Najaf: Muqtada, Myers, and Zapatero
A spokesman for Muqtada al-Sadr, Qais al-Khaz’ali, said Sunday that his forces would extend their truce with the Coalition for two further days, Monday and Tuesday, in honor of the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Muhammad. He also said that the Army of the Mahdi was gradually withdrawing from a military role in Najaf itself. But his said that were the Americans to launch an attack, it would be ready to defend the city.
He also called for the immediate dispatch to Iraq of United Nations forces to replace US ones. Although the Sadrists are just grandstanding, the convergence of the views of radical Shiite Iraqis with those of the US Democratic Party is remarkable.
Gen. Richard Myers, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview on CNN Sunday that he did not anticipate an attack on Najaf, and that it was unnecessary, since Muqtada no longer posed a military threat and his militia did not control a single city. (Well, maybe Kufa and parts of Najaf, but who is counting?) I can’t say how relieved I am to hear Gen. Myers talking sense like this intead of that ‘Muqtada wanted dead or alive’ rhetoric that was coming from CENTCOM.
But, I am not sure the crisis has entirely passed. What will happen on Wednesday? Will the US eventually insist on capturing or killing Muqtada (could they really just let him go back to preaching at his mosque after he launched a major insurgency against them)? Might not that tip the South into long-term instability? When will Grand Ayatollah Sistani take a stand? Stay tuned.
And, by the way, the uncertainty of this Najaf situation almost certainly goes a long way toward explaining why Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero suddenly announced the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. He had earlier suggested they would be withdrawn July 1 if there were not a new UN resolution authorizing the military occupation of Iraq by then, and substantial UN military involvement in the Coalition. But he has now declined to wait to see if any of those developments will take place. ‘ The officials said the new government made its announcement on its first day to avoid being drawn into a debate and to avoid possible complications in the field. They did not want any future event, like taking of hostages or the deaths of any soldiers, to be used to misinterpret Spain’s motives.
It should be remembered that the Spanish troops aren’t just anywhere in Iraq. They are around Najaf. And Najaf at the moment has a Coalition bull’s eye painted on it in all the satellite photos. This could be the epicenter of a vast earthquake if fighting should escalate between the Coalition and the Army of the Mahdi, because of the city’s central religious importance. Zapatero knows all this and will have been getting briefings from Spanish officers in the field who know they are perched on the lip of an active volcano.
Thus, the key element in the Spanish withdrawal is no longer the longstanding public opposition to the force in Iraq or the (overly hyped as a motive) Madrid bombings. Zapatero might have kept the troops in Iraq nevertheless, since it does seem that Bush is being forced by circumstances to go back to the UN Security Council. The key issue now is Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite movement, and whether Spanish troops would stick around to help put it down, and risk getting mired in a colonial anti-insurgency effort. The answer: No.
A problem for the US: A lot of other countries may well decide to follow suit. Most “Coalition partners” signed up for peacekeeping or reconstruction, not to fight against guerrillas (there is a difference between peacekeeping and peace-enforcing). The US could well lose half a division this way, and it doesn’t have half a division to spare.
If the US were to provoke a struggle with the Shiites, the British in Basra might well leave, as well, rather than risk being overwhelmed. In the midst of such a Shiite revolt, with British commanders frantically signalling they didn’t have the manpower to handle it in the South, if Tony Blair wouldn’t finally come to grips with reality, he might well be unceremoniously dumped by his own party, the way Maggie Thatcher was. That is, the Spanish model, of a Bush/Cheney induced move to the left might not stop, among US allies, with Madrid.
Which also doesn’t make it very likely that Muqtada will get his blue helmets in Najaf.