*With news of the advance of the US Third Army to the edges of Baghdad and the fall of the airport, it is easy to forget how much of Iraq the Anglo-British forces do not control. The British have just crossed the Shatt al-Basra waterway and have established a beachhead in southern Basra proper for the first time, about 4 miles from the city center. They still face shelling and sniping from about 1,000 Iraqi Republican Guardsmen and Fedayee Saddam irregulars. Their gradual inching forward into the city has been cited as a possible model for the US advance on Baghdad. It is hard to find out what exactly is going on in Hindiya, Karbala, Hillah or Kut, but one has the sense that as they advanced to Baghdad the American forces had to leave substantial smaller forces in its rear to contain (but not necessarily to take) southern Shiite cities. The Iraqi strategy of trying to pin down most invading troops in this way has failed, since substantial forces were nevertheless free to advance on the capital. But it is being said that Gen. Tommy Franks now has a choice to make between pushing forward with a relatively week front line or waiting for reinforcements.
*Asharq al-Awsat says that Hujjat al-Islam Abd al-Majid al-Khu’i, a prominent Shiite clergyman long resident in London at the Khu’i Foundation, has shown up in Najaf, provoking concern among hardliners in Iran. They felt that his appearance in the city was a sign of American backing, since he is known as a moderate. In contrast, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is stuck in Tehran and has not been able to have his Badr Brigade play a role in the liberation of the country. Al-Hakim is close to conservative/radical Ayatolloh Ali Khamenei, the supreme jurisprudent in Iran. Al-Khu’i was booed when he spoke in Iran last winter and said that one realistically had to deal with the Americans. Another report said that after so many years of house arrest, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf seemed dazed and unable yet to take on the responsibilities of his office, although he was being besieged by local Shiites for advice. The disputed fatwa of Sistani asking Shiites not to interfere with the US troops was confirmed by the Khu’i Foundation . . .
*Last fall Iranian president Khatami presented a bill to parliament that would allow for free parliamentary elections, abolishing the process whereby candidates are screened out by clerical hardliners for not being sufficiently “Islamic.” The parliament passed the bill into law, but now it is being challenged, predictably enough, by the clerical hardliners. They are afraid it will let ‘counter-revolutionary’ elements into parliament. So far, every time the reformers have tried to open up the system, the hardliners have closed it back down. But the hardliners had better start being careful . . . Bush administration hawks have them in their sights. They are already beating war drums, claiming Iran is planning to send paramilitary squads into Iraq to kill US soldiers, and that it is actively pursuing nuclear weapons. I agree that the hardline ayatollahs should be gotten rid of, but I think it would be better if the Iranians themselves accomplished this. If it comes from the outside, it will lack legitimacy. Anyone remember the shah? Meanwhile Khatami has warned that the Iraq war will contribute to more terrorism.