AMMAN – Najaf and Karbala are the holiest sites of Shi’ite Islam. Najaf – where Ayatollah Khomeini lived before returning to lead the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 – is the site of Imam Ali’s tomb, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and revered 14th century founder of the Shi’ite branch of Islam. Karbala is the site of the famous 7th century battle where Imam Hussein was killed and subsequently buried.
To the utmost horror of Shi’ites everywhere – Arabs, Persians, South Asians – American tanks are now rumbling around Najaf and Karbala. If the conquest of Baghdad – the iconic seat of the Caliphate for 700 years – is bound to ignite fury in the Sunni Arab world, one shudders to imagine what would happen in the Shi’ite world if Najaf and Karbala are desecrated during the war or under American occupation. Sheikh Mohamed al-Khakani, a top imam in Najaf, has in fact already called for a jihad: “Iraqis should defend their country, honor and religion by expelling the unbelievers from the land of Islam.” This de facto defensive jihad goes a long way to explain why Shi’ites in southern Iraq are not welcoming the Anglo-American tanks with wine and roses, as had been widely expected.
Ayatollah Mohamed Bakr al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) – the most important Iraqi Shi’ite opposition group, based in Tehran – has been no less explicit. He promised that his Badr Brigades – an army of 15,000 deployed partly in Iran and partly in Iraqi Kurdistan – will wage war against the Americans if they reveal themselves to be occupiers.
A Lebanese source confirms that about 700 Hezbollah warriors are already in Iraq. They are familiar with Najaf and Karbala, are in tune with the parallels being drawn across the Arab world between the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The Lebanese Shi’ites at the time received the Israelis as liberators. But when the Israelis revealed themselves as an occupying force, the Shi’ites turned on them.
Instinctively, the majority of Arabs, Sunni or Shi’ite, view the whole American policy in the Middle East as anti-Arab. They are quick to point out how after the 1991 Gulf War, for example, the Kurds in northern Iraq got their autonomous zone, unlike the Shi’ites in the south. In operation “Iraqi Freedom,” the Pentagon has been forced to face the hard reality of the Iraqis’ fighting spirit as the Saddam Hussein regime resists. Now this is a real war – in the full scope of its tragedy. More (at least 120,000) American troops in the war theater. More bombings. More targets. More civilian victims. And the main victims of the renewed war in southern Iraq – essential to secure humanitarian operations – will remain Shi’ite civilians.
The proof of the Pentagon’s strategic failure is one Lieutenant-General William Wallace’s statement from the field: “This enemy is different from the one we war-gamed.” American military strategist Harlan Ullman’s Shock and Awe, as a concept, is dead. Before they encircle Baghdad – even Iraqi generals recognize it could happen by the end of next week – Americans will have to battle the Medina Division of the Republican Guards, which moved from south Baghdad to the Karbala Gap, a narrow bit of land between a lake and the Euphrates river. Pentagon generals might think that once the Medina and Baghdad divisions are vanquished the game is over. But then there will be the siege of Baghdad – and Washington simply cannot afford to turn Baghdad into a Grozny or Jenin. By that time the British would have attacked and occupied Basra and the Americans defeated the stiff resistance of the paramilitary Fedayeen militias in the Shi’ite south. But the Sunni Fedayeen are not alone: they are getting help from Shi’ites who refuse to bow to a foreign occupying force.
In Basra, Shi’ite women in black were and are still putting the Iraqi flag in bombed buildings and chanting slogans praising Saddam. They were supposed to be happy with their “liberation.” But the fact is the invasion strengthened Saddam both inside Iraq and around the Arab world. The invasion simply smashed Saddam’s political opposition. Saddam’s well-documented and reprehensible Stalinist practices are not the issue any more. The US hawks haven’t been doing their homework: Palestine and now Iraq are vivid demonstrations that no Arab will ever tolerate an occupying force on Arab land. It will take divine intervention for America to capture the Shi’ite hearts and minds. For Shi’ites, Arab nationalism – and especially the Ba’ath Party version adapted by Saddam for his own purposes – is nothing but undisguised Sunni domination. “Arab nationalism” has been a kind of byword for a social contract lasting many decades in Iraq. The Shi’ites will have no more of it. But they cannot trust the Americans to free them. They view Washington as hostile to Shi’ite Iran, to the Shi’ites in Syria and Lebanon, and only interested in oil in Shi’ite southern Iraq and oil in the Shi’ite eastern province of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Shi’ites – who consider themselves Iraqis first and foremost – still remember how they were betrayed by Bush senior in March 1991. The British are now forced to conquer Basra. There are at least three good reasons for it: to smash the active guerrilla campaign by the Fedayeen; to prevent a humanitarian disaster that would definitely consolidate the already monolithic international revulsion towards the war; and to produce those mythical images of “liberation” on Anglo-American TV that simply refuse to materialize. While Western eyes focus on Basra, Shi’ite eyes are predominantly fixed on what is happening in Najaf, 140 kilometers south of Baghdad. The city is in fact surrounded and cut off from the rest of the country. Najaf is a key communications center. That’s where the main supply route running along the Euphrates river from Nasiriyah and the port of Umm Qasr (to the east of the Euphrates river) meets another road (to the west). Najaf has an airport. And from Najaf, there are roads on both sides of the Euphrates getting to within 50 kilometers of Baghdad. The Iraqi army’s desperate plan is to cut the Americans’ serpent line of communication along and across the Euphrates, and then isolate the extended American 5th Marine Corps. They don’t stand much of a chance, though.
Inside Najaf, the resistance is organized by Saddam’s Fedayeen, the ragtag al-Quds Liberation Army and Ba’ath Party officials. They all know there’s no way out: they will die fighting. Nobody actually knows what’s happening inside the city of 100,000, built around the fabulous golden mosque where Imam Ali is buried. Nobody knows how many civilians – all of them Shi’ite – have already died in Najaf, Nasiriyah and Basra. There are no images to do justice to them – but their sacrifice will be vivid in Shi’ite hearts and minds. Shi’ites never forget their sorrow: for them, the 7th century battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of Imam Ali are as vivid as the American forces ripping today through Karbala and Najaf.