Hundreds of Iraqis were killed, and the centre of the holy city of Najaf, the home of the shrine of Ali ibn Abi Talib (ra), devastated by a massive American assault on the city which lasted for most of August. In scenes reminiscent of the American assault on Falluja in April, US military aircraft, helicopter gunships and tanks were used to pound the city centre, as the US desperately tried to break the back of the Shi’i resistance in the country and to capture Muqtada al-Sadr, seen as the main challenge to the US plans to legitimise Iyad Allawi’s government. The ceasefire offered to al-Sadr by the Allawi regime, which he accepted on the advice of Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani, recognises the total failure of the US forces to achieve their key objectives.
According to US officials, they launched their operation on August 5 at the request of the Allawi government, in response to an attack on a police station in Najaf by members of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. In fact, circumstances make it clear that the assault was planned in advance and the attack on August 5 merely a pretext. On July 31 senior members of al-Sadr’s organization had been arrested by US troops in Karbala. On August 2 US troops surrounded al-Sadr’s residence in Najaf and only withdrew after stiff resistance from the Mahdi Army. In response to this attack,the Mahdi Army took up positions throughout the city, which they had vacated in May, when Muqtada al-Sadr suspended the Shi’a uprising.
Mahdi Army units in Sadr City, Baghdad, and other southern cities, such as Karbala, Nasariya, Basra and Amara did the same, expecting further US operations against them. These moves were then used by the US as the pretext for their main attack on Najaf, which was spearheaded by a specialised assault force from the elite 11theMarine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). This was among the units sent to Iraq after the supposed transfer of power to the Allawi government at the end of June. The total number of US troops in Iraq increased from 138,000 to over 145,000 in July, as the US, having transferred public responsibility for its actions to Iraqi faces in Baghdad, planned renewed operations against Iraqi resistance groups.
If the US had hoped that Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army could be overwhelmed by massive force, and the threat of damage to the Imam Ali shrine, they were to be bitterly disappointed. Despite facing a massive and well-equipped enemy, which was clearly willing to cause immense damage and unlimited civilian casualties in order to achieve their objectives, the few hundred Mahdi Army mujahideen, supported by local people, succeeded in defending the heart of the city against all comers.
Meanwhile, the attack on Najaf also provoked anger among other Iraqis, with operations in support of the Najaf resistance in Baghdad, Basra and other areas, threatening a broadening of the conflict. There was also growing anger in the rest of the Muslim world at the brutality of the US operation, even though the Western media did not give it the coverage it deserved, influenced perhaps by the fact that the attack on Najaf was officially ordered not by US authorities but by the Allawi government, and so was portrayed as being a challenge to a constitutional local government rather than foreign invaders.
The Allawi regime, perhaps recognising the strength of the resistance before the US did, began to make conciliatory noises towards al-Sadr as soon as the attack began, offering him a political route to end the fighting. Most notably, this offered him a political role in the future of the country, cancelling the arrest warrants issued against him for various alleged offences since the US invasion last year. Al-Sadr, who has sometimes been accused of vacillating between positions and not following through with commitments to stand up to the US and its local allies, this time refused to accept any deal offered by the Allawi regime that would involve disbanding the Mahdi Army and permitting US troops to occupy Najaf, which would have looked like surrender. Instead, by fighting the US forces to a stalemate, and refusing to be defeated, despite being personally wounded, he turned the attack on the city into an inspiring victory over the US forces, even though some Iraqi Shi’as were criticising him for exposing the Imam Ali shrine to possible damage.
The stalemate was finally broken by the return to Najaf of Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani, who had travelled to London for medical treatment shortly before the US launched its attack. (The timing of the US attack may not have been a coincidence; attacking Najaf was bad enough, but they probably regarded injuring or killing one of Iraq’s senior-most marja’ was a risk best avoided.)
Ayatullah Sistani returned to Najaf on August 26, accompanied by thousands of Shi’i pilgrims, whom he had mobilised to “rescue the shrine”. As the US forces declared a 24-hour ceasefire, he invited al-Sadr to his temporary residence for talks, informed him of the terms that Allawi was offering, and advised him to accept. Al-Sadr accepted the advice, the agreement was announced immediately and the Mahdi Army troops began to lay down its arms.
It was important to al-Sadr that the agreement he accepted came via Sistani without his having to deal with Allawi or the US. The terms of the deal make clear that al-Sadr has won a significant victory over the US. It ensures that the Mahdi Army survives to fight for Iraq in the future, with its credibility enhanced as a result of its brave defence of Najaf, rather than being disbanded, as initially demanded by Allawi.
Contrary to initial reports, designed to make the deal look better in the Western press, the Mahdi Army has not even been disarmed, although its soldiers disarmed themselves and changed out of their uniforms in order to leave the city safely. Sayyid Immad Muhammad Kelantal, who acted as a go-between for Sistani and al-Sadr, later confirmed that the agreement permitted the Mahdi Army to retain their weapons. Having set out to destroy al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, the US has instead suffered another severe and embarrassing setback.