Najaf and after

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

Peace returns to the holy city as the U.S. Army and the Mahdi militia of Moqtada al-Sadr agree on a five-point deal, but the occupation forces are bound to face more trouble on other fronts in war-ravaged, mismanaged Iraq.

THE strategy of the United States occupation forces to quell the uprising in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf by launching a full-scale military assault seems to have backfired. In the last week of August, U.S. Marines occupied most of the city and blocked all the roads leading to the Imam Ali shrine. Preparations were on for the final assault on the Mahdi militia, which owes allegiance to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. However, on August 26, the U.S. Army settled for a truce and gave an undertaking to retreat from the town. The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered among the Iraqi Shia clerics, led thousands of unarmed Iraqis into the holy city and personally negotiated a truce with al-Sadr. The George W. Bush administration was banking on a decisive military victory in Najaf to increase the President's popularity ratings and lend credibility to the U.S.-installed regime in Baghdad.

The Ayatollah was in England undergoing treatment when the fighting escalated in Najaf in early August. As the suffering of the civilian population increased owing to the indiscriminate use of firepower by the U.S. forces, al-Sadr's spokesmen urged al-Sistani to intervene and bring about a honourable end to the fighting. Al-Sadr indicated that the only person who had the moral stature in Iraq to negotiate a truce was al-Sistani, whom even the Americans have now acknowledged as the pre-eminent Shia cleric of the country. The five-point peace plan called for the declaration of Najaf and its satellite city Kufa as weapons-free areas, the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Najaf, the takeover of security by the police, compensation from the government for those harmed in the fighting, and a census to prepare for the elections that should take place by the end of January 2005.

Since early August the Mahdi army has been engaged in a bloody struggle with the U.S. Army and their Iraqi proxies on the streets of Najaf. Hundreds of civilians lost their lives in the fighting and much of the old city, including the revered Valley of Peace cemetery, was reduced to rubble. The lightly armed al-Sadr supporters managed to hold off the U.S. forces for almost the entire month of August. Many of the Iraqi casualties were the result of indiscriminate bombing by U.S. helicopter gunships and fighter planes and the use of a large number of snipers who shot at everything that moved. Seventy-four Iraqis were killed and more than 300 wounded when U.S. planes dropped 2,000-pound bombs in residential areas close to the Imam Ali shrine.

U.S. Marines attacked al-Sadr's residence in the second week of August after launching a massive assault near the shrine. The main target was the Valley of Peace cemetery, with more than two million graves, adjacent to the shrine where the Mahdi militia was camping. Al-Sadr was forced to move into the main Najaf mosque after the attack on his house.

The U.S. military command announced that if al-Sadr and his militia men did not surrender, the mosque would become a military target. "We will not allow them to desecrate this sacred site by using it as a base for insurgent operations. There will be no sanctuary for thugs and criminals in Najaf," Colonel Anthony Haslam, the commanding officer of the U.S. Marines in Najaf, was quoted as saying. The U.S. media was told that the attack on the mosque would be the responsibility of the Iraqi forces trained by the U.S. Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi made a highly publicised visit to Najaf in the second week of August to deliver publicly an ultimatum to al-Sadr to surrender or face the consequences. The young cleric has consistently refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Prime Minister and the government he heads.

The U.S. military leadership thought that the comparatively untrained fighters in Najaf could be defeated easily. The situation seemed to be different from the one in Falluja where the Americans faced a highly trained fighting force. Many of the Falluja fighters were soldiers of the disbanded Iraqi Army and the elite Republican Guard of former President Saddam Hussein. The Falluja fighters also had a bigger and more sophisticated arsenal at their disposal.

In retrospect it is clear that the U.S. military was waiting for an excuse to move against the rebel cleric. Al-Sadr's defiant posture towards the new government was also not taken kindly to. The Americans were not willing to include al-Sadr's representatives in the interim government. Al-Sadr had indicated on several occasions that he was willing to deal with the Allawi regime, provided the movement he led was given due importance like the two other mainstream Shia parties, which have representation in the government. He used his persuasive powers to keep his restive followers under control in the face of continued provocations by the U.S. military. Observers believe that if al-Sadr wanted a confrontation with the U.S. military, he would have chosen the summer months of June and July, which are better suited for guerilla war.

