Why the Najaf Offensive is on Hold

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CEASE FIRE: Supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr take to the streets in Najaf

The latest cease-fire in Najaf may be a telling measure of the political balance of forces in the new Iraq. Having launched an armored offensive into the Shiite holy city after vowing to destroy Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi militia, U.S. commanders abruptly called a halt to offensive operations on Friday as truce negotiations between Sadr and the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi continued. But a new truce wasn't exactly what Allawi and the Americans had in mind when they vowed earlier in the week to finish the fight and break the back of Sadr's forces. The new pause in hostilities to seek a negotiated solution — and the urgency with which the new government and U.S. commanders sought to deny claims by Sadr aides that the cleric had been wounded in battle on Friday — signal a growing awareness on the part of Allawi's government that winning the battle at Najaf could cost them the wider political war.

Even in the face of Sadr's provocations, going on the offensive in Najaf was always a fateful gamble for Allawi. While the estimated 1,000 lightly armed Mehdi militiamen were no match for more than 3,000 U.S. troops and an undisclosed number of Iraqi personnel deployed there, the political circumstances in which the battle was waged forced the Marines to fight with one hand tied behind their backs: Sadr's men were holed up in and around the Imam Ali Mosque, the holiest shrine in the Shiite Muslim tradition, and any damage to the mosque could provoke a massive Shiite uprising that might imperil the entire project of remaking Iraq.

If anything, Sadr's decision to confront Allawi and the Americans from inside the holy city reflects a canny, and often underestimated political instinct on the part of the populist cleric. Ever since Baghdad fell to U.S. forces in April 2003, Sadr has parlayed his strong following among the Shiite urban poor and the growing resentment toward the U.S. to his own advantage. And his previous showdown with the U.S. — last April, when they tried to arrest him in connection with a warrant issued by an Iraqi judge — had showed that tangling with the Americans actually boosted, rather than undermined his political standing in Iraq. The problem facing Allawi and the U.S. in waging war in Najaf has been that while Sadr may be unpopular among many of the townsfolk and viewed somewhat ambiguously by a wider Shiite audience, the U.S. is considerably more unpopular, a trend that the fact of handing authority to the new government last June does not yet appear to have reversed.

Allawi appears to have recognized Sadr's influence, because he has strenuously attempted to woo the cleric to join the political process under the interim government. He reiterated his offer on Thursday. "This government calls upon all the armed groups to drop their weapons and rejoin society," Allawi said in a statement. "The political process is open to all, and everyone is invited to take part in it." But Sadr has rejected the terms, refusing to be recognized simply as one among hundreds of leaders, many of whom have no proven constituency. And his refusal to withdraw his forces from around the holy sites in Najaf, instead stockpiling weapons there, eventually prompted the government to act. Even if Sadr himself was to be brought into the political process, they reasoned, he could not be allowed to maintain an independent military capability. Destroying the Mehdi army would show Allawi's resolve to brook no insurgent challenges.

The logic of the confrontation, however, demanded a clear victory. But the risks of a direct assault on militiamen holed up in the mosque quickly became apparent as the showdown at Najaf provoked something close to a national crisis. Even though the operation had been ordered by Allawi's government, its deputy president Ibrahim Jaafari called for a halt to the offensive, and there were scores of resignations of lower-level regional government officials in protest of the clashes in Najaf. The government rushed to assure Iraqis that American forces would not enter the Imam Ali Mosque, and any fighting there would be done by Iraqi security forces. The problem was, U.S. commanders had reportedly concluded that the Iraqi forces in the city had trouble achieving even "minor combat objectives."

The Sadrists, for their part, demonstrated their capacity to disrupt the peace throughout southern Iraq, and in the capital where they essentially run the vast Shiite slum known as Sadr City, which houses two million people. Mehdi militants confronted Coalition forces in a number of southern Iraqi cities, and at Basra they even managed to take Iraq's oil exports offline. Beside the firefights initiated by his militias, there were also tens of thousands of Iraqis on the streets demonstrating against the U.S.-Allawi offensive by week's end. Particularly worrying to the new government will have been the spectacle of a number of uniformed policemen reported to have joined the pro-Sadr protestors in Baghdad.

The rush to squelch reports that Sadr had been wounded offered a reminder of the prospect that were he to be killed in battle, there may be no way of ending his insurgency. Even if the Sadrists could be ejected from Najaf by military force — they are, after all, mostly an expeditionary force whose members are drawn from outside the city, and are not exactly well-loved within its native population or its clerical establishment — the result might be a long-term insurgency throughout the Shiite south and in the capital. Given the fact that Sunni insurgents are currently in effective control of Fallujah and are challenging for control of Ramadi, Samarra and even, somewhat audaciously, Mosul, a Shiite guerrilla campaign would severely stretch Coalition and Iraqi forces. And forcing the Allawi government to rely so heavily and directly on U.S. military power, as it has done at Najaf, undercuts its own prospects of achieving legitimacy among Iraqis as a genuinely independent government.

The dust has not yet settled in Najaf, and the offensive may be resumed at any moment. But the delicate balance between talking and fighting in Najaf suggests that the government who ordered the operation has yet to establish its political authority over its citizenry.