“I advise the dictatorial, agent government to resign … Iraqi people demand the resignation of the government … they [US] replaced Saddam with a government worse than him.”
– Muqtada al-Sadr, August 13

Imagine a Muslim army about to bomb the Vatican with the help of a few Christian mercenaries while the Pope is away, recovering from an angioplasty in London and silent about the whole drama. This is roughly what is happening in Najaf, Iraq, where the forces of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the United States stand eyeball to eyeball pending a “final showdown.”

First, let’s take a look at where the main players currently stand. Contrary to widespread media perception, Muqtada is not a punk: he is probably one of the most popular figures in the complex Iraqi political spectrum, certainly at the grassroot Shi’ite level. During the first American siege of Najaf four months ago, his popularity was reported to be above 90%. The second-most popular figure in the country now may be Shi’ite religious eminence Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, although he positions himself as apolitical. As for the American-imposed Prime Minister (over a virtual parliament) Iyad Allawi, his popularity would be somewhere in single-digit territory. He essentially represents no Iraqis.

Pierre-Jean Luizard, a researcher at the elite French think-tank CNRS and a Middle East specialist, believes that Muqtada may have been forced by events to occupy this crucial historic role and may not even be fully aware of the awesome implications; but today he offers to most Iraqis “the image of being the only one capable of unifying the country beyond communal divisions.” No wonder that Muqtada has widely become an icon of Muslim resistance.

It’s never enough to emphasize the crucial significance and the complex patterns of mythology, history and tradition embodied by the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine in “Shi’ite Vatican” Najaf, around which the present fighting is centered. Besides the Shrine of Imam Ali, there are graves of other prophets of Allah – Prophet Adam and Prophet Noah. Abraham the patriarch and his son Isaac once bought land in Najaf in what is now called the Valley of Peace – none other than the gigantic Wadi al-Salaam, the world’s largest cemetery, where a few hundred of Muqtada’s Mehdi Army fighters are holed up fighting the Americans. Or, in many Muslim hearts and minds, where a Shi’ite resistance is fighting infidel troops.

Get Muqtada

Former American proconsul in Iraq, L Paul Bremer, went after Muqtada al-Sadr in the months before the US handed over sovereignty to Iraqis on June 28. He failed miserably – and enhanced Muqtada’s status as a resistance hero. Now it’s Allawi’s offensive – or “Saddam without a moustache,” as he is widely known in the streets of Baghdad and the resistance-controlled Sunni triangle. It’s still the George W. Bush administration’s same flawed strategy in action (no politics, no diplomacy, just “smoke them out”). But now the whole scheme is sub-contracted.

Inside Iraq, Sunni and Shi’ite alike are condemning the siege of Najaf as a “bloodbath.” There have been huge demonstrations against it in the Muslim world – totally in synch with the Iraqi Committee of Ulemas, which has ruled that no Iraqis may collaborate with the occupier in operations that risk the lives of Muslims. Arab leaders, as expected, have turned their attention to the Olympic Games on television.

According to the London-based al-Hayat newspaper, Shi’ite masses are flocking to Najaf, where they have already formed a human shield around the shrine. Fallujah – the resistance capital in the Sunni triangle – sent a huge convoy of aid to Najaf. Sunni clerics and tribal leaders met with Shi’ite clerics to express their solidarity.

The political fallout of Sistani’s thunderous silence and non-condemnation of the American siege may be earth-shaking – further undercutting his own moral authority, not to mention crucial Iraqi nationalist credentials. Some Shi’ites risk saying that Sistani should resign – a concept that is nevertheless totally alien to the Marja’iyya – the top-level Shi’ite religious body. Sistani’s loss, though, is to other ayatollahs’ gain.

The ayatollah power struggle

Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Husain Fadlallah is from Najaf, although he’s been living in Lebanon since the mid-1960s. He’s an independent, not very close either with the ayatollahs in Tehran or the Hezbollah in Lebanon. But he’s very popular with the Dawa Party in Iraq – at least with the majority faction that is not cooperating with the Americans. Through a fatwa (ruling), Fadlallah has publicly instigated the resistance to throw out the Americans by all means necessary – this is exactly what millions of Shi’ites were expecting from Sistani himself. Interviewed by the pan-Arab alJazeera television station, Fadlallah articulated what’s in the minds of many Muslims: their biggest threat is the United States; Saddam was a US agent; and the Najaf drama was provoked by – who else – the occupier.

