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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.

That is 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 Shi'ite Muslims.

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".

The 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 precincts - 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.

Shi'ites "worldwide 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 Allawi.

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-led occupation.

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."

But that 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."

In the 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 militia's control.

"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.

(Inter Press Service)

Aug 14, 2004

Iraq and Iran swap blows (Aug 12, '04)

Bush gambles as Najaf burns (Aug 12, '04)


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