Americans Rolling the Dice in Najaf

August 12th, 2004 - by admin

Michael Schwartz / Tom Dispatch – 2004-08-12 23:53:20

(August 11. 2004) — What’s wrong with this picture? The United States invaded Iraq to “liberate,” above all others, that country’s oppressed Shiites, so many of whose rebellious relatives were buried in those “killing fields” Saddam Hussein created while crushing their 1991 uprising; killing fields that were an obligatory stopover for Paul Wolfowitz and his ilk on their brief passages through Iraq. (“We thank all of the citizens of Iraq who welcomed our troops and joined in the liberation of their own country,” said George Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln in his “mission accomplished” speech, as on countless other occasions.)

So who are we killing now — and whose dead bodies are we counting up with a certain pride? Iraqi Shiites. (“Captain Carrie Batson, a marine spokeswoman, said: ‘We estimate we’ve killed 300 anti-Iraqi forces in the past two days of fighting.'”) We also invaded Iraq to “liberate” suffering Shiite cities, including the Shiite slums of Baghdad, which had been given the short end of the electricity, food, and jobs stick by Saddam. Now, in those cities, still lacking regular electricity or clean water, short on food, and short on jobs, what are we doing? We’re strafing, rocketing, and bombing parts of them. Both Najaf and Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in Baghdad, experienced this yesterday.

Or what’s wrong with this picture? We invaded Iraq, as our President has stated so many times, to offer the Iraqis “democracy.” (“In Iraq,” he typically said, addressing Americans four months after Baghdad fell, “we are helping the long suffering people of that country to build a decent and democratic society at the center of the Middle East.”)

Now, our version of Iraq is led by an unelected Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, the ex-Baathist head of an exile organization, the Iraqi National Accord, made up largely of ex-Baathist military officers, backed by the CIA and Britain’s M16, known for planting car bombs in downtown Baghdad in the 1990s. His first democratic impulse on learning that he would be the new Prime Minister was to suggest that perhaps the country’s January elections should be postponed. (He backed down. It wasn’t a good line for the home front — in the U.S.)

He just banned a major Arab television network, al-Jazeera, instituted a curfew in Sadr City (presently being ignored) which he doesn’t control, possibly murdered six insurgent suspects in cold blood in a Baghdad police station (a story that disappeared beneath the waves), and reinstituted the death penalty for more or less all acts of insurgency or rebellion; while a judge connected to his regime has issued warrants against former Pentagon darling Ahmed Chalabi (counterfeiting) and his nephew Salem (murder).

The State Department and the CIA, now firmly ensconced in the largest “embassy” in the world in Baghdad’s Green Zone, have in the meantime just finished instituting their own American-style “regime change.” They (and Allawi, their man in Baghdad) have taken down the Pentagon neocons (and their man Chalabi, at present in Iran).

So fighting and in-fighting are everywhere; planes are bombing and helicopters strafing parts of the capital, while insurgent mortar shells land nightly near or on government buildings. (Three hit the Oil Ministry Monday, according to an NPR reporter). Amid the mayhem, Allawi has officially sent “his” troops and ours south to crush another of his opponents – the young radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – and “re-liberate” the resistant Shiite south through brutal combat on the streets of Najaf and elsewhere.

Allawi’s administration, now the “face” of Iraq – American officials had long talked about putting an “Iraqi face” on things – would in another age have been called a puppet regime. (Keep in mind, however, that puppets can have their own strong ideas about policy and can make their masters heed their desires in all sorts of complex ways.)

Of course, in our press such things cannot be said directly, so you get strange, coded passages that cry out for interpretation like, for instance, this one in an article by Edmund Sanders and Henry Chu in the Los Angeles Times (Most of Najaf in US Control): “In an effort to improve coordination, U.S. troops took ‘operational control’ of Iraqi police and national guard units in Najaf, an American military spokesman said.” Operational control indeed.

