[A-List] Showdown in Najaf: US Logic Hard to Follow
shimogamo at attglobal.net
Sat Aug 21 20:13:47 MDT 2004
by Gwynne Dyer, Toronto Star (August 17 2004)
The claims and counter-claims make it hard to discern the strategies
behind the showdown in Najaf, and the language that is used blurs the
situation even more. US military spokesmen, for example, always call
the young men who are defending rebel Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr
"anti-Iraqi forces", although not one in a hundred of them has ever
been outside Iraq.
But you can guess why US authorities in Iraq chose this moment to try to
eliminate Sadr and his al-Mahdi militia.
From the start, the biggest obstacle to the creation of a compliant,
pro-American regime in Iraq has been the fact that the Shias, who make
up about sixty per cent of Iraq's population, could elect a majority
government that could, and probably would, defy US wishes if they voted
as a bloc. Moreover, senior Shia clerics command great respect in the
community, making it much likelier that the Shia would indeed vote en
bloc. So, elections were too risky.
Retired general Jay Garner, the original choice as US pro-consul in Iraq,
was dismissed after a month because he called for early elections in
Iraq: "The night after I got to Baghdad, (Defense Secretary Donald)
Rumsfeld called me and told me he was appointing Paul Bremer as the
presidential envoy. The announcement ... was somewhat abrupt".
Rumsfeld was worried that an elected Iraqi government would resist mass
privatization of the economy, but he was equally worried that such a
government would be Shia-dominated, and insist on an Islamic state.
The problem was compounded by the fact that Washington's favorite
ayatollah, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, was killed the day after Baghdad fell.
Khoei had become a personal friend of British Prime Minister Tony Blair
during his long exile in London, and had strong US backing. But a mob
hacked him to death in the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf on April 10 2003,
the day after he arrived, leaving the field open to less pro-American
One was Iraq's current senior ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, an Iranian-born
scholar who issued a fatwa early in last year's US invasion calling on
all Muslims to fight the invading infidel forces. His principal rival
for the loyalty of Iraqi Shias was Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim,
an Iraqi-born cleric who had spent more than twenty years in exile in
Iran after backing that country's Islamic regime against Iraq in the
Hakim was willing to co-operate with the US occupiers in the hope that
an election would ultimately give the Shias power, but he was killed by
a huge car bomb outside the Imam Ali shrine on August 29 2003. That left
only the recalcitrant Sistani - and the young firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr.
At thirty, Sadr is less than half the age of his rival and he lacks a
rigorous education in Islamic law, but he is the son of a revered former
grand ayatollah who was murdered by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1999 and
he has a strong following among the urban poor.
Last March, Bremer made a deal with Sistani. The ayatollah guaranteed
that the Shiites would remain quiet this year (until George W Bush's
re-election bid in the US is safely past, in other words), in return for
free elections in Iraq early next year.
And then, seeking to insure against the risk that Sadr would try to
spoil the deal, Bremer did something very foolish: He attacked Sadr
In early April, the US occupation authorities closed down Sadr's
newspaper, a 10,000-circulation weekly that stridently condemned the
occupation but had little influence, and issued an arrest warrant
charging Sadr with Khoei's murder.
Sadr took his militia to the sacred city of Najaf and defied the
Americans to come and get him. Impoverished young Shiites rose in revolt
in east Baghdad and the cities of the south, and hundreds died before
the US command negotiated a truce. By then, al-Sadr was famous across
Iraq and the whole Muslim world.
US troops could have fought their way into Najaf, violated the Imam Ali
mosque and killed Sadr if they were willing to pay the price, and the
price in American lives would not even be great: American firepower,
equipment and training mean that a hundred young Shia men die in the
fighting for every American who is killed.
But the political price would have been huge, so the US forces were
called off in May. Why are they attacking again now? Whatever the truth
about the incident that restarted the fighting, it's clearly an American
choice to go for broke against Sadr.
US forces were under no compulsion to escalate as they have done, and
the newly appointed Iraqi "transitional government" could not have
forced them to.
The likely answer is that the sudden removal of Sistani from the scene -
he flew to London for heart treatment two weeks ago - has made Sadr too
powerful, and too dangerous, to the "transitional government", to be
There are to be no witnesses this time: The few journalists in Najaf
have been ordered to leave on pain of arrest.
But if this ends in a last stand and a massacre of the al-Mahdi militia
in the most sacred site in the Shia world, possibly doing serious damage
to the Imam Ali mosque itself, the long-term cost to the United States
will far outweigh any possible gains.
The logic of the strategy is still very hard to follow.
Gwynne Dyer is a veteran Canadian journalist based in London whose articles are published in 45 countries.
Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.
"Those they can't co-opt, they destroy"
by Kamil Mahdi, The Guardian (August 14 2004)
posted here by Stan Goff on August 14th
"Iraq: US Keeps Winning Battles, Losing Wars"
by Jim Lobe, Inter Press Service (August 13 2004)
"Into the Valley: The Occupation Faces a Major Challenge in Najaf"
by Daniel Smith, Foreign Policy In Focus (August 19 2004)
"Despite Superior Firepower, US Loses Ground to al-Sadr's Militia"
by Tom Lasseter, Knight-Ridder (August 18 2004)
Bill Totten http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/
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