Friday, August 13, 2004

Battle won, but war is lost

by pv vivekanand

THE US military's assault on Najaf with a view to dislodging Motqada Sadr and his militia from the holy city is definitely a make-or-break drive. The US military will win the battle for Najaf, but the victory will be another brick in the tomb of American hopes of winning the war in Iraq and another contribution to increasing anti-US sentiments in the Islamic world, particularly the 120 million Shiites.
Temporary deals might be worked out that could prolong the crisis in Najaf by holding back the climax of the assault, but the US would not be dissuaded from its objective  — neutralising Sadr as a challenger to the US military's efforts to pacify Iraq and improve conditions for implementing the Washington-backed process to conduct elections in January to a government that would give legitimacy to the American role in the country.
American strategists are perfectly aware that Sadr's declarations that he would never bow to the US and is ready to fight until death as well as his exhortations to his Mahdi's Army militia to continue fighting after his death are strengthening the resolve of anti-US forces in Iraq. The less he is allowed to say the better, as seen from Washington.
Neutralising Sadr is a political as well as security imperative for the interim government. Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister, has to show his people that he is strong and capable of overcoming all challenges and also send a tough warning to other militant groups by setting an example in Najaf.
However, a no-holds-barred assault against Najaf and a possible storming of the Imam Ali Mosque there — even if by Iraqi Muslim security personnel — would be like stirring an already troubled hornet's nest and further alienate the Shiites against the interim government.
Sadr loyalists have already warned if their leader is harmed — he was reported to have been wounded in the US assault on Friday — then they would turn to be suicide bombers against the US forces and allies. The warning should not be taken lightly since it signals a deadly turn of events for the US military in southern Iraq.
The demonstrations in Iraq and Iran on Friday against the US operations in Najaf are the forerunners of much worse Shiite repercussions against the US-led coalition forces and their allies in Iraq. The events in Najaf could lead to sparking an anti-US Shiite revolt in the south of the country along the lines of the rebellion in the so-called "Sunni triangle" encompassing areas near Baghdad and the Anbar province adjoining the border with Jordan and Syria.
The US also risks alienating Shiites beyond the immediate Iraq-Iran theatre, including those in countries like Pakistan and Lebanon.
The Shiites had largely stayed put in south of Iraq and refrained from militarily challenging the US role in the country for one year after the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Obviously, they were hoping to gain power by virtue of their numerical strength in the country.
But they rose up in protest when they saw that their "natural" role as the majority sect in the 25-million population Iraq was being sidelines by people they considered as too close to the US for comfort. Allawi is indeed a Shiite, so are several other members of the interim cabinet, but many Shiites in Iraq are not willing to grant Allawi and others the Shiite legitimacy that they need.
When the US handed over "sovereignty" to the interim government in late June, most Iraqis — Sunnis and Shiites — were willing to Allawi a chance to prove its independence and ability to take control and administer the country. However, the interim authority's decisions and actions since it took over have not been very popular.
The Shiites would like to have their own say as to who their representative should be in the government — and it need not be Moqtada Sadr. They believe that their right to have a dominating say in the affairs of the country was hijacked when the US handed over "sovereignty" to the interim government, whose members were chosen by Washington.
Sadr has also declared his boycott of the Iraqi national convention to be held this week to elect an interim assembly of 100 members who would guide the interim government to elections next year.
The Iranian link, if any, to the crisis in Najaf is unclear. US officials have suggested that Tehran is closely aligned with Sadr, but they have not come up with solid evidence to substantiate the theory.
At this juncture, the US military's attack on Najaf itself is seen as targeting Shiites rather than Sadr and his supporters per se. And the first to pay the price in terms of alienation with the Shiites will be the interim government, whose image as an independent authority would be further undermined.
Cracks have also started appearing in the interim government itself.
Vice-President Ibrahim Jaafari, head of the influential Dawa Party, has called for the departure of the US forces from Najaf whose very presence there was invited by Allawi after his ultimatum to Sadr's forces to quit the city went unheeded.
Also having an effect against the interim government is the fatwa issued by the Sunni Association of Muslim Clergymen that no Iraqi should co-operate with the US forces in killing other Muslims.
While the fatwa appeared to be oriented more towards the clashes in the Anbar province — Fallujah, and, to a limited extent, Ramadi — pitting local residents against the US military, it is deemed to have an impact on Shiites as well.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the most reverred Shiite leader, is undergoing treatment in a London clinic for heart ailments. Some reports have suggested that the US-coalition, which includes the UK, had engineered his trip to London in order to clear the ground for an all-out assault against Sadr.
The demands laid down by a Sadr aide to end the crisis in Najaf are unlikely to be accepted by the US military. Sadr wants the departure of US forces from Najaf and handing over the city to the Marjayia, the Shiite religious authority; in return the Mahdi Army will also leave the city but will not be disarmed.
The militia is demanding recognition as an ideological movement and that members should allowed to carry weapons for self-defence, with an option to turn itself to be a political party. These are the minimum demands. Beyond them, Sadr wants all his "followers to gather under a legitimate constitution written by a free, elected government."
Giving in to the demands would mean a serious setback to the American resolve against militants in Iraq and questions raised over the credibility and legitimacy of the interim government. That is something the US strategists or the interim government could ill-afford. For them, Sadr has to be removed from the scene and his armed followers should never again be allowed to pose a challenge to the US domination of the country.
Therefore, compromise deals, if any is made, would only be stop-gap measures that would only slightly delay a US-led assault to end the crisis once and for all. What happens thereafter is clear: A low-intensity but sustained war of attrition between Shiites and the US-led coalition and their Iraqi allies that could wreck the Washington's vision of elections and transition of power to a "democratically elected government."