[Marxism] Shia fighters, US troops clash; talks on ending shrine standoff hit snag

Marvin Gandall marvgandall at rogers.com
Sun Aug 22 07:26:40 MDT 2004


Fred Feldman wrote:

> The fact that the Shia religious leadership in Najaf has been drawn back
> into the process of discussions is an important gain for Sadr.  The snag
> in the discussions, the Sadr forces demand that Sistani's aides audit
> the temple's contents to guarantee that there was no looting by the Sadr
> troops, is an understandable one which is required for their moral and
> political standing with the people.
>
> If the government forces get in without such an audit, for example, they
> could loot the temple and then claim that it had been done by Sadr's
> forces.  Sadr's forces have been charged with looting elsewhere.  In
> this case, they give a high priority to proving that any such charges
> will not be true, given the importance of the shrine to Shias. I suspect
> Sistani's aides will have to find a way to meet this concern.
------------------------------------
As you point out, there is manuvering on both sides designed to affect the
public perception of the outcome of the standoff. The Sadrists really don't
need to have Sistani aides inspect the condition of the shrine as they
vacate it, since they have to date allowed the Arab and Western press
virtually unimpeded access, and could do so again to allow the media to
verify it is being left in good order.

Based on the accounts I've read, though, I think it is the Sistani people
who are the ones impeding a resolution -- probably encouraged by the
Americans and their Iraqi collaborators.

The keys to the temple have become symbolic. The Sistanists have refused to
meet with the Sadrists at the shrine to accept the keys, but have demanded
the Sadrists first vacate the premises and then deliver the keys to them.
The Sadrists clearly want to convey an image of Shia unity and equal status
for both the competing camps by arranging for a turnover on site. The
Sistani proposal rejects this and confroms to the overriding US/Allawi
objective of turning the standoff into an abject Sadrist defeat, with the
Sadr camp having been forced to defer to the authority of the Grand
Ayatollah, a critic of armed resistance to the occupation. That is what I
think may holding things up, although we've also seen accounts that
lower-level Sadrist leaders want to continue to hold the mosque.

Anyway, a further account on developments from today's Washington Post:

MG
-------------------------
Militia Clings To Najaf Shrine
Shiite Factions Fail To Agree on Terms For a Handover

By Naseer Nouri and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page A01

NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 22 -- Loyalists of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr
remained in control of the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine on Saturday after
failing to reach an agreement with representatives of Iraq's most senior
Shiite leader on how to hand over the holy site.

Sadr and his lieutenants have promised to vacate the shrine as ordered by
Iraq's interim government, but there was no indication Saturday that they
were moving to comply with that provision or with another, equally important
government demand: that Sadr disband his armed militia, known as the Mahdi
Army.

Although public areas of the shrine were empty of militiamen and weapons on
Saturday afternoon -- the crowd inside appeared to be composed of unarmed
Sadr loyalists -- hundreds of the cleric's militiamen, many carrying assault
rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, remained quartered in the
network of narrow alleys that lead to the shine. As an announcement from the
shrine's crackly loudspeakers urged militiamen to keep fighting, several of
them insisted they would stay in their positions to resist the encroachment
of U.S. military and Iraqi security forces.

"We will continue to fight," vowed Ali Smeisim, Sadr's chief deputy. He said
the militia would use the labyrinthine urban landscape "to take cover and to
fight the Americans."

The challenge facing U.S. and Iraqi forces, should they mount a full
offensive against Mahdi Army militiamen near the shrine, was starkly evident
on one road leading toward the holy site. Militiamen had set up sniper nests
atop buildings. On the road, a thin wire led to a wooden cart stacked with
bricks. Concealed amid the bricks was a homemade pipe bomb.

"Be careful! Be careful!" an old woman shouted. "Those wires are for bombs."

At the shrine, a top Mahdi Army commander, Akram Kaabi, said his men would
"continue defending the city and our holy places."

The crisis had appeared on the verge of resolution Friday, when Sadr's aides
announced they would remove weapons from the shrine and turn over the
brick-walled compound to representatives of the country's most senior Shiite
cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

But aides to Sadr and Sistani were unable to agree Saturday on how to turn
over keys to the shrine's gates, doors and safes, which are believed to
contain millions of dollars deposited by religious pilgrims. Sadr's aides
said they tried to hand over the keys to Sistani's representatives, who
refused to accept them, demanding that the shrine first be evacuated.
Smeisim said he wanted a delegation from Sistani's office to inspect the
shrine and make sure its treasures were intact before a turnover.

