One of the questions asked before the so-called transfer of power from US pro-consul Paul Bremer to Iyad Allawi at the end of June was whether the new Iraqi government would be able to prevent another brutal and murderous US assault on an Iraqi city like the one on Falluja in April.
One of the questions asked before the so-called transfer of power from US pro-consul Paul Bremer to Iyad Allawi at the end of June was whether the new Iraqi government would be able to prevent another brutal and murderous US assault on an Iraqi city like the one on Falluja in April. Few thought that they would, and last month the sceptics’ instincts were confirmed when the US launched a massive assault on Najaf to try to destroy the heart of the Shi’i resistance to its occupation of Iraq. The official line was that the operation was carried out by Iraqi security forces in response to operations by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and that US troops were only operating in support of the Iraqi forces at the request of the Allawi government. But this was the thinnest of facades; observers had noted a build-up of US troops, including elite Marine assault units, throughout July, and the assault was widely anticipated. The precise timing of the operation may have been prompted by Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani’s departure from Najaf to travel to London for medical treatment at the beginning of the month.
The US attack on Falluja was intensively covered in the world media at a time when the nature of the US occupation and its future plans were at the forefront of international concerns. The attack on Najaf, by contrast, has been rather less covered, perhaps because formal responsibility for it lay not with the US but with local proxies established in Baghdad precisely to shield the US from the consequences of this sort of operation. The result was that the resistance in Najaf were not seen as resisting a foreign invasion, as many regarded the defenders of Falluja, but as rebels fighting against a more-or-less legitimate Iraqi government and political process. The media may also have been influenced by the fact that the resistance was personalised in the form of Muqtada al-Sadr, described as a ‘firebrand’ and an ‘extremist’, who appears for Westerners to be the very embodiment of ‘radical’ or ‘militant’ Islam, and who is suspected of having links with Iran, a major Islamic bogey-man in the Western psyche.
It is not difficult to understand why the US and its allies fear Muqtada al-Sadr. At least 60 percent of Iraq’s population are Shi’a, a fact with profound implications for the country’s political future, particularly if any sort of democratic system -- however limited -- is established, as the West has promised to do. Iraqi Shi’a were among the most oppressed Iraqis under Saddam Hussein’s rule, and the US expected they would be easily manipulable through Shi’a politicians like Ahmad Chalabi and Iyad Allawi. This has proved a massive miscalculation. Although some politicians, including the Majlis (the usual Arabic name for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI) decided to cooperate with the occupation forces and try to oppose the US’s plans from within the political structures it established, the brutality and incompetence of US rule confirmed the Shi’as’ instinctive support for more militant resistance to the occupation. Muqtada al-Sadr, previously a junior figure in the Shi’a leadership, despite being the scion of a famous family, provided the sort of assertive and steadfast leadership they demanded and needed.
However, the political situation within the Shi’a community remains finely balanced. Although al-Sadr commands the political support of most Iraqi Shi’as -- though by no means all -- they continue to owe their Islamic allegiance to the country’s maraje’, the most senior of whom is Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani, whose intervention ended the invasion of Najaf after the Mahdi Army’s resistance had forced the US into a stalemate. Neither the senior ulama nor Muqtada al-Sadr can afford to ignore each other. If they work together, the Shi’a can become a virtually irresistible force in Iraqi affairs; but at least some of them seem to be aware that this could play into the Americans’ hands, as there are other Muslims in Iraq who fear Shi’a power as much as they fear the US. Until the Islamic movements of all communities in Iraq can work together, they will not be able to assert their power without risk of internecine conflict.
Thanks to the role played by Ayatullah al-Sistani, Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged from his defence of Najaf with his credibility enhanced, and with massive support among Iraqi Shi’as. He has also been offered a role in the political plans for Iraq being put together by Iyad Allawi under the watchful eye of the Americans. In the past he has hinted that he might adopt a political role; he may decide that this is a good time to move into such a role from a position of strength. Such as move may also be supported by some senior ulama, who might like to see an assertive Shi’a figure in the political sphere while they stay out of it. Others, however, would regard it as a mistake, fearing that -- as so often happens -- the political system will succeed in changing al-Sadr rather than the other way around.
Meanwhile the Mahdi Army, which fought so strongly to defend Najaf and was not defeated, also survives to fight another day. It consists largely of fighters from the Shi’a heartlands of Iraq, and those who were not martyred at Najaf -- as so many were -- or in fighting in Sadr City and other towns during the same period are prepared to take up their weapons again should the need arise.
Iraq, meanwhile, is in political chaos, with several major towns either under the control of the resistance, such as Falluja, Baquba, Samarra, Kut, Mahmoudiyya, Hilla and Ramadi, or under only tenuous government authority. The US’s only interest is in maintaining some semblance of control, however illusory, in order to get through the November elections without further disaster, and to secure its long-term economic and strategic interests, regardless of the consequences for the Iraqi people. How Iraq’s Shi’a leaders will choose to proceed in these conditions remains to be seen.