Fighters For Shiite Messiah Clash With

Fighters for Shiite Messiah Clash with Najaf Security, 250 Dead
Over 60 Dead in Baghdad, Kirkuk Violence

Well, a big battle took place at the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Saturday night into Sunday, but there are several contradictory narratives about its significance. Iraqi authorities, claimed that the Iraqi army killed a lot of the militants (250) but only took 25 casualties itself. The Shiite governor of Najaf implied that the guerrillas were Sunni Arabs and had several foreign Sunni fundamentalist fighters (“Afghans”) among them. He said that they based themselves in an orchard recently purchased by Baathists. Other sources said that the militants were Shiites. I’d take the claim of numbers killed with a large grain of salt, though the Iraqi forces did have US close air support. I infer that the guerrillas shot down one US helicopter.

That’s one narrative. Here is another. The pan-Arab London daily al-Hayat reported that the militiamen were followers of Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi. It says one of his followers asserted that the fighting erupted when American and Iraqi troops attempted to arrest al-Hasani al-Sarkhi. The latter tried last summer to take over the shrine of al-Husayn in Karbala. It may have been feared that he would take advantage of the chaos of the Muharram pilgrimage season to make a play for power in Najaf. Al-Hayat says that although As’ad Abu Kalil, governor of Najaf, said the attackers were Sunnis, the director of the information center in Najaf, Ahmad Abdul Husayn Du’aybil, contradicted him. The latter said, “At dawn, today [Sunday], violent clashes took place between security forces and an armed militia calling itself “the Army of Heaven,” which claims that the Imam Mahdi will [soon] appear.” He added, “The goal of this militia is the killing of clergymen and the grand ayatollahs.” The group follows Ayatollah Ahmad al-Hasani al-Sarkhi, called al-Yamani, who is said by his followers to be in direct touch with the Hidden Imam or promised one. In the fighting 10 Iraqi security police were killed and 17 wounded. One official said that the death toll among the militants was not known.

Al-Hayat, however, quotes a member of the group, Abu al-Hasan, who is said to be close to al-Hasani al-Sarkhi. He said that the rumors that the group intended to conduct a campaign of assassinations inside Najaf was “devoid of truth.” It says that an attempt had been made to arrest al-Hasani al-Sarkhi, who was present in the al-Zarkah, an agricultural area east of Najaf, which caused his followers to revolt.

Al-Hasani al-Sarkhi’s followers had earlier burned down the Iranian consulates at Basra and Karbala, and demonstrated in Hilla and elsewhere.

Sawt al-Iraq in Arabic says that a number of al-Hasani al-Sarkhi’s aides were arrested early last week as part of the current crackdown in preparation for the American surge.

Then there is yet a third narrative. Al-Zaman reports in Arabic that on Saturday night into Sunday morning, a Shiite millenarian militia calling itself “The Army of Heaven” (Jund al-Sama’) attempted to move south from the Zarqa orchards just north of Najaf to assassinate the four grand ayatollahs of Najaf– Ali Sistani, Bashir Najafi, Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad and Muhammad Said al-Hakim. The holy city of Najaf, where Ali is buried, is the seat of Shiite religious authority in Iraq. The militiamen, devotees of an obscure religious leader named Ahmad Hassaani, are said to have infiltrated the area from Hillah, Kut and Amara. The well-armed, black-clad militiamen were heard to call upon the Mahdi, the awaited Promised One of the Muslims, to return on that night.

This group is not the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, which bears no enmity toward the grand ayatollahs, but rather a separate and different sect altogether. Shiite clerics told the NYT that the sect is the Mahdawiya of Ahmad al-Basri (possibly Ahmad Hassaani al-Basri?). Although the NYT was told that this millenarian sect (it believes that the end of time is around the corner) was supported by Saddam, you can’t pay any attention to that sort of allegation when it comes to Iraqi sectarianism.

It seems most likely that this was Shiite on Shiite violence, with millenarian cultists making an attempt to march on Najaf during the chaos of the ritual season of Muharram. But who knows? It is also possible that the orthodox Shiites in control of Najaf hate the heretic millenarians and the threat of the latter was exaggerated. Darned if I know. The reports of the Army of Heaven being so well armed make no sense if it was a ragtag millenarian band. But those reports could be exaggerations, too.

It seems most likely that the Mahdawiya is the sect of Sheikh Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi and that al-Basri was the founder of the sect. That would be a way of reconciling al-Zaman with al-Hayat.

The dangers of Shiite on Shiite violence in Iraq are substantial, as this episode demonstrated. Ironically, given Bush’s mantra about Iran, the trouble makers here are a sect that absolutely hates Iran.

According to Reuters, Sunday would have been a horror show in Iraq even if you hadn’t had the Najaf clashes. Three US troops were killed Sunday, and more were announced killed. Police found 29 bodies in the capital, victims of sectarian violence. Over 20 people died in bombings in the capital, including a mortar strike on a girl’s school. More deadly bombings in the northern oil city of Kirkuk.

NYT strikes me as being a little breathless about Iranian plans for investment and development aid in Iraq. These plans were negotiated by two Iraqi prime ministers, Ibrahim Jaafari and Nuri al-Maliki on trips to Iran where wreaths were laid on the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini. They were reported on at length at the time of those visits, and there is nothing new here. As for American officials, when asked about such plans in the past, they said that they hoped Iraq would have good relations with all its neighbors and understood that there would be economic relations with Iran. I can’t see what the big crisis is. By the way, the Iranians are building an airport at Najaf to bring in the Shiite pilgrims, too.

Hillar Rodham Clinton made the reasonable point that George W. Bush has a responsibility to get the US back out of Iraq and end the quagmire by January 2009, instead of bequeathing this disaster to his successor.

Unfortunately, Cheney, who really decides these things, thinks the US will be there for decades. Of course in the 1940s Winston Churchill thought Britain would be in India for decades. Dreams of empire die hard; empire, that goes away quickly.

Sabrina Tavernise of the NYT says goodbye to Iraq and to any illusions she might have had. She’s done a great job there, and has illumined the situation for us in a clear-eyed way. She also told us more about the situation of women and families than most other reporters.

You have to wonder whether Iraq can any longer be reported on in any ordinary sense of the word.