Once again, U.S. 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-U.S. terrorism.
That is the rapidly growing concern of Middle East and Islamic specialists as U.S. Marines, after a week of fighting, captured virtually all of central Najaf on Thursday, including the home of Mehdi Army leader Moqtada al-Sadr, and launched a final siege of the Imam Ali mosque, which is considered the world’s holiest shrine by some 120 million Shi’ite Muslims.
Even as the military commanders and Iraq’s interim president, Iyad Allawi, debate whether to wait out Sadr and his armed followers, who are believed to be inside the shrine, or to invade its precincts preferably with Iraqi troops the end result is not likely to work in Washington’s favor, according to most experts here.
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 Shia Islam."
"Any attack on that city will destroy America’s future in Iraq completely," said al-Qazwini, who supported the U.S. 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 reemergence of U.S. 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 U.S. forces in Iraq.
Cole and others noted that Marines’ actions have created serious and potentially fatal strains even within the government. Its Shia 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 U.S. forces in Najaf, while the deputy governor of Najaf province resigned to protest "all the U.S. terrorist operations that they are doing against this holy city."
In addition, the hard-line Sunni Board of Muslim Clergy issued a fatwa that no Muslims should cooperate with U.S. forces in killing other Muslims, in a move that recalled events in April when Shi’ites rallied to support Sunni fighters besieged by U.S. 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 IPS, adding that U.S. 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 Hussein 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 U.S.-led occupation.
U.S. 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 (AEI), has warned repeatedly over the last several months that the administration should do everything it can to avoid attacking Sadr’s militia in Najaf, as opposed to its presence in other strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Shi’ites make up roughly 60 percent of Iraq’s population.
"If we go into Najaf in force, we will lose Grand Ayatollah [Ali] 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 al-Sadr on his own. Sistani, who has publicly criticized both Washington and Sadr, left the country for medical treatment in Britain just as the U.S. offensive got underway; 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 Gen. 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 last 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 Sadr’s father, which remains largely in the militia’s control.
"People say the south has been quieter [than the Sunni area], 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 United States 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 [Sadr] would cause reverberations from Iran to Lebanon to Pakistan."
The attack on Najaf, particularly if it ends in Sadr’s death or serious damage to the mosque, 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 Sadr.
"Lebanese Hezbollah will organize, the U.S. 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-U.S. 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 Shias worldwide," said Al-Qazwini.
(Inter Press Service)