[Marxism] Najaf

Marvin Gandall marvgandall at rogers.com
Sat Aug 14 18:44:15 MDT 2004

(The US says the talks have broken down, and are again threatening an
assault on the Imam Ali mosque. Why the assault has been repeatedly delayed
is outlined below. The Sadrists have used the ceasefire during the past 24
hours to encourage and welcome supporters to Najaf, strengthening their
position and raising the stakes even higher for the US and its client Allawi
administration.  The reason the talks have collapsed is the insistence by US
forces that the Sadrist militia disarm -- effectively a call to surrender in
exchange for amnesty -- and fears that any resolution short of that will be
widely interpreted as a victory for the Sadrists, inspiring wider
resistance. A spokesman for Al Sadr meanwhile told Agence France Presse
early today that UN troops should be brought into Iraq to replace US forces,
an unrealizable demand indicating the Mehdi Army is anticipating a fight.
Karon suggests below that the balance of forces is daily shifting in favour
of the Sadrists, as the mounting number of National Guard and police
defections and resignations of local government officials attests, and that
their military suppression by US/Allawi forces at Najaf will accelerate
rather than retard the development of the national uprising.)


Why the Najaf Offensive is on Hold
By Tony Karon
Friday, Aug. 13, 2004

The latest cease-fire in Najaf may be a telling measure of the political
balance of forces in the new Iraq. Having launched an armored offensive into
the Shiite holy city after vowing to destroy Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi militia,
U.S. commanders abruptly called a halt to offensive operations on Friday as
truce negotiations between Sadr and the interim government of Prime Minister
Iyad Allawi continued. But a new truce wasn't exactly what Allawi and the
Americans had in mind when they vowed earlier in the week to finish the
fight and break the back of Sadr's forces. The new pause in hostilities to
seek a negotiated solution — and the urgency with which the new government
and U.S. commanders sought to deny claims by Sadr aides that the cleric had
been wounded in battle on Friday — signal a growing awareness on the part of
Allawi's government that winning the battle at Najaf could cost them the
wider political war.

Even in the face of Sadr's provocations, going on the offensive in Najaf was
always a fateful gamble for Allawi. While the estimated 1,000 lightly armed
Mehdi militiamen were no match for more than 3,000 U.S. troops and an
undisclosed number of Iraqi personnel deployed there, the political
circumstances in which the battle was waged forced the Marines to fight with
one hand tied behind their backs: Sadr's men were holed up in and around the
Imam Ali Mosque, the holiest shrine in the Shiite Muslim tradition, and any
damage to the mosque could provoke a massive Shiite uprising that might
imperil the entire project of remaking Iraq.

If anything, Sadr's decision to confront Allawi and the Americans from
inside the holy city reflects a canny, and often underestimated political
instinct on the part of the populist cleric. Ever since Baghdad fell to U.S.
forces in April 2003, Sadr has parlayed his strong following among the
Shiite urban poor and the growing resentment toward the U.S. to his own
advantage. And his previous showdown with the U.S. — last April, when they
tried to arrest him in connection with a warrant issued by an Iraqi judge —
had showed that tangling with the Americans actually boosted, rather than
undermined his political standing in Iraq. The problem facing Allawi and the
U.S. in waging war in Najaf has been that while Sadr may be unpopular among
many of the townsfolk and viewed somewhat ambiguously by a wider Shiite
audience, the U.S. is considerably more unpopular, a trend that the fact of
handing authority to the new government last June does not yet appear to
have reversed.

Allawi appears to have recognized Sadr's influence, because he has
strenuously attempted to woo the cleric to join the political process under
the interim government. He reiterated his offer on Thursday. "This
government calls upon all the armed groups to drop their weapons and rejoin
society," Allawi said in a statement. "The political process is open to all,
and everyone is invited to take part in it." But Sadr has rejected the
terms, refusing to be recognized simply as one among hundreds of leaders,
many of whom have no proven constituency. And his refusal to withdraw his
forces from around the holy sites in Najaf, instead stockpiling weapons
there, eventually prompted the government to act. Even if Sadr himself was
to be brought into the political process, they reasoned, he could not be
allowed to maintain an independent military capability. Destroying the Mehdi
army would show Allawi's resolve to brook no insurgent challenges.

The logic of the confrontation, however, demanded a clear victory. But the
risks of a direct assault on militiamen holed up in the mosque quickly
became apparent as the showdown at Najaf provoked something close to a
national crisis. Even though the operation had been ordered by Allawi's
government, its deputy president Ibrahim Jaafari called for a halt to the
offensive, and there were scores of resignations of lower-level regional
government officials in protest of the clashes in Najaf. The government
rushed to assure Iraqis that American forces would not enter the Imam Ali
Mosque, and any fighting there would be done by Iraqi security forces. The
problem was, U.S. commanders had reportedly concluded that the Iraqi forces
in the city had trouble achieving even "minor combat objectives."

The Sadrists, for their part, demonstrated their capacity to disrupt the
peace throughout southern Iraq, and in the capital where they essentially
run the vast Shiite slum known as Sadr City, which houses two million
people. Mehdi militants confronted Coalition forces in a number of southern
Iraqi cities, and at Basra they even managed to take Iraq's oil exports
offline. Beside the firefights initiated by his militias, there were also
tens of thousands of Iraqis on the streets demonstrating against the
U.S.-Allawi offensive by week's end. Particularly worrying to the new
government will have been the spectacle of a number of uniformed policemen
reported to have joined the pro-Sadr protestors in Baghdad.

The rush to squelch reports that Sadr had been wounded offered a reminder of
the prospect that were he to be killed in battle, there may be no way of
ending his insurgency. Even if the Sadrists could be ejected from Najaf by
military force — they are, after all, mostly an expeditionary force whose
members are drawn from outside the city, and are not exactly well-loved
within its native population or its clerical establishment — the result
might be a long-term insurgency throughout the Shiite south and in the
capital. Given the fact that Sunni insurgents are currently in effective
control of Fallujah and are challenging for control of Ramadi, Samarra and
even, somewhat audaciously, Mosul, a Shiite guerrilla campaign would
severely stretch Coalition and Iraqi forces. And forcing the Allawi
government to rely so heavily and directly on U.S. military power, as it has
done at Najaf, undercuts its own prospects of achieving legitimacy among
Iraqis as a genuinely independent government.

The dust has not yet settled in Najaf, and the offensive may be resumed at
any moment. But the delicate balance between talking and fighting in Najaf
suggests that the government who ordered the operation has yet to establish
its political authority over its citizenry.

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