Representatives of Sistani, who is undergoing medical treatment near London,
refused. They said they would not travel to the shrine because it was
unsafe.

Clashes around the shrine resumed Saturday evening after a relatively quiet
day. Militiamen fired mortars toward U.S. Marine positions north of the
shrine, prompting the Marines to respond with 155mm artillery. Loud bursts
of small-arms fire echoed though the warrens around the shrine as militiamen
skirmished with Iraqi police patrols on the outskirts of Najaf's old city
area, which is home to the shrine.

Shortly after midnight Sunday, a line of tanks from the 5th Cavalry cascaded
down from the cemetery and approached a split-level parking garage at the
west side of the mosque complex.

As Bradley Fighting Vehicles fired tracers toward defensive machine-gun
positions and an AC-130 Spectre gunship circled overhead, the Abrams tanks
punched round after round into the concrete garage and the building above
it, collapsing much of the westernmost end of the structure in a series of
deafening roars.

Commanders declined to discuss the purpose of the raid, which lasted less
than three hours and brought U.S. armor closer to the militants' refuge arou
nd the mosque -- and for the first time, from the rear. But major combat
missions proceed only with the approval of the interim prime minister, Ayad
Allawi, who has apparently sought to demonstrate to Sadr the urgency with
which the government seeks a solution -- and the potency of the U.S. forces
at its disposal if negotiations fail yet again. Sadr took the only visible
step toward a solution, moving his militia's arms out of the shrine building
Friday.

Seeking to encourage a peaceful resolution to the standoff, U.S. forces had
paused offensive operations and patrols that might appear provocative.
Sadr's aides had complained that the last attempt to negotiate a settlement,
on Tuesday, was undermined by combat operations.

"No one can say we're not giving them a chance to work this thing out," said
Army Maj. Bob Pizzitola, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 5th
Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, which patrols the vast Valley of Peace
cemetery north of the shrine with U.S. Marines. The unit's log of enemy
contacts included 13 entries over a period of 12 hours.

"Normally we have 13 in an hour," Pizzitola said. "This is one of the
slowest days we've had since this started."

U.S. military commanders in Najaf and Iraqi leaders in Baghdad sought to
determine whether Sadr's pledge on Thursday night that he would vacate the
mosque was genuine and whether he would comply with demands to dissolve his
militia. Hussein Mohammed Hadi Sadr, an elderly Shiite cleric who led a
delegation to Najaf Tuesday representing a 1,200-member national political
conference, urged Moqtada Sadr to "understand the depths of this crisis" and
make a clear statement indicating whether he will hand over the shrine and
dismantle his militia.

"The crisis in Najaf is tiring us and we are eager to reach a peaceful
solution, a speedy solution, for we are in a race with time," said Hussein
Sadr, who is a distant relative of Moqtada Sadr.

The suspension of offensive operations earlier Saturday did not extend to
Kufa, the city adjoining Najaf that is also a Sadr stronghold. In an
operation early Saturday, Marines stormed a police station held by Sadr
forces, killing several militiamen and detaining more than two dozen young
men found in a basement.

Elsewhere in Iraq, the U.S. military announced that two soldiers from the
U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division were killed Friday evening by a roadside
bomb near the city of Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad. Another
soldier was killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Baghdad on
Saturday, the military said. Also on Saturday, one Polish soldier was killed
and six were injured when a booby-trapped car exploded next to their convoy
near Hilla, about 60 miles south of the capital.

An aide to Sadr said kidnappers had lifted their threat to kill a U.S.
journalist who was abducted in the southern city of Nasiriyah with his Iraqi
interpreter, the Associated Press reported. The kidnappers, calling
themselves the Martyrs Brigade, had threatened on Thursday to kill Micah
Garen of New York within 48 hours if U.S. troops did not leave Najaf. But
Sadr aide Aws Khafaji said Saturday in Nasiriyah that he had spoken to
mediators who said the death threat had been lifted. Khafaji said the
mediators were working to have Garen released.

Chandrasekaran reported from Baghdad. Correspondent Karl Vick in Najaf
contributed to this report.











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