Muqtada declines to See Delegation
Marines Launched Attack without Approval
Alex Berenson and John Burns of the New York Times make the explosive allegation that local Marines in Najaf launched the attack on Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Militia on August 12 all on their lonesome, without direction from the Pentagon in Washington. At most, they had authorization from the American-appointed governor, Adnan al-Zurfi, though he won’t take responsibility for it all, either.
I studied colonial history with John S. Galbraith of UCLA, who was known for emphasizing the “Man on the Spot.” That is, colonial officials and military men out in Malaya or Africa often made policy without reference to London. (Much of India was acquired in this way. It is amusing to go back and read the cautions of the British cabinet to British governors-general of the 18th century not to conquer more territory without permission).
If Berenson and Burns are right, American Men on the Spot are making crucial policy decisions that have the potential to affect the lives of all Americans and all Muslims. The Marines in Najaf were acting like just another militia, engaging in a local turf war with Muqtada and his men, and giving no thought to the consequences of behaving barbarically in the holy city of Najaf.
Helena Cobban subjects the NYT article to a searching analysis that is well worth reading. She argues that the Najaf attack shows a Marine corps out of control and a command structure that is a “tangled mess” and in which US Ambassador John Negroponte played a sinister role, supporting the initial Marine miscalculation in the Najaf attack. [addendum 10:45 am].
Readers sometimes complain to me that Muslims seem to have lots of holy cities and lots of mosques, so is Najaf really all that special? O.K., here are the holy cities in order of holiness: Mecca, Medinah, Jerusalem, Najaf, Karbala. Najaf and Karbala are especially holy to Shiites. There are other holy sites and cities, of course, but they are mostly sacred because of association with later saints. The five I just mentioned are sacred because of their direct association with the Prophet Muhammad, his son-in-law and vicar, Ali, and his grandson, Husain.
The Shrine of Ali is a tomb, and although it has a mosque attached to it, it is not just a mosque. It is a Shrine. Like the shrine of the Prophet Muhammad in Medinah or the shrine of Imam Husain in Karbala, it is a sacred resting place of holy remains. A lot of mosques could be damaged with impunity. These shrines cannot.
The ignoramus Marines in Najaf clearly don’t know all this, and since they don’t know it they don’t have any business making military policy there. They have endangered all Americans profoundly by potentially spurring a whole new wave of Shiite terrorism against us, recalling the bad old days of the early to mid-1980s (when some of our present allies in Iraq, like al-Da`wa and SCIRI were attacking US targets like the embassy in Kuwait or helping take Americans captive in Beirut).
[I have now had the opportunity to discuss the August Najaf fighting with insiders who were on the scene and can positively deny Burns’s allegation that the fighting was local and spontaneous. The marine commander went back and forth with Washington several times before the fighting broke out. I apologize to the Marines for my intemperate language above, since it now seems clear they were just following their orders and that the pugnaciously ill-informed persons that ill-advisedly ordered them to carry out this operation were in DC. – 10/2/04).
Meanwhile, the attempt by members of the national conference now meeting in Baghdad to mediate the stand-off in Najaf failed when Muqtada al-Sadr declined to meet with them.
One of those spearheading the negotiations was an elderly distant relative of Muqtada, Sayyid Husain Sadr. Sayyid Husain has been a favorite of the Americans and is a voice of moderation, but does not have a wide following.
Muqtada has a sense that his time has come. He seems to be sure that most Iraqis are siding with him, and that Allawi and the Americans will come after him only at their very great peril.
This estimation is shared by informed observers in Washington, as noted by the LA Times:
Several observers say Allawi and U.S. forces have no viable options other than trying for a negotiated end to the uprising because attempting to crush Sadr militarily would carry too high a political price.
“In all probability, it would take an unacceptable level of force in and around the shrine,” noted Cliff Kupchan, a Middle East specialist at the Nixon Center in Washington. “Whether Iraqi troops do this or Americans, it would be a generational setback for U.S. legitimacy in the Arab world.” ‘
Kupchan is talking sense, and I hope he is right that his point is recognized by Washington officialdom. Also, can someone please fax it to the Marine commanding officers in Najaf?
Muqtada is playing chicken with a superpower, and he knows very well that he could easily wind up dead. He seems convinced, however, that the Americans would kill him if they could anyway, and that he may as well go out fighting.
Remember that the Americans (in this case high officials in Washington) abruptly came after Muqtada in early April, saying they wanted to “kill or capture” him. Muqtada spent his life fighting Saddam, and once Saddam said something like that about you, you were a dead man walking. Muqtada sees the Americans and Allawi through that lens of Saddam-like behavior and ruthlessness.
It bears saying again that the Americans did not face any crisis with regard to the Sadr movement that would have necessitated moving against Muqtada in this dramatic way, impelling him to launch an insurgency, and inflaming the Shiite south. If the US had objections to his militia, they could have curbed the militia out in the south. By going after Muqtada personally, they just made him a hero and a symbol of Iraqi opposition to continued US occupation.
Meanwhile, the national congress put off until Wednesday its key vote for 81 members of an advisory council. Many delegates are complaining that the fix was in, and that most of the persons to be elected had been settled on by the major parties some time ago. Independents feel disenfranchised by the process, which is so complicated that I don’t entirely understand it. It certainly isn’t very democratic.
Thanks to The War in Context for the second cite from AFP.