*US troops have entered the southern reaches of the Shiite holy city of Najaf and are receiving a relatively warm reception from the 560,000 largely Shiite locals. They have been engaged in a fierce battle with Republican Guards for the city, which is on a key strategic route linking the south of Iraq with Baghdad. It is revered by approximately 100 million Shiites throughout the world, including neighboring Iran, as the site of the golden-domed tomb of Imam `Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, who for Shiites is the St. Peter of Islam–the successor to the Prophet. (See my article at the History News Network, below or by googling it). Rick Atkinson of the Washington Post reported that Col. Ben Hodges said, ‘ “We’ve hit them very hard the last two days, wherever they’re firing at us, from homes, from schools. But the one place I’ve absolutely told them they cannot fire is into the mosque” at the Ali tomb, Hodges said. “I believe they were shocked that we would shoot that close and hit that hard. But look, the gold dome is still standing.” ‘ Give than man a medal. If the tomb had been hit, it had the potential for stirring up enormous anti-American feeling in Iran, Lebanon, Bahrain, etc. Scheherezade Faramarzi reported such concerns in Iran for AP. Her interviewees there thought that there would be enormous anger in Iran, especially in traditionalist places like Qom and Mashhad (the latter has its own shrine), if Ali’s tomb were damaged.
US officers said they thought Najaf was now “contained.” That locals would be glad to see the Americans is plausible. Najaf rose up against Saddam in spring of 1991 and threw off Baath rule briefly. But then the Baathists came in with tanks and helicopter gunships and put them down brutally. My Iraqi Shiite friends speak of 40,000 dead in Najaf alone, nearly 10% of the population, and although that may be an exaggeration, the number killed was in any case monstrous. Likewise, about 100 Shiite clergymen were killed or made to disappear. The Grand Ayatollah in Najaf, Ali Sistani, was subject to an assassination attempt by the Baath in 1996 and since then has been cautious. He was forced to issue a fatwa last September forbidding cooperation with the Americans, but everyone thinks it was coerced. US officers say the Najaf clergymen are still on the fence. If they come over to the US, that will be a very important cultural and political victory.
*A major push on the other Shiite shrine city, Karbala, has now begun. Damaging its shrines or causing substantial casualties among its civilian population would hold the same dangers for the US as had Najaf. In other news, the British say they have taken the western third of Basra, Iraq’s second largest city.
*AP says about 100 Iraqis from a tribal background are now fighting alongside the Anglo-American forces. That’s a development the US should seek to expand. The problem with the war so far is that it isn’t creating *Iraqi* heroes, outside Kurdistan. But such heroes, forged in the war against the Baath, would potentially be very important in running the country after the war.
*Asharq al-Awsat says 50,000 marched against the war in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, and that some were demanding that the door be opened to holy war against the United States. The scary thing is that the biggest recent anti-war demonstration, on Sunday, was in Jakarta, Indonesia. Egyptians don’t have a democracy and are stuck with the quasi-military Mubarak government. But if unrest continues to brew over this issue in Indonesia, an anti-American government could come to power in Indonesia eventually, and Islamists could become powerful. They aren’t, now, and Indonesia’s experiment in open society has certainly been damaged by the US war in Iraq. People like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz think they can have their cake [war in Iraq, support for Sharon in Israel] and eat it too [spread of liberalism and democracy in the Muslim world]. But it is possible that these two goals are incompatible with one another. Isaiah Berlin warned us about incompatible ideals. The chickenhawks in Washington are imbued with a utopianism (at least in their rhetoric) of which he would have disapproved.