I. Rashomon in Babylon
It has been cast as a ferocious battle against a mighty opponent: a fanatical "apocalyptic cult" storming the holy city of Najaf with hundreds of warriors led by a self-proclaimed Islamic Messiah, their frenzy quelled only at the last moment by a massive intervention of American firepower. But as with so much else in the blood-soaked annals of the Bush Administration’s disastrous Babylonian Conquest, it appears this neat story masks a far grimmer, grubbier truth: a mass slaughter of civilians, caught in the toxic fog of hair-trigger tension, sectarian hatred and violent political ambition unleashed by the U.S. invasion.
The January 28 clash in Najaf was, the New York Times proclaimed, the greatest one-day battle in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad in 2003. Some 200—400 "cultists" were killed by Iraqi troops and the American air and ground forces that came to their rescue when the apocalyptics — whose ranks included Baathists and al Qaeda terrorists — nearly overran the Iraqi government troops, according to the NYT and other Western media.
The "bizarre" and "extraordinary" attack by the obscure but massively armed "Soldiers of Heaven" Shiite splinter group was an attempt to kill the leading clerics in the sacred city, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of millions of Iraqi Shiites, we were told. This massacre would supposedly usher in the reign of the Mahdi, the Islamic Messiah-figure which many Shiites believe is coming to redeem — and judge — the world. For hours on end, the outgunned and ill-trained Iraqi government soldiers held off the swarming zealots until American planes began bombing raids on the cult’s entrenched positions in the groves outside Najaf and U.S. troops marched in to bolster the flagging locals.
It was indeed a rousing tale of carnage, courage and fearsome zeal, fit for one of Mel Gibson’s cinematic bloodbaths. Yet in the days following the attack, it has became increasingly apparent that the story being presented in the Western media — based largely on accounts from Iraqi government officials and the Pentagon — has about as much historical accuracy as Gibson’s ersatz epics.
So what happened in Najaf? It is of course hard to see anything clearly through the natural confusions of a nation in chaos and the deliberate manipulations of the powerful and their sycophants, but there are independent Iraqi sources — non-sectarian, non-aligned, democratic — who have been providing eyewitness accounts and analyses of stories in the wide-ranging Iraqi press, which is almost entirely ignored by the Western media. One of these, the blog "Healing Iraq" — written by "Zayed," an Iraqi professional who spent his childhood in Britain — has led the way in unpacking the Najaf firestorm. (Patrick Cockburn, one of the most knowledgeable and insightful reporters covering Iraq, drew heavily on Zayed’s work in a brief report for The Independent which came out as this story was going to press.)
To be fair, it’s no wonder that Western accounts of the fighting were confused, as they relied on the "bizarre" and "extraordinary" — and wildly varying — accounts from officials of the Bush-backed Iraqi government. For example, one of the primary sources for the New York Times’ story of the battle — which no Western reporters were allowed to witness — was Abdul Hussein Abtan, the deputy governor of Najaf province, and a member of one of the Iranian-backed, armed sectarian factions that George W. Bush has empowered in Baghdad, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). During a press conference aired on Al-Iraqiya television, Abted first claimed that the "foreign-funded" cult was led by a Lebanese, then later said its leader was an Iraqi. As Zayed notes, none of the journalists present questioned the contradiction.
In his latest report, Zayed details the bewildering array of versions offered up by factions connected with the Iraqi government. It was followers of controversial cleric Motqada al-Sadr who first identified the Najaf "attackers" as members of the cult. The Sadrists, buttressed by spokesmen in the Iraqi Health Ministry, which they control, also asserted that the group was planning to kidnap, not kill, Sistani, Sadr and other top Shiite clerics. It was also the Sadrists who claimed that the attackers were working with al Qaeda and Saddam loyalists, "and that they received logistical and monetary backing from Saudi Arabia." They said the sect’s leader was an Iraqi named Dhiaa’ Abdul Zahra Kadhim.
Meanwhile, SCIRI members, buttressed by the Najaf provincial government, which they control, said that more than 1,000 terrorists were killed in the battle, and that some 200 "brainwashed women and children" were detained and "removed to another place," presumably for deprogramming. SCIRI officials differed on the number of terrorists captured in the battle; one said 50, another said 16, yet another said "hundreds" were detained. It was SCIRI that advanced the notion that the attack aimed to kill the clerics, not capture them. Various SCIRI officials said the cult’s leader was a) the aforesaid unnamed Lebanese national; b) Dhiaa’ Abdul Zahra Kadhim, as in the Sadrist account; c) a renegade Sadrist named Ahmed Kadhim Al-Gar’awi Al-Basri; d) another renegade Sadrist named Ahmed Hassan al-Yamani; e) a self-proclaimed messiah named Ali bin Ali bin Abi Talib.
