[Marxism] Rebel Cleric May Have Emerged the Winner
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Aug 28 06:23:39 MDT 2004
LA Times, August 28, 2004
Rebel Cleric May Have Emerged the Winner
Iraq's interim premier and U.S. forces have no guarantee that Muqtada Sadr
will stop fighting.
By Alissa J. Rubin, Times Staff Writer
BAGHDAD Having returned from his sick bed to broker a peace deal freeing
Najaf's sacred mosque of rebel fighters, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani
appears to have grown into a larger-than-life figure, the one man who could
end the deadly conflict between an upstart cleric and the Iraqi government
and its U.S. backers.
To win the agreement, Sistani displayed both his moral authority and his
ability to rouse a mass movement of supporters literally overnight.
But at the same time that Sistani burnished his image as the preeminent
Shiite Muslim leader in a nation with a Shiite majority, it was anti-U.S.
Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr who may have walked away with the best deal: A
man accused of being an accessory to murder, Sadr left the mosque with
amnesty for any crimes he might have committed, an invitation to join in
national politics, and freedom for his militiamen, many of whom remained
Left in a weaker position were interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the
U.S.-led military forces that back him. Allawi got no guarantee that Sadr
would desist from armed activities outside Najaf and neighboring Kufa,
leaving open the distinct possibility that he would remobilize his forces
and remain, at the least, a thorn in the government's side.
As for American soldiers, they will leave Najaf under the terms of the deal
brokered by Sistani a day after he returned home from three weeks of
medical treatment in Britain.
It was the second time in less than three months that the Americans were
unable to put a firm end to Sadr and his forces. In June, the cleric agreed
to leave the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf without a formal deal being struck,
and he and his forces later returned. U.S. troops similarly withdrew from
Fallouja after a Sunni Muslim insurgency during the spring.
The pact brokered by Sistani makes Najaf and Kufa, like Fallouja, in effect
a no-go zone for U.S. troops.
Key elements of Sistani's deal include the requirements that Najaf and Kufa
become weapons-free zones and that armed groups there leave and never
return. Under the deal, Iraqi police will be responsible for law
enforcement, all foreign troops will leave both cities, and the Iraqi
government will compensate Najaf residents for damage from the fighting.
Sistani also requested that a census be taken before an Iraqi national
election a move intended to hold the Allawi government to its promise of
having a vote early next year.
Although largely framed as a face-off between Sadr and the U.S. military,
the drama that unfolded in Najaf during the last three weeks was in essence
a public display of internal Shiite politics. What has been at stake is the
ultimate leadership of Iraq's Shiite majority.
Sistani, Sadr and Allawi are all Shiites, and each represents a major
strain of the dominant sect. Allawi speaks for secularists. Sistani appears
to represent a moderate religious element comfortable with a secular
government as long as it is sensitive to Shiite interests. Sadr speaks for
fundamentalist Shiites whose main platform is opposition to a foreign
military or political presence in Iraq.
"This has been all about Shia politics," said a Western diplomat who worked
in Iraq until recently and speaks Arabic. "And it's about the authority of
the state, and that's still playing out."
Far from constricting Sadr, the deal brokered by Sistani gave him much of
what he wanted except for the shrine, which shielded him and his Al Mahdi
militia from the military might of U.S. forces and the interim Iraqi
Although Sistani looked Friday like the consummate power broker, he still
must contend with Sadr, who has been willing to threaten him and publicly
insult his gradualist approach of moving toward elections under the U.S. eye.
Moreover, Allawi and the Americans failed to get what they wanted most: an
end to Sadr. In addition, the Americans, who did much of the fighting
against the militia, looked to some as destroyers of the Old City of Najaf
and as killers of civilians usually inadvertently and young Sadr
Even before day's end Friday, Sadr's assistants again were talking tough
and gloating about having triumphed.
"There is a victory, a very great victory, because we didn't hand our
weapons to the government or the occupation authorities," said Sheik Ahmed
Shibani, a key Sadr lieutenant. "The Mahdi army pulled out from the city.
We proved that the Mahdi army cannot be disarmed and will never be
disarmed, and this is a victory.
"They have been kissing our hands to get us to participate in politics, but
competing in an election under occupation is not possible," he said.
There is considerable resentment of Sadr, particularly among residents of
the battered holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, where his rebellion has
wreaked havoc on the economy by halting the flow of pilgrims. But it
remains to be seen whether Sistani's supporters, who are generally
reluctant to speak out against Sadr, will act to restrain the rebel cleric
in the months ahead.
Allawi, who has little patience for the Shiite insurgency, found himself
torn between his party, many of whose members served under Saddam Hussein,
and his coalition government, which includes Shiites with strong religious
Although Allawi and his defense minister wanted to demolish Sadr and his
forces while they were holed up in the Najaf mosque, they recognized that
any assault on the shrine could have violent repercussions in large swaths
of Iraq and in neighboring Iran and Syria, both home to large numbers of
The deal Sistani crafted allowed Allawi to avoid damaging the shrine and
putting his troops in harm's way by storming the mosque. It also made the
interim prime minister appear deferential to clerical authority a boon
since his generally secular image had failed to appeal to religious Iraqis.
However, there is no avoiding the reality that the interim Iraqi government
is facing an entrenched insurgency of fundamentalist Shiites. It also faces
continued problems with Sunni Muslim insurgents and foreign fighters. The
initial post-Hussein insurgency involved Sunnis, many of them former
Baathists or highly religious Wahhabis, as well as the foreign fighters.
The Americans, meanwhile, had to be the main military presence in Najaf
because the Iraqi government's security forces were ill prepared. Absent
from the negotiations the Americans wished to leave that role to Allawi
they looked to many as having exerted a heavy hand and being partially
responsible for rampant destruction in Najaf.
Troops on the ground seemed well aware of the problem Friday. "I'm hoping
they let us stay and do some of the reconstruction work," said Lt. Col.
Myles Miyamasu, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, in
Najaf. "We want to set the record straight. We're not here to just destroy
Disconcerting to U.S. soldiers was that much was still unclear about how
the Iraqi government would enforce the agreement. Will U.S. troops be told
to leave the city entirely, or just remain on the edges? Will they leave
only the Old City?
If U.S. troops are told to leave, will Iraqi forces be tough enough to do
their job, or will they be overwhelmed again?
Sadr's recent history of agreeing to back down but then reneging on his
pledges looms large for the government and the Americans, whose soldiers
are often victims of guerrilla attacks by the cleric's fighters.
In May and early June, when his followers occupied the shrine and then,
under pressure, agreed to withdraw and disarm, they gradually crept back in.
Said a U.S. commander in Najaf: "This is exactly the same position we were
in last time around."
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