Iraq: US Keeps Winning Battles, Losing Wars
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.
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
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
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
the fighting in Najaf has much broader implications, which spell
big trouble for the United States beyond Iraq, according to the
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."
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.
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
will completely discredit America and make it the new tyrant in
the eyes of Shias worldwide," said Al-Qazwini.
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service