What you can follow, now that Iraq has returned to the front pages of our papers, is the fighting in places like Najaf; what you can’t learn is much of anything about the decision to fight and what to make of that decision, which is why the piece below by Michael Schwartz is important. If the foot soldiers are largely in sight; what’s missing is the brain; or put another way, the main character MIA in the present Iraqi drama, the ghost in our media machine reporting from Iraq, is that over-stuffed “embassy” in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Remember L. Paul Bremer?
Remember when — it seems eons ago — the Coalition Provincial Authority was running things in Baghdad, and our man there was the desert-booted L. Paul Bremer? Either he or military spokesman Brig. Gen Mark Kimmett was in front of the cameras hourly, it seemed, making announcements about Iraq’s fate. From Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz on down, in fact, the Pentagon hardliners and neocons, whose emissaries arrived in Baghdad ready to rule (and without any Iraqis except Ahmed Chalabi in tow), seemed to love nothing more than face-time in the media.

What the “turning over of sovereignty” at the end of June signaled was the arrival in Baghdad of a new regime from the State Department and the CIA. With new regimes, of course, come new styles and the new style of this desert-bootless one is no-face-time at all. Soft-spoken Ambassador John Negroponte, a man with much brutal counterinsurgency experience in his background, has simply faded into the woodwork, as has his huge staff, while they’ve put Iraqis forward to do all the talking. Try to remember the last piece you’ve seen about them or our military high command in Iraq. Try to remember the last piece you’ve seen in our media even speculating on their strategies, on what they intend in Iraq. It’s a simple case of out of sight, out of media mind.

But as Michael Schwartz (who last wrote for Tomdispatch on the purely “symbolic sovereignty” being transferred in June) notes, they have quietly made a momentous decision. They’ve decided to roll the dice, go all the way in Najaf. It’s a massive gamble and its brutal results are already before us.

We’re now in the seventh day of bloody combat, involving tank, helicopter, Predator drone, and jet assaults on the downtown area of one of Iraq’s holiest cities, which is –or at least should be — shocking. Where is that liberation now? But it would be — or should be — a shocking decision in relation to any densely populated city, holy or otherwise. And yet where are the anguished or angry editorials in American newspapers?

Is this really the “course” we want to stay on? Is this what we’re really intent on not “cutting and running” from? If so, just remind me: Who exactly gave us the right to bombard heavily populated urban areas or let Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles fire into them? What exactly does this have to do with liberating anyone? Is it really enough that we call the radical Shiite militias — largely made up of unemployed young men we didn’t bother to “reconstruct” (and al-Sadr did) in our many months as the official occupying power in the country — “anti-Iraqi forces,” or “terrorists,” or “criminals,” or “thugs”?

I don’t, of course, want any of this to impugn our generosity, or Allawi’s. We may be destroying downtown Najaf, but our Iraqi prime minister has sworn that we’ll be generous indeed in offering reconstruction funds to rebuild the city afterwards. (“Allawi promised that an end to the militiamen’s occupation of An-Najaf’s old city and its golden mosque, one of Shiite Islam’s most sacred shrines, would be followed by generous government funding for the city’s reconstruction.”)

Destroying the City In Order to Save It?
Now that we’ve been rocketing the city and putting tanks in its sprawling holy cemetery where the fighters of Moqtada al-Sadr have been holed up – “U.S. and Iraqi forces ‘will not allow them to seek sanctuary and hijack this holy cemetery from the people of Iraq,’ Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer of the Marines in Najaf, said in a statement. ‘We will not allow them to continue to desecrate this sacred site, using it as an insurgent base of operations. There will be no sanctuary for thugs and criminals in Najaf.'” — now that we’re destroying Najaf to save it, I just want to know: How exactly do you rebuild an ancient cemetery after you’ve blown parts of it to bits? How do you reconstruct the dead? I’m sure there’s a way.

And more of the same may lie ahead. We know, for instance, that Prime Minister Allawi has already given the Americans a green light to push their combat operations into the previously off-limits area around and including the city’s sacred Imam Ali Shrine.

“‘We fully understand the implications,’ the US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. But by launching sorties from inside the mosque and nearby buildings, Sadr’s fighters had turned the shrine into ‘a legitimate target of attack,’ the official said. He added that any move against the mosque would almost certainly be worked out in advance with Najaf officials.”

Don’t worry, though, whatever we knock down, we can just rebuild. (Of course, just replace Najaf’s holy cemetery or the Imam Ali Shrine with some more familiar revered site, say, the Vatican, or the Wailing Wall, or in an American context, the White House and see how comfortable all this really feels.) Looked at in any light but ours, air attacks on heavily populated civilian areas in Najaf or elsewhere are really criminal acts (no matter the nature of the fighters on the other side); but forget morality, since it’s really not much of an issue in this country, certainly not for the most “moral” administration we’ve ever elected or the media that covers them.

