As another inevitable result of the “smoke them out” diplomacy of the Bush administration and Iraqi Premier Riyadh Malawi, untold damage is being done in the Muslim world: US Apache helicopters and AC-130 gunships bombing the vast holy grounds of the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, while the main shopping street leading to the Imam Ali Shrine – as well as most of Najaf’s old city – lies in ruins. And in an overlapping graphic display, US forces now also occupy much of the 2-million-strong Sadr City, the vast Shi’ite slum in Baghdad.

The Iyad Allawi government has warned Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads the resistance in Najaf, at least three times: surrender, or else. Muqtada’s answer, faithful to centuries of Shi’ite martyrdom, cannot be anything but “martyrdom or victory.” Muqtada’s spokesman in Najaf, Shaikh Ahmad al-Shaibani, still insists he wants a peace agreement – “not an ultimatum.” But “peace” is something the former US Central Intelligence Agency asset Allawi simply cannot deliver, because its precondition, for Muqtada, is the US Army leaving Najaf.

Muqtada knows that the longevity of the standoff (the most recent one began on August 5) is directly proportional to his enhanced status as a resistance icon, and Allawi’s loss of face. And if the Imam Ali Shrine is stormed, as his Baghdad spokesman Abdel Hadi al-Darraji puts it, there will be “a revolution all over Iraq.”

Fighting continued on Monday around the shrine, with militia loyal to Muqtada in control of the mosque. US tanks pulled back slightly from positions they held on Sunday as close as 800 meters from the compound of the shrine, but earlier promises by Muqtada to vacate the shrine appear, once again, to be ringing false.

Muqtada’s agenda has been spelled out in fine detail for 16 months now: one just has to grab a batch of video compact discs of his sermons, selling for US$1 apiece in Baghdad and the Shi’ite south. While Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had chosen to “collaborate” – as Muqtada calls it – with the occupiers and their now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Muqtada, already in the autumn of 2003, was actively engaged in sabotaging the dream of the neo-conservatives: the fire sale of Iraqi assets enshrined in the interim constitution to be adopted by the transitional – Allawi’s – government.

Former US proconsul L Paul Bremer – who thought he could take Muqtada out with military muscle, and failed – had let down disfranchised Shi’ite Iraqi masses in the first place. Muqtada, on the other hand, not only dressed them in black, gave them cranky Kalashnikovs and a place in his swelling Mehdi Army: he gave them a role as participants in a sort of shadow rebuilding of Iraq – the real thing, not US-inspired rhetoric coupled with disappearing funds. From Baghdad to Basra, Sadr centers were and still are heavily involved in setting up emergency generators, collecting garbage, fixing power and phone lines and directing traffic, making everyday life for Iraqis less miserable.

Chalmers Johnson, the author of Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire, would qualify the whole process as – what else – blowback: if Bremer and the CPA had not been so obsessed in transforming Iraq into a paradise for corporate looting and had provided security, job opportunities and functioning services to most Iraqis, Muqtada and his Mehdi Army would not even qualify as an historic footnote.

Muqtada’s Iraq

What Muqtada wants Bremer could not possibly deliver, and much less Allawi. Muqtada refuses any “collaboration” with Allawi’s government, which is regarded by himself and many Iraqis as a US-appointed puppet regime. The class-struggle angle is also inescapable: rich, exiled, businessman with dodgy espionage links (Allawi) calls a foreign-occupier army to smash a disfranchised urban proletariat (the Mehdi Army) offered a social role by a charismatic cleric.

Unlike Sistani and the Shi’ite political parties, Muqtada insists the precondition for any serious political process is the end of the occupation – and that’s the main reason for his popularity. Muqtada would only admit foreign troops in Iraq if they were controlled by the United Nations.

What is the shape of a future Iraq in Muqtada’s mind? Muqtada is above all an Iraqi nationalist – another reason for his popularity, even among Sunni Muslims. He wants no federalism, but a strong central government with a strong military (but with no Ba’athist officers: that’s a tough call). This would be an Iraq ruled by a Shi’ite majority, but independent from Iran, and with none of its shades of Islamic revolution. Well, not that many, because Muqtada is in favor of velayat-e-faqih, or the predominance of theological power over secular power. So Iraq’s democracy a la Muqtada would be relatively similar to Iran’s, with an Iraqi equivalent of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruling over an equivalent of an elected President Mohammad Khatami and a parliament also elected by universal suffrage.

Allawi simply cannot swallow any of this because his brief – as a US-appointed prime minister without a parliament – is to implement what Bremer could not, and Muqtada is in the way. The administration of US President George W. Bush badly needs sprawling military bases in Iraq and a model corporate heaven in the Middle East. Bush is even usurping the amazing progress of the Iraqi soccer team in the Athens Olympics for his campaign-trail speeches – they are into the semifinals. But not even a miracle – an Iraqi soccer Olympic medal – would likely prevent what could go down in history as the 2004 Najaf tragedy.

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