Thousands Stream into Shrine of Ali
Muqtada orders Followers to Disarm
CNN’s Kianne Sadeq continues her excellent reportage from Najaf. She and her team report that supporters of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani streamed into the shrine of Ali in Najaf. After reaching an agreement with Sistani, Muqtada pledged to ask his men to leave the shrine. Sistani wants Najaf and Kufa to be demilitarized. Muqtada al-Sadr’s men used the microphones ordinarily employed for the call to prayer to relay his message that the Mahdi Army should lay down its arms. Wire reports suggest that some were obeying the order. With all those pilgrims now in the shrine, it will be easy for the Mahdi Army fighters to slip away if they so choose.
Sadeq also says that Qasim Dawoud, the Minister of State for Military Affairs, has pledged that Muqtada al-Sadr would be a free man as a result of the agreement he reached with Sistani. Dawoud said,
“Muqtada al-Sadr is free to go anywhere he likes. … He is as free as any Iraqi citizen.”
Meanwhile, the full extent of the destruction inflicted on Najaf by the US military may never be fully appreciated in the U.S. itself. How many civilians did our troops kill in their campaign in a densely populated urban area against the Sadrist street gangs–especially in the first days of the conflict before most city residents fled the old city? I find chilling the words of John Burns and Dexter Filkin of the New York Times
‘ One of the last American actions before the cease-fire went into effect involved the use of a 2,000-pound, laser-guided bomb to strike a hotel about 130 yards from the shrine’s southwest wall, in an area known to American commanders as “motel row.” ‘
Chris Allbritton, an eyewitness writes to remind me that by this time, the area was completely deserted by civilians, so this strike did not kill any. My point was only that especially in the first week of the three-week battle, there seem to have been civilian casualties, and we don’t know anything about them– how many, how bad, etc., despite sporadic reports and statistics from the Iraqi Health Ministry.
Al-Hayat reports that while he was in London, a delegation of Iranians came to see Sistani and to request that he support a bigger role for Iran in Iraq. He is said to have rejected this overture vehemently, and to have decided in the aftermath to return to Iraq without coordinating that step with the British, American or Iraqi governments. [This claim of non-coordination is coming from Sistani circles in London and is not plausible– the British had to be in this up to their eyeballs.]
Winners and losers:
I think the big losers from the Najaf episode (part deux) are the Americans. They have become, if it is possible, even more unpopular in Iraq than they were last spring after Abu Ghuraib, Fallujah and Najaf Part 1. The US is perceived as culturally insensitive for its actions in the holy city of Najaf.
The Allawi government is also a big loser. Instead of looking decisive, as they had hoped, they ended up looking like the lackeys of neo-imperialists.
The big winner is Sistani, whose religious charisma has now been enhanced by solid nationalist credentials. He is a national hero for saving Najaf.
For Muqtada, it is a wash. He did not have Najaf until April, anyway, and can easily survive not having it. His movement in the slums of the southern cities is intact, even if its paramilitary has been weakened.