August 15, 2004

An-Najaf: Another Lost Opportunity in the Making?

An Najaf, Iraq

The current fighting between the forces loyal to Iraqi Shi'a presumptive cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr and the United States (which includes some nominal Iraqi participation) offers real opportunity to right much of the wrong-headed policy of the past. If current thinking of how to handle the situation in An-Najaf - and the Shi'a areas of Iraq that have seen sympathetic uprisings (Al-Kut, Al-'Amarah, Al-Basrah, Diwaniyah, An-Nasiriyah and Baghdad/Al-Sadr City) - anyway resembles the "solution" a few months ago in Al-Fallujah, the overall situation in Iraq will continue on its downward spiral to civil war.

Muqtada Al-Sadr, first, has very tenuous credentials as a cleric. The clerical levels in Shi'a Islam are hojjat-al-islam, then ayatollah, and then grand ayatollah (there are only five grand ayatollahs; Al-Saystani [Al-Sistani] is one of them). Also, there is the term Al-Sayyid, which Muqtada claims, with some legitimacy. The term refers to a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and entitles them to wear the black turban. That said, he has a following. That following is comprises his Mahdi Army, which I liken to a gang of thugs, but also to genuine religious followers that revere the family name.

The campaign to either destroy or discredit Al-Sadr goes back months. The initial confrontation occurred in Sadr City (renamed for his father; it was formerly Saddam City) when US forces attempted to serve an arrest warrant on Al-Sadr. That led to a stand-off in Baghdad, then later in Kufah, and then to An-Najaf. As in Al-Fallujah, the US engaged in a confrontation-negotiation-confrontation-stalemate sequence. It appears we are entering that same thing again in An-Najaf.

It won't work. Despite the uprisings in other cities, Al-Sadr has to be dealt with; actually, he has to be eliminated as both a political and military force. Anything else hands yet another perceived victory to the insurgents.