Muqtada Asks Militiamen to Leave Najaf
Creates Party for January Elections
Az-Zaman: Muqtada al-Sadr asked his supporters who had headed to Najaf to fight the Americans to now leave the city and return to their own cities only hours after US President George W. Bush announced that the United States does not oppose a political role for al-Sadr.
Meanwhile, Liz Sly of the Chicago Tribune reports from Iraq that Muqtada is pressing ahead with plans to turn his faction of the Sadrist movement into a political party to contest the January elections. Informed Iraqi observers believe that the party could do very well, especially now that the Americans have turned Muqtada into a symbol of national resistance to Western colonial control. Sly writes:
‘ Many Iraqi observers blame the U.S. administration’s mishandling of al-Sadr for his surge in popularity. The U.S. initially underestimated the appeal of al-Sadr’s radicalism to the impoverished Shiite masses and then enhanced it by turning him into an outlaw, said Saadoun Dulame, whose institute conducted one of the polls. “America created Muqtada Sadr with its mistakes and missteps,” he said. “If elections are held tomorrow, Muqtada would win.” ‘
Muqtada’s order to his militiamen is considered a powerful indication that the crisis between the Americans and him is coming to an end, with the US dropping demands that Muqtada present himself for trial on charges of complicity in the murder on April 10, 2003, of Shiite clergyman Abdul Majid al-Khoei. Some 745 members of the Civil Defense Force who had entered Najaf on Wednesday took up positions around the governor’s mansion and other strategic points in the city to prevent outbreaks of civil turmoil, according to a spokesman for Iraqi government security.
A communique issued by the office of al-Sadr in Najaf was addressed to “Every individual in the Army of the Mahdi, and the faithful who sacrificed so dearly and preciously, and did not fall short before their Lord or before their society.” It asked that the militiamen “return to their provinces to undertake their responsibilities, and that which pleases God, his Prophet, and the Family of his House.”
Muqtada had undertaken, in a letter dated 27 May, to have his militiamen leave the holy city of Najaf, a promise that led to the truce between him and the US forces (one that often did not hold initially, but which is being solidified with patience and cool heads.)
The office of Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, a moderate cleric close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, had issued a statement that an agreement had been reached with the Sadrists on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning that would allow the police back into the city. Bahr al-Ulum’s spokesman, Ali al-Ghurayfi, said that the police would not only be allowed to return, but would have full authority, including the right to arrest anyone who commits a crime. (I.e. the Sadrists will not be able to use gang tactics and thuggery to prevent their own arrest in future if they commit a crime). He said that the “Shiite Establishment” (Bayt al-Shi`ah), which includes clerics, notables and tribal leaders around Najaf, had engaged in the successful negotiations.
What to make of all this? Muqtada has not really lost anything as compared to the situation before last April 3, when the American suddenly came after him. He did not control Najaf at that time, or the holy city of Karbala, either. His militia was strongest in the slums of East Baghdad. This is still true. The Americans killed perhaps 1500 of his best fighters, and captured or destroyed a lot of ordnance. But Muqtada has thousands of cadres, and they can be rearmed fairly easily (most have not really been disarmed). In the meantime, Muqtada was able to draw to himself the allegiance of a lot of Shiites, including armed fighters, who had not shown any loyalty to him before. I can only imagine that the militiamen in Kut and Amarah who fought for him included a lot of Marsh Arabs, most of whom had not been Sadrists in the past (they had their own Hizbullah organization). And his national standing has vastly improved, as even the Americans admit.
The Americans began with the Spanish in Najaf, and asked the Spanish to kill or capture Muqtada. The Spanish declined, and then withdrew from Iraq altogether (no doubt entertaining a suspicion that Bush was trying to get them killed). The Americans then declared that they were going to kill or capture Muqtada, which they failed to do because he went to ground in the shrine of Imam Ali, which the US could hardly blow up or storm for religious and political reasons.
Muqtada launched an insurgency to teach the Americans a lesson, and it certainly did. They lost control of the south, their supply and communications lines were cut, and they even lost control of most of the capital for a while. It must have been tense times in the Green Zone, with some wondering if the Tehran hostage crisis might be repeated, this time in Baghdad. Although the US military was able fairly easily to roll the ragtag ghetto militiamen back over time, it took a long time in some instances, and the US suffered many casualties, especially woundings.
The US foolishly took the Sadrists’ bait and fought them in downtown Najaf and Karbala, the two holiest sites in Shiite Islam. The Shiite world was infuriated. 5000 demonstrated in Bahrain and brought down the Interior Minister. 150,000 demonstrated in Beirut, and many Lebanese Shiites that had begun to moderate their policies turned angry again. Hundreds demonstrated in Islamabad. The Friday prayer leader in Lucknow, India, declared Shiite historic cites off limits to American and British tourists, and now has announced that they Indian Shiites will ritually burn the American, British and Israeli flags.
So, whoever decided to go after Muqtada in such a clumsy and hamfisted way, and then to completely disregard Muslim religious sentiments by desecrating the tombs of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and martyred grandson–whoever made that decision managed to infuriate 130,000,000 Shiite Muslims at the United States. Since al-Qaeda is hyper-Sunni, the Shiites were potential friends and allies of the Americans. But Bush blew that for us, big time.
The episode has made all Americans less safe, and it contributed to a further destabilization of Iraq. And, while I am delighted that President Bush has openly attempted to draw Muqtada into civil, parliamentary politics, I have to say it would have been better if he had done that last March instead of trying to kill him first and failing. Now Bush just looks weak to all those Mahdi Army fighters.
I’d say the entire thing has to be seen as one of the biggest fiascoes in all of US military and diplomatic history.