An even more crucial figure, Grand Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, based in the holy city of Qom, in Iran, has also issued his own fatwa: it essentially says that no Iraqi, Sunni or Shi’ite, may fight another Muslim on behalf of Allawi’s regime. Al-Haeri is one of the five great Najaf ayatollahs – and the most engaged politically. He’s close to the line of the late leader of the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, and says on the record that he will only go back to Iraq after the American occupation has ended. Meanwhile, he’s clearly occupying political terrain vacated by Sistani.

Sistani may be forced by the whole crisis to be more emphatic – something that is totally against his instincts and education. Luizard from the French CNRS has just returned from Qom. He says popular rumors had it that Sistani was leaving Najaf for London just as the Americans intensified the siege of Najaf: “People were saying that Sistani’s illness was very convenient, his excuse for not taking a stand.” The whole thing smacks of history repeating itself – as farce. Luizard points out that in 1924, the British needed a constituent assembly to legitimize their occupation, while Shi’ite religious leaders had issued their anti-occupation fatwas. Today, the Americans play the same game: “They need a parliament, even non-elected, to legitimize the institutional edifice they erected.” Luizard was impressed by how both Iranians and Iraqis are carefully scrutinizing Sistani’s every move on this matter.

Muqtada’s win-win scenario

A measure of the effect of the various fatwas issued by the ayatollahs is that by last Saturday, no fewer than 4,000 Iraqi security forces in Najaf were reported to have defected to Muqtada’s Mehdi Army. Officials at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense admitted, for example, that “more than 100 Iraqi national guardsmen and a battalion of Iraqi soldiers chose to quit rather than attack fellow Iraqis.”

The media really do not know what is happening on the ground. The only journalists sort of covering Najaf are embedded with the Pentagon. It’s easy to identify another US design as it fits a common pattern. The siege of Najaf was planned months ago. The Pentagon would not want unembedded, “unreliable” media – Arab and Western – covering the full extent of what Iraqis are describing as a “bloodbath.”

AlJazeera has been expelled from Baghdad by the Allawi regime – but it keeps breaking news from Najaf via stringers’ reports and amateur videos. Everyone else was also ordered out of Najaf practically at gunpoint by Allawi’s government. Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris, has condemned “the totally unacceptable imposition of an information blackout,” it says. “The presence of journalists on the spot is indispensable as the worst atrocities are always committed in the absence of witnesses.”

But Muqtada keeps popping up on alJazeera. He revealed, for instance, how he had asked interim Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim Jaafari – the leader of a minor faction of the Shi’ite Dawa Party – to resign. Jaafari, who is one of the least unpopular members of Allawi’s government, said “no” – for now. But he also clearly wants the Americans out of Najaf. “I call for multinational forces to leave Najaf and for only Iraqi forces to remain there.”

Muqtada reveals his progress as a canny political operator when he declares on alJazeera that “Najaf has triumphed over imperialism and imperial hubris.” Many merchants in Najaf may blame Muqtada because their business – depending on religious pilgrimage – has come to a halt. And some clerics in Iran – though not the top ayatollahs – may be keeping their distance from Muqtada and the Mehdi Army. But the ayatollahs recognize that the scene is set: if any harm is done to the Imam Ali Shrine, the ripples would be felt across Iraq and the whole Muslim world.

Muqtada remains on the political offensive. He and his array of spokesmen are calling for a United Nations investigation into the American siege of Najaf, as well as a UN force capable of taking control of the city. He’s in a win-win situation. Whatever happens to him, says Luizard, “He at least will have achieved the religious legitimacy he didn’t have, as well as prevented the involvement of the whole Shi’ite community.”

Not bad for someone who is already the epitome of an Iraqi nationalist and popular leader fighting the Bush administration’s colonial adventure. This is the way an occupation ends: with a Shi’ite jihad charging it of being “worse than Saddam.”


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