Shia Showdown

15 August 2004

Shia Showdown

By Gwynne Dyer

The claims and counter-claims make it hard to discern the strategies behind the showdown in Najaf, and the language that is used blurs the situation even more. US military spokesmen, for example, always call the young men who are defending the rebel Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr “anti-Iraqi forces,” although not one in a hundred of them has ever been outside Iraq. But you can guess why the US authorities in Iraq chose this moment to try to eliminate Sadr and his al-Mahdi militia.

From the start, the biggest obstacle to the creation of a compliant, pro-American regime in Iraq has been the fact that the Shias, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s population, could elect a majority government that could and probably would defy US wishes if they voted as a bloc. Moreover, senior Shia clerics command great respect in the community, making it much likelier that the Shia would indeed vote en bloc. So elections were too risky.

Retired general Jay Garner, the original choice as US pro-consul in Iraq, was dismissed after a month because he called for early elections in Iraq: “The night after I got to Baghdad, (Defence Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld called me and told me he was appointing Paul Bremer as the presidential envoy…The announcement…was somewhat abrupt.” Rumsfeld was worried that an elected Iraqi government would resist mass privatisation of the economy, but he was equally worried that such a government would be Shia-dominated, and insist on an Islamic state.

The problem was compounded by the fact that Washington’s favourite ayatollah, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, was killed the day after Baghdad fell. Khoei had become a personal friend of British Prime Minister Tony Blair during his long exile in London, and had strong US backing. But a mob hacked him to death in the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf on 10 April, 2003, the day after he arrived, leaving the field open to less pro-American rivals.

One was Iraq’s current senior ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, an Iranian-born scholar who issued a fatwa early in last year’s US invasion calling on all Muslims to fight the invading infidel forces. His principal rival for the loyalty of Iraqi Shias was Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, an Iraqi-born cleric who had spent more than twenty years in exile in Iran after backing that country’s Islamic regime against Iraq in the 1980-88 war.

Hakim was willing to cooperate with the US occupiers in the hope that an election would ultimately give the Shias power, but he was killed by a huge car bomb outside the Imam Ali shrine on 29 August, 2003. That left only the recalcitrant Sistani — and the young firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr. At 30, Sadr is less than half the age of his rival, and he lacks a rigorous education in Islamic law, but he is the son of a revered former grand ayatollah who was murdered by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1999 and he has a strong following among the urban poor.

Last March Paul Bremer made a deal with Sistani. The ayatollah guaranteed that the Shia would remain quiet this year (until George W. Bush’s re-election bid in the US is safely past, in other words), in return for free elections in Iraq early next year. And then, seeking to insure against the risk that Sadr would try to spoil the deal, Bremer did something very foolish: he attacked Sadr directly.

In early April the US occupation authorities closed down Sadr’s newspaper, a 10,000-circulation weekly that stridently condemned the occupation but had little influence, and issued an arrest warrant charging Sadr with Khoei’s murder. Sadr took his militia to the sacred city of Najaf and defied the Americans to come and get him. Impoverished young Shias rose in revolt in east Baghdad and the cities of the south, and hundreds died before the US command negotiated a truce. By then, Moqtada al-Sadr was famous across Iraq and the whole Muslim world.

US troops could have fought their way into Najaf, violated the Imam Ali mosque and killed Sadr if they were willing to pay the price, and the price in American lives would not even be great: American firepower, equipment and training mean that a hundred young Shia men die in the fighting for every American who is killed. But the POLITICAL price would have been huge, so the US forces were called off in May. Why are they attacking again now?

Whatever the truth about the incident that re-started the fighting, it’s clearly an American choice to go for broke against Sadr. US forces were under no compulsion to escalate as they have done, and the newly appointed Iraqi “transitional government” could not have forced them to. The likely answer is that the sudden removal of Sistani from the scene (he flew to London for heart treatment two weeks ago) has made Sadr too powerful, and too dangerous to the “transitional government,” to be left alive.

There are to be no witnesses this time: the few journalists in Najaf have been ordered to leave on pain of arrest. But if this ends in a last stand and a massacre of the al-Mahdi militia in the most sacred site in the Shia world, possibly doing serious damage to the Imam Ali mosque itself, the long-term cost to the United States will far outweigh any possible gains. The logic of the strategy is still very hard to follow.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“Retired…state”; and “Last…directly”)