But didn’t any of these people ever pick up a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People? Don’t they know that all those Iraqis we’ve killed have families and friends, as do the buried dead we’re saving from desecration by blowing them to kingdom come? (“Soldiers involved in the fighting described how many of the most recent graves are marked by photos, which crumble when U.S. forces shell the cemetery walls to reach the militiamen hiding within. ‘Wives, daughters, husbands,’ said Sgt. Hector Guzman, 28, of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 5th Regiment. ‘You just know you’re destroying that tomb.’ The Houston native shook his head. ‘It doesn’t feel right sometimes.'”) Don’t they know that military “victories” in wars like this are almost invariably Pyrrhic in nature?

Vietnam All Over Again?
Every one of our top officials in Baghdad is a veteran of the Vietnam experience, but none of them seems, on the evidence of recent developments, to have learned a thing from it. Yes, you can hem an overmatched enemy army into a city and defeat it, even crush it (whatever the toll on the city itself). But no matter how many people you kill, it’s far harder to do that with a movement. Already unintended consequences of our assault on Najaf are spreading. On Monday, after serious threats from al-Sadr militants, the southern oil fields around Basra were even briefly shut down – and global oil prices spiked yet again.

What our officials in Baghdad have done over the last year and a quarter is take a junior cleric, an extreme but relatively minor figure on the Iraqi religious and political scene, although also a man with growing numbers of young, poor followers, and make him into a figure to be reckoned with. Now, in a land with a powerful tradition of martyrdom (not exactly an unknown term, let’s remember, inside Christendom), they threaten to create a martyr, and if they do, they will certainly live to regret it, as they would live to regret damage done to the Imam Ali Shrine, even if al-Sadr was hiding an army inside.

And remember, al-Sadr’s is still a minority movement. The Americans have yet to experience what Iraq would be like if the Shiite majority turned actively against them and took to the streets. In the meantime, we’ve shown Iraqi Shiites what American-style liberation means. We’ve just ordered all civilians out of downtown Najaf for their own good. Free-fire zones anyone?

World’s Shiites Warn That US
Is Treading on Sensitive Ground

Henry Chu and Teresa Watanabe / Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD (August 12, 2004) — With its twin minarets and glinting gold dome, the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf has been a beacon for the Muslim faithful for more than a thousand years. But with fighting raging around the Iraqi shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam is reprising a different historical role: rallying point against foreign forces.

In 1920, rebels intent on kicking out British troops occupying the region gathered at the mosque and readied for revolt. Among their leaders was Sayyid Mohammed Sadr – the scion of a prominent Shiite family and a future prime minister.

Eighty-four years later, cleric Muqtada Sadr, one of Sadr’s descendants, wants the U.S. military out. All eyes are once again trained on the shrine, where a final showdown between Muqtada Sadr’s militia and American troops may yet take place.

“Keep fighting even if you see me detained or martyred,” Sadr said Wednesday to his armed followers, many of whom are holed up in the shrine. “I thank the dear fighters all over Iraq for what they have done to set back injustice.”

With US military officials saying they have received permission from Najaf’s governor to strike the mosque if necessary, religious and political leaders from Iran to Los Angeles are voicing grave warnings that an American assault on the shrine could be catastrophic to the U.S. image in Iraq and the Muslim world.

“The United States is slaughtering the people of one of the holiest Islamic cities, and the Muslim world and the Iraqi nation will not stand by,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of neighboring Iran, said in an address on Iranian state television.

Three major American Muslim organizations also issued statements Wednesday calling for negotiations to end the conflict.

“Illegal under the Geneva Conventions, any fighting or destruction to the mosque would result in incalculable damage to the image and interests of the United States and would be widely condemned across the world,” the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council said.

U.S. authorities, while repeatedly declaring that Sadr has made the mosque a legitimate military target, also have pledged to proceed with caution. “We have always respected that as a holy site,” one senior U.S. military official said this week, on condition his name not be used.

