US poised for killer blow against
Muqtada By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - Once again, US armed
forces appear on the verge of winning a decisive
military victory in Iraq - this time in the holy city of
Najaf. And once again, they appear closer to losing the
larger wars for
a stable and friendly Iraq and for an Islamic world that
will cease producing anti-US terrorism.
the rapidly growing concern of Middle East and Islamic
specialists as US Marines, after a week of fighting,
captured virtually all of central Najaf on Thursday,
including the home of Mehdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr,
and launched a final siege of the Imam Ali Shrine, which
is considered the world's holiest by some 120 million
According to a report on Friday
by the Arabic-language al-Arabiya TV channel, Muqtada
was injured in the fighting. The report said that he
suffered three injuries, but did not say how and when he
was wounded. Later, one of Muqtada's spokesmen confirmed
that the cleric had been injured, but said "his injuries
are not life threatening". Earlier this week, Muqtada
vowed that he would resist US forces "with the last drop
of my blood".
military commanders and Iraq's interim premier, Iyad Allawi,
are debating whether to wait out Muqtada and his armed
followers, who are believed to be inside the shrine, or
to invade its
preferably with Iraqi troops. The end result of such
actions is not likely to work in Washington's favor,
according to most experts. But reports from the
troubled city on Friday indicated that there has been a lull
in fighting pending possible
negotiations. US commanders said the new ceasefire orders were designed
to allow political negotiations to proceed between Muqtada and
the interim Iraqi government.
are shocked and outraged over what is going on in
Najaf", Imam Moustafa al-Qazwini, a prominent Shi'ite
leader based in California, told the Los Angeles Times
on Thursday. "They consider it an assault on the
sanctity of Islam and in particular Shi'ite Islam. Any
attack on that city will destroy America's future in
Iraq completely." Al-Qazwini supported the US invasion
of Iraq in 2003 but became disillusioned with the
occupation after several months of traveling to the
occupied nation earlier this year.
To Juan Cole,
an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan, the
fighting of the past week marks a major setback for
Washington's larger political goals. "The credibility of
the Allawi government as an independent Iraqi government
has been decisively undermined by this," Cole said,
adding that while much of the Iraqi public was willing
to give the interim leader a chance, "he will now be
seen as nothing more than an American puppet or, worse,
an American agent".
That impression is
strengthened by the re-emergence of US troops and
aircraft in the fighting over the past week, after a
conscious effort since Allawi took over in late June to
sharply reduce the visibility of US forces in Iraq.
Cole and others noted that the actions of the
Marines have created serious and potentially fatal
strains even within the government. Its Shi'ite vice
president, Ibrahim Jaafari, who is also leader of the
Dawa Party and generally regarded as Iraq's most popular
political figure, on Wednesday denounced the presence of
US forces in Najaf, while the deputy governor of Najaf
province resigned to protest "all the US terrorist
operations that they are doing against this holy city".
In addition, the hardline Sunni Board of Muslim
Clergy issued a fatwa (decree) that no Muslims
should cooperate with US forces in killing other
Muslims, in a move that recalled events in April when
Shi'ites rallied to support Sunni fighters besieged by
US Marines in Fallujah.
"What's going on right
now looks a lot like April 1991, when it was [Iraqi
president] Saddam [Hussein] who was crushing a Shi'ite
uprising. But now it's the Marines who are playing the
role of the Republican Guard," Cole told Inter Press
Service, adding that US policy in Iraq was looking
increasingly like "Ba'ath-lite", particularly under
Although a Shi'ite himself, Allawi was a
rising star in the Ba'ath Party when he broke with
Saddam in the 1970s. Long favored by the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) during his exile in London, he
has moved to rehabilitate thousands of former party
members who were purged during the initial stages of the
US support for Allawi has
clearly stoked fears, particularly among the Shi'ite and
Kurdish communities, of a Ba'athist revival, and the
past week's offensive against the Mehdi Army has done
nothing to lessen them.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, an
Iraq expert at the American Enterprise Institute, has
warned repeatedly over the past several months that the
administration should do everything it can to avoid
attacking Muqtada's militia in Najaf, as opposed to its
presence in other strongholds in Baghdad and southern
Iraq. Shi'ites make up roughly 60% of Iraq's population.
"If we go into Najaf in force, we will lose
Grand Ayatollah [Ali] al-Sistani," by far the most
influential Shi'ite cleric in Iraq, Gerecht, a former
CIA operative, warned in May, adding that Sistani was
much better able to neutralize Muqtada on his own.
Sistani, who has publicly criticized both Washington and
Muqtada, left the country for medical treatment in
Britain just as the US offensive got under way; his
office called for a ceasefire late Thursday night.
"The greatest vulnerability we have is to turn
the mass of the [Shi'ite] population against the
coalition," retired army General Daniel Christman told
USA Today. "We can win every tactical battle but lose
the war if we don't put the individual engagements
inside a larger political context."
appears to be precisely what is taking place, according
to Cole, who predicted the most likely result of the
current fighting will be a "long-term, low-intensity
Shi'ite insurgency in the south, similar to what we have
seen in the so-called Sunni triangle."
past two days, for example, the Mehdi Army has engaged
against local police and coalition forces in five
southern cities, while large-scale demonstrations were
mounted in Sadr City, the sprawling Baghdad slum named
for Muqtada's father, which remains largely in the
"People say the south has
been quieter [than the Sunni areas], but I think that's
over now," said Cole. "You can defeat the Mehdi Army
militarily; they're just youth gangs with RPGs
[rocket-propelled grenades], but you can't decisively
defeat them. They're from neighborhoods that have been
settled by clans from the countryside, and for every one
of [their members] who are killed, two or three others
will join up."
But the fighting in Najaf has
much broader implications, which spell big trouble for
the US beyond Iraq, according to the experts. "It is
vital that Washington understand that it cannot consider
the Shi'ites of Iraq to be an independent, national
body," warned Youssef Ibrahim, a former New York Times
correspondent, in a widely noted column published in
June. "Any efforts by the Americans or the new Iraqi
government to marginalize or imprison [Muqtada] would
cause reverberations from Iran to Lebanon to Pakistan."
The attack on Najaf, particularly if it ends in
Muqtada's death or serious damage to the shrine, will
make those reverberations particularly severe, according
to Cole, who noted that Iran's government is already
under pressure from hardliners and the Revolutionary
Guard to take stronger action in defense of Muqtada.
"Lebanese Hezbollah will organize, the US naval
base in Bahrain [where there is a large Shi'ite
community] is likely to be a target," he said. "I think
there will be anti-US terror coming out of this, and the
American public will again ask, 'Why do they hate us'?"
"It will completely discredit America and make
it the new tyrant in the eyes of Shi'ites worldwide,"
said the California-based al-Qazwini.