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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 August, 2004, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Analysis: Confusing times for Iraqi rulers
Matthew Price, BBC correspondent in Baghdad
By Matthew Price
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

The Iraqi interim government did not exactly have long in power before it had to face its first crisis.

It took over at the end of June. By early August, gunmen had control of the centre of Najaf, challenging the very authority of Iraq's new rulers.

Iyad Allawi, Iraqi PM
Allawi has not been able to solve the crisis
Iraq's interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi went down to Najaf, and told the gunmen to disarm.

At the country's national conference in Baghdad delegates decided to send a group south to talk to Moqtada Sadr.

Last Thursday, Mr Allawi went on television and told the cleric he was being given a final chance to disarm and join the political process.

As the rhetoric increased so too did the military pressure on Mr Sadr's men. A large number of US tanks and soldiers moved into Sadr strongholds in Najaf and Baghdad.

And then, on Friday, the government announced it was all over.

Iraqi police they said had gone into the shrine, arrested the gunmen, and handed control over to the religious authorities.

None of that - it appears now - was true.

So what on earth is going on within the government?

Appealing message

It would seem, from those who have had close contact with the prime minister's office that they are just as confused as everyone else.

I have been told that Iyad Allawi knows he is losing credibility every day this crisis continues. He said he would resolve it, and yet he has not been able to do so yet.

Radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr
Some say Moqtada Sadr is losing control of the situation
It makes him look weak.

At the same time the noises coming out of the government are of increasing uncertainty over what to do about Moqtada Sadr.

Most clerics in the country see him as a young upstart. The senior religious authorities in Iraq are angry with him.

There are rumours that even Moqtada's wife and the wife of a more senior cleric related to him have been trying to mediate and get him to step back from the brink.

But although the more senior clerics still have the respect of the vast majority of Shia Muslims in Iraq, they know they cannot compete with Moqtada Sadr when it comes to young Muslims.

His message appeals to the dispossessed, the poor, the unemployed.

Of which there are many in Iraq.

His is a radical message. And other more moderate clerics have nothing radical to offer the people.

Same old story

So what is Moqtada Sadr up to?

His original plan a year ago appeared to be that he was positioning himself as a great Islamic leader.

Sadr supporters after Friday prayers in Baghdad
Sadr's message appeals to many around the country
Now some feel he may be losing control of the situation. He may not actually know what he wants nor how he is going to get it.

That could explain why the messages from his camp are often so contradictory. Mr Sadr's men are trying to outflank the government every day. Twisting and turning to avoid defeat at the hands of a far larger military force.

It is also what the government seems to be doing. Trying to work its way through this crisis day by day, without really knowing how it is going to do it.

People I have spoken to in Iraq, albeit a handful, say they do not trust the new government.

Friday's announcement that the Najaf crisis was over simply reinforced that lack of trust.

Some say it is just like when Saddam Hussein was in power.

The former ruler was well known for spinning his lies and half-truths on television - on a daily basis.

Many Iraqis now feel they are being spun the same old lies by their new leaders.

The only difference is now they can voice their opposition to the government. And they are doing so in growing numbers.

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