Believed to have been erected in the 8th century and rebuilt at various times, the Imam Ali shrine is the heart of Najaf, each year attracting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. The mosque sits in Najaf’s Old City amid a dusty, raucous maze of shops and alleys.

Shiites revere the shrine as the burial place of Imam Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, and in their eyes, his legitimate successor. Ali, who was assassinated in 661 in the nearby town of Kufa, was said to have been buried in secret so his enemies could not desecrate his tomb, but the spot was discovered decades later and a shrine was built over it.

Religious tourism has been Najaf’s lifeblood for centuries, and the mosque is a repository of riches: Precious gifts from sultans and potentates are housed there, and offering boxes are stuffed with currency from all over the world.

Abutting the mosque is a cemetery known as the Valley of Peace. One of the world’s biggest graveyards, it is a treeless expanse dotted with gravestones and mausoleums containing the remains of millions who wanted to be interred close to Ali.

Though some Muslims are critical of Sadr for courting a military attack on the shrine, others say they are disturbed by news reports showing U.S. soldiers stepping on graves and destroying the photos of loved ones laid on top of the crypts.

Shiites “worldwide are shocked and outraged over what is going on in Najaf,” said Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini, a prominent Shiite leader in Southern California. “They consider it an assault on the sanctity of Islam and in particular Shia Islam. Any attack on that city will destroy America’s future in Iraq completely. It will completely discredit America and make it the new tyrant in the eyes of Shias worldwide.”

Several Shiite Muslims likened any attack on the mosque to bombing the Vatican, and predicted that it would spark retaliatory attacks on U.S. facilities in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Lebanon and other nations with significant Shiite populations. Parvez Shah of the Universal Muslim Assn. of America called for Iraqi forces to replace U.S. troops in Najaf to defuse growing tensions.

Although the governor of Najaf, Adnan Zurfi, reportedly gave U.S. troops permission to fire on the mosque if necessary, Al-Qazwini said that few Shiites regard his word as authoritative. They say he was chosen for the post by U.S. officials, not elected, only recently returning to Iraq after a decade in the Detroit area.

Early today, the Iraqi government issued a statement on behalf of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi assuring Iraqis “that the holy shrine will remain safe from all attacks that could possibly harm its sacredness.” Allawi “is holding the armed elements inside the shrine responsible for any harm or damage that may occur.”

In the eyes of most Shiites, Al-Qazwini said, only a leader with the standing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani could issue permission to attack at the mosque. Sistani, who is based in Najaf, is in London, reportedly for medical treatment.

Over the last century, the mosque and nearby cemetery have been marred by numerous incidents of violence.

In the 1920s, the shrine was a center of unrest during the revolt against British rule, used by Sayyid Mohammed Sadr, the leader of a secret Shiite society, to rally thousands of fighters.

The insurrection failed, ending with heavy losses on both sides. After the fighting, Winston Churchill, then Britain’s colonial secretary, said he was astonished at how the British had “succeeded in such a short time in alienating the whole country.”

In the 1980s, men who wanted to avoid service in the Iran-Iraq war hid in some of the graveyard’s underground crypts. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, President Saddam Hussein had part of the cemetery bulldozed following a failed Shiite uprising.

The bloodshed continued last year. In April, a young cleric was stabbed to death near the mosque’s entrance – a slaying in which Muqtada Sadr is implicated, Iraqi officials say. Four months later, a car bomb killed nearly 100 people.

And this spring, there was widespread anger when outer parts of the shrine were damaged, apparently by mortar fire, in fighting between U.S. troops and Sadr’s forces. The U.S. denied that it was responsible and suggested that Al Mahdi militiamen may have inflicted the damage to provoke outrage.

Now U.S. officials say Sadr’s fighters are using the graveyard as a weapons storehouse. The fierce combat of the last week, some of it hand-to-hand, broke hundreds of tombstones in half. U.S. military officials said militants had punched openings in crypts to use as sniper holes and stashed weapons in coffins.

Although the cemetery is considered less sacred than the mosque, many Shiites are dismayed by the militarization of the final resting place.

“Imagine turning this Valley of Peace into a valley of destruction,” Al-Qazwini said. “People are offended. They believe anyone taken to that cemetery will enjoy peace and tranquillity. They can’t stand seeing Apaches and other military aircraft bombing the area and disturbing the graves.

“It’s very outrageous and sad.”

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