A SCIRI member of the Najaf governing council also claimed that "the leader of this group had links with the former regime elements since 1993. Some of the gunmen brought their families with them in order to make it easier to enter the city," Associated Press reports. An Iraqi army officer, sectarian affiliation unknown, added that Lebanese, Egyptians and Sudanese were taken prisoner in the battle — though none of these foreign fighters have yet been produced. And just for good measure, Najaf’s SCIRI governor, As’ad Abu Gilel, said the attackers were Sunni insurgents, planning to attack Shiite pilgrims on their way to mark the festival of Ashura in Najaf.
U.S. military officials originally picked various items from this dizzying smorgasbord of spin in cobbling together their own version of the battle, although in general they hewed more closely to the SCIRI line. But that’s not surprising, given the fact that this violent, extremist Shiite faction, whose death-dealing militia is deeply embedded in the Iraqi security forces, is currently in high favor with the Bush White House.
However, by mid-week, the Pentagon suddenly reversed course and came out with a whole new account, one cited by Bush himself, as the Washington Post reported. Now the battle was depicted as an exemplary pre-emptive strike by an "aggressive" and "impressive" Iraqi military, acting on good intelligence that the cult intended to storm Najaf and kill the leading clerics because they refused to recognize the claim of the cult’s leader (now known as Samer Abu Kamar, by the way) to be the Mahdi.
Far from having to rescue the hapless Iraqis, American forces were simply there in a supporting role, providing "backup ground troops along with helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft support" in an attack on the cult’s positions in the palm groves and farms of rural Zarqa, not far from Najaf, the Post said. Bush — that seasoned veteran of combat — had this reaction to the battle: "The Iraqis are beginning to show me something." And indeed, a spokesman for Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki — who has been publicly warned by Bush officials that he will be removed from the sovereign government of Iraq by the Americans if he doesn’t help Bush’s "surge" plan by cracking down on the Shiite militias that back him — pointed to the battle as proof that Maliki can deliver the goods.
Thus, in just three days time, the battle for Najaf morphed from an eruption of yet another level of sectarian strife threatening to overwhelm the tottering Iraqi government into a bravura display of the wonder-working power of Bush’s "New Way Forward." Yet the only certainty that could really be gleaned from the official accounts ricocheting around the Western media was that when the smoke finally cleared from the palms and the fields, the ground was littered with scores of burnt and mangled corpses.
II. Under the Crazy Quilt
But the independent Iraqi sources paint an entirely different picture. Although here too there is much uncertainty — and thickets of impenetrable Shiite factionalism and secular political maneuvering — these accounts converge in a basic narrative that is far more coherent, and more grounded on actual reporting from the area, than the crazy quilt that Iraqi and American government officials, and the U.S. media, have thrown over the battle.
Based on accounts from Healing Iraq, the respected daily Azzaman (also here), on-scene reporting from Inter Press Service, and stories from other Iraqi papers and other media outlets translated by various websites, here is an outline of what seems to have happened on January 28.
In the early morning hours, a convoy of some 200 members of the al-Hatami tribe were making their way to Najaf for Ashura, the highly emotional commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, at the hands of Caliph Yazid I in 680. This was the instigation of the centuries-long split between Shiites — minority adherents of Hussein and his father, Ali (Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law), whom Shiites believe were the Prophet’s rightful heirs as leaders of the Muslim community — and Sunnis, the majority who believe that the early line of non-hereditary caliphs forged the true path of orthodox Islam.
The al-Hatamis are Shiites, but have dissented from the Shiite factions now running the Iraqi government: SCIRI, Maliki’s Dawa Party, Motqada al-Sadr’s party and others. Together with an allied tribe, the al-Khazalis, based near Najaf, the al-Hatamis have opposed the American occupation and the Iraqi government from the beginning, albeit peacefully so far. They also reject the spiritual leadership of both Ayatollah Sistani and his younger rival, Sadr, and any ties with Iran. They would not necessarily be the most welcome guests in the SCIRI-controlled province or in Sistani’s hometown of Najaf, where tensions were already high as authorities braced for expected terrorist attacks on the multitude of pilgrims descending on the city.
