US Attacks in Najaf, Sadr City
Al-Hayat: The US military launched a two-pronged attack on the Sadrists on Thursday. They attacked in Najaf, but also in East Baghdad or Sadr City. This newspaper speculates that the US realizes that if Muqtada is forcibly removed from the Shrine of Ali, there will be a social explosion in Sadr City, and are prepositioning themselves for it.
The explosions in Najaf formed a background for a set of indirect exchanges between Muqtada al-Sadr and the caretaker government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Allawi gave a press conference in which he said he was launching a last appeal to Muqtada to leave Najaf and disarm his militia and join in ordinary parliamentary politics. He guaranteed Muqtada safe passage. But he said he wanted to see Muqtada do a public press conference in which he openly accepted this condition of disarming his Mahdi Army militia. He also rejected direct government talks with Muqtada.
Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, as usual, played bad cop to Allawi’s good cop, saying that he had men ready to go into the shrine and that Muqtada had only hours to make a decision. Shaalan continues in an old Baath tradition of being a blowhard.
Muqtada caused confusion by responding in several different ways to the day’s events.
Earlier in the day, his guerrillas sent mortar rounds against a Najaf police station, killing 7 police and injuring 35 other persons.
When he heard of Allawi’s ultimatum, Muqtada sent a “telephone text” message, in which he insisted he would seek “victory or martyrdom.” CNN got a camera crew into the shrine, finding 2000 joyous human shields chanting and dancing at this message.
But then later on Thursday Muqtada offered to turn the shrine over to the control of the senior Shiite clerics. [I earlier thought this step impractical, but this is the path he actually took. It is not sure, however, that it entirely defuses the crisis, since simply leaving the shrine was only one of the American’s/ Allawi’s demands]
Worse, The Scotsman reports that Muqtada sent out a letter insisting he would not disband the Mahdi Army, a copy of which was displayed on al-Arabiya, the Arabic satellite station.
By nightfall, Najaf was in flames. The Scotsman reports, “Blasts and gunbattles persisted throughout yesterday in the streets of Najaf and at night, at least 30 explosions shook the Old City as a US plane hit militant targets east of the Imam Ali shrine.”
I’d say this thing is moving toward an epochal confrontation.
Clashes between US forces and Mahdi militiamen in Sadr City left 5 Iraqis dead and 5 wounded.
Meanwhile, both Iran and Syria have now called for an extraordinary meeting of the foreign ministers of Iraq’s 6 major neighbors to discuss how the crisis might be defused.
Sadrists attacked oil facilities down south near Basra, but apparently did not hit anything that would prevent the petroleum from being exported.