Endgame in Najaf?
From Arabic and English radio and television broadcasts, including al-Jazeerah:
The Marines have completely surrounded Najaf and cut off all the roads leading into the shrine of Imam Ali (Shiite Islam’s St. Peter). US warplanes bombarded positions in the vast Valley of Peace cemetery (2 million graves) again today. At one point Marines entered the house of Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite leader, but of course found him gone. Al-Jazeerah’s crawl is talking about continued fighting in the vicinity of the house. The US appears to have decided not to send the Marines into the shrine of Imam Ali, but an Iraqi force instead.
Al-Jazeerah says that the Mahdi Army may have mined the shrine. This information suggests that if any force does attack the Mahdi Army there, it may trigger explosions that could level it. (Read: Very, very bad publicity for the US).
The provincial governors and their deputies in Iraq, and most high government officials, have been “selected” in a fashion more or less stage-managed by the Americans. So it is doubly telling that there have been several resignations as a result of the Najaf campaing. The Deputy Governor of Wasit province announced his resignation. So too did the Director of Tribal Affairs in the Interior Ministry.
There were fair-sized demonstrations against the fighting in Najaf in both Basra and Baghdad, and fighting in some southern cities.
Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib, a Sunni ex-Baathist from Samarra, gave a news conference in which he strongly implied that the Mahdi Army was conducting an unprovoked uprising as part of an Iranian conspiracy against Iraq, and that the Allawi government was being enabled to put down the conspiracy and push the Iranians back out of Iraqi affairs because it was receiving support from neighboring Arab states.
Al-Naqib’s view of the world is highly warped, and he sounds like he is still living in 1982. The Sadrists are a homegrown Iraqi phenomenon, and there is little Iranian involvement in them.
Najaf governor Ali al-Zurufi has just announced that he sees the harbingers of a settlement of the crisis.
There will be big demonstrations in Iran on Friday against the US siege of Najaf, which is holy to Iran’s Shiites. The Iranian government is undoubtedly receiving enormous pressure from the hardliners who support it to intervene against the US. It won’t do so directly, but there is likely to be some sort of Iranian response in the medium term.
Some readers have written to ask if I think the Bush administration is deliberately provoking Iran, in hopes of widening the war and getting a pretext to attack Tehran.
I don’t know what in the world they are thinking. All I know is that they are acting in a hamfisted manner that is endangering the United States in the medium term for no good reason.
If I were thinking conspiratorially, this is what I would say: The Mahdi Army continued to be a challenge to the caretaker government of Allawi and could possibly have launched violence at any time. The Bush administration may have feared leaving this element of uncertainty out there, with the risk that it might explode in their faces in October just before the election. So they could have thought that there are advantages to just taking care of the problem in August, on the theory that the American electorate can’t remember anything that happened more than one month previously. Likewise, if they finish off the Mahdi Army, it sends a signal to other potential challengers to the Allawi government and they may think it will be strengthened. Likewise, the Mahdi Army’s control of so many neighborhoods was a problem for the proposed January elections, and might have allowed a Sadrist party “machine” to dominate the returns from them.
The problem is that in actual fact they are undermining the credibility of the Allawi government as an independent actor. They are probably also actually increasing Muqtada’s popularity, and the likelihood there will be new recruits to the Mahdi Army. The radical Shiites are reworking the conflict as a defense of Iraq’s independence from brutal American Occupation.
On Thursday, the Board of Muslim Clergy, a Sunni fundamentalist organization with substantial support from Sunni Muslims, issued a fatwa or ruling that no Iraqi Muslim may participate in an attack on other Iraqi Muslims in support of the occupying power. That is, even the hard line Sunnis, who mostly don’t like Shiites, are siding with Muqtada against Allawi and Rumsfeld on this one.