Most of the men in the al-Hatami procession were armed — as most men are in Iraq, especially when traveling by night. At an Iraqi army checkpoint on the road between Diwaniya and Najaf, there was some kind of altercation. Whether by design or perhaps more likely through a misunderstanding of the sort that has left countless Iraqis dead at government and Coalition checkpoints, the Iraqi troops opened fire on the car carrying the tribe’s elderly chief, Haj al-Hatemi and his wife, who were riding because they were too frail to join the others in the march. Seeing their chief cut down, the al-Hatamis retaliated with gunfire. They were driven back into the palm groves near Zarqa as Iraqi forces gave pursuit.
At this point, the al-Khazalis intervened, coming to support their tribal allies while reportedly trying to negotiate with the Iraqi forces to end the shooting. But the government forces had already called for heavy reinforcements. Within minutes, Iraqi ministers in Baghdad were claiming that Najaf was under attack by al Qaeda terrorists. Muaffaq al-Rubaii, the Iraqi National Security Adviser who is, curiously enough, paid by the Americans and not the Iraqis, said that hundreds of "foreign fighters" had been killed and that the Shiite splinter group Jund As-Sama was behind the attack, aiming to kill the clerics of Najaf.
There was indeed a cult group living in the palm groves of Zarqa. They were apparently part of the Mahdawiya, "a very small fringe Shia movement with scattered followers in major urban centres in the south," led by Sayyid Ahmed al-Hassan, who once followed Motqada al-Sadr’s father (a revered Shiite cleric murdered by Saddam) but now claims to be the Al-Yemanni, a forerunner of the coming Shiite messiah, as Healing Iraq notes. This cult too opposes the occupation — as well as the Iraqi and Iranian governments, which al-Hassan considers apostates.
The movement has only a few hundred followers. And indeed, the Washington Post’s latest report — relaying the Pentagon’s admiration for the Iraqi Army’s derring-do — now says that only some 700 cultist were encamped at Zarqa, instead of the 5,000 or more cited in earlier reports. Oddly enough, the cult’s offices in Najaf had been raided by the Scorpion Brigade of the SCIRI-controlled Interior Ministry only days before the battle. As Zayed reports, "the same happened to [the cult’s] offices in Basra, Amara and Karbala, days ago. Al-Hassan himself was placed under house arrest in Tannumah, Basra, by the Iraqi government some months ago."
Despite repeated attempts by the tribesmen, or at least some of them, to halt the fighting, the Iraqis quickly called in American air support and troops. American planes dropped leaflets on the grove, calling on all "terrorists" to surrender. Then the bombing began. According to tribal leaders, at least 120 Hatamis and more than 30 Khazalis were killed in the attack. They provided lists with the names and occupations of the dead. Local Iraqi hospitals reported women and children among the dead and wounded.
Meanwhile, from eyewitness accounts of reporters from Western papers who were at last allowed into the area, it is apparent that U.S. and Iraqi forces also devastated the cult’s compound. One reporter for the Post saw at least 10 ambulances carting away the dead from the area. He was also shown a video of what Iraqi officials said were the cult’s entrenchments and its large arsenal, including anti-aircraft guns, mortars, and rocket-propelled guns.
But although the outline of the incident is beginning to arise from the murk, much is still unclear. Did the cult launch an attack on the Iraqi forces that had driven the tribespeople into the grove, sparking a vicious firefight that required U.S. bombs and troops to put down? Or, as the Pentagon now claims, was the assault on the cult compound a carefully planned, already scheduled strike by crack Iraqi troops? Did the tribes blunder into the middle of this operation? Is that why the guards at the checkpoint were so quick on the trigger?
Many such questions still remain. However, it is now obvious that the original stories fed to the media about the attack were untrue — and that almost all of them were deliberate untruths, not just the usual "fog of war" uncertainties. Indeed, there was no uncertainty at all in the ever-shifting official claims; each variant was offered up as an undeniable assertion of fact.
It is also now apparent that the battle — however it originated, either through the escalation of a shooting incident or by the deliberate design of Iraqi and American forces — is being used by both Baghdad and Washington as a vindication of their disastrous policies. Bush gets to tout a "victory" by Iraqi forces (not against the real insurgents, true, but any port in a PR storm will do); while Maliki gets to pretend that he is even-handedly cracking down on Shiite militias — not by touching the death squads of his political supporters, which operate with impunity outside and inside the government, but with blunderbuss assaults on tiny fringe groups and recalcitrant tribes that, conveniently enough, oppose his collaboration with both the Americans and the Iranians.
The incident in Najaf will soon be forgotten, drowned out by the Administration’s beating of war drums against Iran. But in its cynical deceptions and its murderous chaos, it is yet another microcosm of the overarching hell that Bush has made of Iraq.
This article originally appeared on Truthout.org.