Whereas al-Sistani has been issuing appeals for restraint on both sides, al-Sadr is the only Shia cleric of note who has openly called for a "jehad" against the occupation forces. Al-Sadr's popularity has soared in the past year, mainly owing to his defiant stance. Al-Sadr, in the course of his confrontation with the U.S. military, had repeatedly vowed that he would prefer martyrdom to a compromise with the occupation authorities. He was firm on his twin demands that the Americans leave Najaf and the government give an amnesty to his fighters. Al-Sadr wants Najaf to be run by the Shiite spiritual leadership based in the city. Finally, on August 26, the young cleric got what he wanted. Sayyed Immad Mohammad Kalantal, who acted as an intermediary in the agreement brokered by al-Sistani, said that the Mahdi army was allowed to keep its weapons such as AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Kalantal emphasised that the secret deal was endorsed by Allawi despite his earlier threats to finish off the Mahdi militia.

ALTHOUGH calm has returned to Najaf and Kufa in the last week of August, Sadr city, a sprawling suburb of Baghdad, remains volatile. Moreover, the conflict between the Mahdi militia and the Americans has now spread to more than 12 Iraqi cities. Reports appearing in the Arab media point to the coordination between al-Sadr's supporters and the fighters concentrated in the so-called Sunni triangle in central Iraq. The association of senior Sunni clerics of Iraq had issued a "fatwa" prohibiting all Muslims from participating in an attack on the Imam Ali shrine. Former battle-hardened Republican Guard officers were reported to be in Najaf to train young Shia fighters during the standoff with the U.S. military.

Oil exports from southern Iraq virtually ceased after the situation in Najaf worsened. Oil pipelines have been set afire or sabotaged, contributing to the dramatic increase in global oil prices. A U.S.-led or supervised invasion of the Imam Ali shrine was bound to outrage the Muslim community worldwide. "The United States is slaughtering the people of one of the holiest Islamic cities, and the Muslim world and Iraqi nation will not stand by," warned Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, in an address to his nation.

Significantly, in the mid - 20th century, the Najaf shrine was a focal point in the struggle against British colonialism. The Najaf insurgency at that time was led by Sayyid Mohammed Sadr, who headed a secret Shiite society and helped mobilise thousands of fighters against the British. The British managed to crush that insurrection but at great military and political costs. After that battle, Iraqis became even more united in their resolve to oust the colonial power.

While the showdown in Najaf was looming, Iraqi politicians of varying hues were meeting in Baghdad in what was grandiosely described as a national conference to select an interim Iraqi National Assembly. The resistance forces called for a boycott of the conference saying that it was an unrepresentative one held under the tutelage of the Americans. When the three-day conference opened on August 15, resistance fighters marked the occasion by firing mortars into the high-security "Green Zone" in Baghdad where the delegates were meeting. The conference was envisaged by the Americans to act as a catalyst for the speedy "democratic transformation" of Iraq. Instead, the events in Najaf cast a long shadow over it. More than a hundred delegates walked out of the conference to protest against the presence of U.S. forces in Najaf. The conference tried to send a delegation to convince al-Sadr to agree to the terms dictated by the Americans. Al-Sadr refused to meet the delegation, which was flown in from Baghdad in a U.S. military helicopter.

Ali al-Sistani's historic fatwa of June 2003 had said that the U.S. occupation forces had no right to impose a government on the people of Iraq. He said: "Popular elections are necessary so that each Iraqi who is of voting age can choose his representative for a constituent assembly. And then any basic law written by this assembly must be approved by a national referendum. It is incumbent upon all believers with their utmost commitment to demand this, and asserting the truth of this path is the best way they can participate in this process."

Kaiz Alawazi, the Editor of the Iraqi daily Al Jareda and the leader of the secular Arab Nationalist Movement party, said that he feared that Iraq was descending to a full-scale civil war. He described Allawi as "an American pawn who has revealed his true face" by supporting the U.S. military campaign against the resistance forces in Najaf. Alawazi said: "You cannot resolve a fundamental political problem by force. The main problem in Iraq remains the occupation, and when there is an occupation, there is resistance. The solution must be political."

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