High Stakes Showdown in Najaf

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ASSAULT: Militiamen allied with Sadr fire a mortar in Najaf

Even as President Bush and Senator John Kerry skirmish over the decisions that took America into Iraq, the challenge facing U.S. soldiers on the ground may be growing tougher. Their showdown with forces loyal to Moqtada Sadr in Najaf comes amid an escalation of violence — and U.S. casualties — following June's transfer of political authority to Iyad Allawi. The Iraqi Prime Minister's decision to launch a military campaign to break the back of the Sadrist challenge represents what could be a fateful gamble on the part of the new government, and its U.S. underwriter.

On the seventh day of fighting between Marines and members of Sadr's Mehdi Army in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, in which hundreds of militiamen have reportedly been killed, Marines supported by helicopters and tanks entered the city to throw a steel cordon around the militants holed up in and around the Imam Ali Mosque, Shiism's holiest shrine. Sensitive to the danger that any damage to the shrine could provoke a nationwide Shiite uprising, the new Iraqi government insists that U.S. soldiers won't actually enter the shrine. But the intensity of the fighting clearly carries a huge political risk for Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Indeed, one of his government's vice presidents, Ibrahim Jaafari of the Shiite Dawa party, publicly called on Tuesday for U.S. forces to withdraw from the city, accusing the Americans of using disproportionate force. But if Jaafari's call echoed the response of some members of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council to the siege at Fallujah, this time it was their own government — rather than U.S. commanders — that initiated the showdown.

Why This Is Not Fallujah

That's not the only difference between Najaf and Fallujah. There, the U.S. forces had found themselves confronted by an insurgent force backed by the overwhelming majority of the civilian population, whereas Sadr's fighters are mostly outsiders to Najaf, whose presence has irritated the city's clerical leadership and much of the civilian population. But prospects for resolving the standoff within the Shiite community have receded, not only because the clashes that began last week saw both sides accuse the other of violating the June cease-fire that brought the previous battle in the city to an end, but also because the supreme Shiite clerical authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who played a key mediating role last time around, is currently in London for heart treatment.

If anything, the stakes riding on the showdown in Najaf may be even greater than they were in Fallujah. Although Sadr does not represent the majority of Iraqi Shiites, his support and sympathy in Iraq's largest community has grown substantially as a result of his clashes with the Americans. The majority of Shiites may not identify with Sadr's rabblerousing populism, but opinion surveys show they are considerably more resentful of the U.S. presence in their country regardless of the new government's dependence on American military support. That only adds to the difficulties facing U.S. forces now that they've been pressed into service of the new government in a high-risk confrontation in Iraq's holiest city.

The fight began when the governor of Najaf sought to have his own security forces eject the Sadrists from the large cemetery adjacent to the Imam Ali shrine, which they'd occupied since a cease-fire was brokered in June. The governor charged that the Sadrist presence, and their stockpiling of weapons, violated the terms of the cease-fire; the Sadrists claimed it was the governor's men who were violating the cease-fire and responded by occupying police stations and taking hostages. As soon as the confrontation turned violent, the Iraqi security forces were forced to call in the Marines.

Moqtada Sadr's exhortations to battle, his willingness to extend the confrontation throughout southern Iraq and also into Baghdad, and the failure thus far of all efforts to cajole him back into a truce, suggest the firebrand cleric is feeling lucky. By inviting the U.S. military to invade the spiritual epicenter of Iraqi Shiism, the new government risks fatally undermining its prospects for establishing legitimacy among Iraq's majority community. Even though the Sadrists have provoked the confrontation, the prevailing animosity towards the U.S. forces among ordinary Shiites will likely play to Moqtada's advantage in his political challenge to the Allawi government. Particularly with Sistani absent to restrain Sadr and other moderate Shiites questioning U.S. tactics, it's a safe bet that the U.S. — and its Iraqi protégé, Allawi — will be blamed for turning Najaf into a bloodbath.

Sadr's Strategy

It's worth remembering that even as Sadr makes blood-and-fire speeches about fighting to the death in Najaf, his militia in the holy city is pretty much an expeditionary force. Although they have a presence in every Shiite urban community, the Sadrists' organizational base is in the Sadr City slums of East Baghdad, where their capacity for challenging the authority of the U.S.-backed government may be even greater. Following new attacks by Sadr supporters on U.S. and government targets in the capital late last week, the government declared a curfew in Sadr City — but reports suggest it has been widely ignored. Since the resumption of hostilities at Najaf, Sadr's supporters throughout southern Iraq have resumed efforts to disrupt the peace. They've been particularly effective in Basra, where Iraqi authorities have been forced to suspend oil exports for the past two days in response to Sadrist threats, helping drive already skittish world oil market to record high prices.

The new Sadrist uprising also coincides with escalating clashes over the past two weeks in a number of key cities north of Baghdad, where the Sunni insurgency shows no sign of abating. Allawi on Saturday announced an amnesty that had originally been planned to help disarm the Sunni insurgents and bring them into the political process, but pressure from the U.S. resulted in the offer being denied to anyone involved in attacks on U.S. forces — essentially gutting it of any serious potential to disarm the insurgents.

The continuing violence on two fronts in Iraq forces the Allawi government to rely on U.S. military power, running the risk of leaving Allawi isolated and largely dependent on foreign backing. Such a scenario is as close as Iraq could get to Vietnam, where the U.S. waged war in defense of a government increasingly bereft of support and legitimacy among its own citizenry. But Allawi may also believe he has no option but to risk the consequences of an offensive to stamp out the Sadrist challenge if he is to establish the authority of the central government, and that delay would only make the task more difficult.

Of course, Vietnam is much in the U.S. headlines these days, although largely as the leitmotif of John Kerry's presidential campaign. But save for Kerry's promising that he'd give more support to the troops in Iraq and spinning a fantasy about more foreign troops arriving to help out — serious analysts would be hard-pressed to identify a single country whose decision over deployments in Iraq would change as a result of a Kerry victory — there's very little daylight between him and President Bush over what to do next in Iraq. Much as the candidates can disagree over how the decisions were made to go in, they share a commitment to "stay the course," suggesting that Iraq has already become what Bush administration officials call "a generational commitment," regardless of the choice American voters will make in December.