Signs of a Negotiated Settlement in Najaf
But Clashes Continue at Kufa, Karbala
az-Zaman: The Coalition and Muqtada al-Sadr exchanged letters via mediators during the past thirty-six hours, which may be fateful. Signs of flexibility were apparent in Muqtada’s response to ending the crisis, assuming that the American side would accept negotiations on the basis of his spokesman, Qais al-Khazali. At the same time, the new American-appointed governor of Najaf intimated that there is a possibility that any criminal proceedings against Muqtada al-Sadr may be suspended if his militia stood down, disarmed, and left Najaf.
A statement issued by Muqtada’s office in Najaf suggested that he would end his insurgency in the Shiite south on condition that the Americans agree to direct negotiations with him, a demand that the US had rejected up until this point.
The grand ayatollahs of Najaf clearly anticipate a major blow-up if these final negotiations fail. They have sent their wives and children to stay with relatives outside Najaf, but are remaining in the city themselves. The four grand ayatollahs include Ali Sistani, Muhammad Sa’id al-Hakim, Bashir al-Najafi, and Muhammad Fayyad.
Al-Hayat says that in recent negotiations betwen Muqtada and the sons of the grand ayatollahs, they have managed to convince him that he will simply have to leave Najaf.
Tensions rose high in Najaf Tuesday because the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq staged a demonstration, about a thousand strong, in downtown Najaf demanding that the Sadrists leave town. (I saw footage of the demonstration on CNN; it was relatively small, and all the banners were those of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.) Sadr’s Mahdi Army menaced the demonstrators and fired gunshots in the air.
In the other major shrine city, Karbala, US troops clashed with Mahdi Army fighters and for the first time attacked their positions in the al-Mukhayyim Mosque, not so far from the sacred shrine of Imam Ali.
Likewise, US troops fought Sadrists at Kufa near Najaf, killing 13 and capturing 14.
The new governor of Najaf, Adnan Dhurufi, promised that the court proceedings against Muqtada with regard to the murder last year of Abdul Majid al-Khoei would be suspended if he disarmed his militiamen.
On Tuesday, American forces killed 13 Sadr supporters in Kufa. His followers in Karbala have gathered again in the al-Mukhayyim Mosqu near the shrine of Imam Husain. Saad Sufouk, the governor of Karbala, has announced that this mosque would be turned into a hospital.
Nicholas Pelham reports another startling development. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is in charge of the Najaf area now, is forming a Najaf Brigade on the model of the Fallujah Brigade. Az-Zaman says it will be some 4,000 strong, and will include tribal levies as well as members of the paramilitaries of the Shiite parties.
We appear to finally have someone in charge, in the person of Gen. Dempsey, who knows what he is doing. (Dhurufi also seems to me to be taking a wise course) Dempsey’s plan is is crucial, since most successful transitions from failed states with fractured paramilitary gangs to successful new states have involved incorporating the militias into national military structures. On the other hand, Dempsey is drawing the wrong conclusion if the thinks the lesson here is that the US should have gone after Muqtada earlier. That would have just produced the insurgency earlier. His movement did not spread that much or get that much more weaponry in the past 6 months. This movement goes back to the early 1990s!
az-Zaman is less optimistic and notes that the new Najaf Brigade could also be used to expel the Mahdi Army elements if they do not prove cooperative. The paper reveals that the old Najaf police set up by the Americans after the fall of Saddam had largely defected to the Mahdi Army when the insurgency began. This tidbit helps explain how Muqtada suddenly gained control of Najaf, where he hadn’t been strong. Presumably his missionaries had gradually recruited the police there.
A reader suggested to me that the apparent new flexibility on the part of the Coalition regarding Muqtada may have had to do with the successful attack on oil exports in the South on Sunday. That may well be. But the general threat to the south from an ongoing Sadrist insurgency must have been the framework for the decision, with the issue of oil pipeline security being only one part of that puzzle.
Likewise, the prison torture scandal must be involved in the US decision to back down. After all, what they were saying was that they wanted to put Muqtada, a scion of the Prophet and of major clerical lineages, in Abu Ghuraib. No major political leader would agree to that at this point, and Muqtada’s followers would never accept it. Likewise, the threat to “capture or kill” him no longer looks macho in the wake of investigations into over two dozen deaths of prisoners in US custody. Moreover, one of the charges against Muqtada and his aides was that they were running an informal parallel court system and were trying and imprisoning people in the basements of their party HQs. The US isn’t any longer in a strong position to criticize Muqtada’s rough justice.
Even without the Abu Ghuraib scandal and the pipeline issue, the Coalition had never really been strong enough in the South to take on Muqtada successfully. The 7500 British troops in Basra and points somewhat north are extremely exposed and thin on the ground. Basra’s population is 1.3 million! Even if only 1 percent of them would fight for Muqtada, and it is probably more, they would outnumber the entire British contingent two to one!
But, as the US military attack on Karbala’s al-Mukhayyim Mosque demonstrates, we are not out of the woods yet, and an American war with the Army of the Mahdi could still break out. It seems to me that it would certainly destabilize Iraq for some time.