sheik Mazen al-Sa’edi, who was arrested by U.S. troops in Baghdad for alleged links to sectarian death squads. He visited al-Sadr in the holy city of Najaf Wednesday, the day al-Sa’edi was freed.

Mahdi Army militiamen have long enjoyed a free rein in Amarah, the provincial capital of the southern province of Maysan. Militiamen in Amarah often summon local government officials for meetings at their offices. They roam the city with their weapons, manipulate the local police and set up checkpoints at will.

Since British troops left Amarah in August, residents say the militia has been involved in a series of killings, including slayings of merchants suspected of selling alcohol and women alleged to have engaged in behavior deemed immoral by militiamen.


Fighting broke out Thursday after Qassim al-Tamimi, the provincial head of police intelligence and a leading member of the rival Shiite Badr Brigade militia, was killed by a roadside bomb. In retaliation, his family kidnapped the teenage brother of the Mahdi Army commander in Amarah, Sheik Fadel al-Bahadli, to demand the hand-over of al-Tamimi’s killers.