An Elusive Peace in Najaf

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Khalid Mohammed/AP

Besieged: American soldiers on patrol in Najaf

The method in Moqtada Sadr's madness can best be seen in the list of people lining up to mediate an end to the standoff in Najaf. At last count, they included not only a delegation from the national conference in Baghdad convened to appoint an interim legislature, but also UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and even Pope John Paul II. Sadr may be vowing to fight to the finish against a combined U.S.-Iraqi force that vastly outnumbers and outguns his own, but in the process he's taken center-stage in the battle to shape post-Saddam Iraq. Indeed, the national conference called to create an interim legislature found its main business eclipsed by concern over the standoff, and responded with great relief to an announcement Wednesday that Sadr had purportedly agreed to heed government demands to put down their weapons, leave the Imam Ali Mosque and join the political process. But the delegates' relief may be premature: Sadr's spokesman made clear that he was going nowhere until U.S. and Iraqi government forces pulled back from around the shrine and a cease-fire was in force. And while the latest truce announcement looks set to forestall, once again, a direct assault on his militia forces, it's far from clear that the promised disengagement will occur along the lines announced in Baghdad on Wednesday.

Although U.S. and Iraqi forces had planned to renew the offensive against Sadr's men in the Imam Ali Mosque after cease-fire talks broke down last Saturday, the government in Baghdad had once again jammed on the brakes. That was because it had become clear to Prime Minister Iyad Allawi that a frontal assault would wreck the national conference designed to produce an interim legislature and imperil his prospects for achieving popular legitimacy. The Najaf issue eclipsed the conference's agenda and dominated discussions on Saturday and Sunday after hundreds of Shiite delegates angrily denounced the planned action in the holy city. Although Allawi rejected delegates' demands that he order U.S. forces to withdraw from the city, he agreed that a new delegation would be sent in the hope of persuading Sadr and his men to vacate the Imam Ali Mosque in exchange for an amnesty that would mark the first step towards integrating them into the political process.

But although the national conference was extended by a day to accommodate the delegation's efforts, Sadr was in no hurry to bring the matter to a close. His own reading of the political winds in Iraq plainly suggests that as long as he's inside Shiite Islam's holiest shrine surrounded by American troops, tanks and aircraft, he holds a clear political advantage. Although the latest pause in the military effort to dislodge Sadr and his men from the shrine may grate at the morale of the U.S. troops gearing up to do the job, Allawi may have had little choice. The national conference is critical to his own efforts to establish a popular base for his government, and on Saturday it became plain that there was little support among delegates for his action against Sadr. If the delegates wanted another crack at mediating a compromise in Najaf, then the prime minister was obliged to give them the opportunity — even if simply to show his own constituency that he gave peace a chance.

But the delay has been good for Sadr, too, because the perception of the standoff among large sections of Iraqi society has been shaped by the fact that it involves thousands of troops from an unpopular foreign army attacking Muslim fighters around one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites. The Najaf standoff has seen the U.S. and Allawi widely condemned among both Shiite and Sunni Muslim Iraqis, and thousands of Shiites have flocked to Najaf to act as "human shields" to protect Sadr in the event of a new offensive. Elsewhere in Iraq, Sadr's militiamen continue daily to demonstrate their capacity for disruption, attacking oil wells and pipelines around Basra, blowing up an American tank in the streets of east Baghdad and mounting attacks on coalition forces in major cities in between. Even the national conference came under mortar fire last Saturday, although that could as easily have been the work of Sunni insurgents. And Allawi's government will have to have been concerned by reports of widespread instances of Iraqi security forces refusing to fight against the Sadrists, or even in the case of significant numbers of policemen, actually defecting to Sadr's side.

Despite his apocalyptic rhetoric, Sadr has consistently used his defiance of the U.S. and its Iraqi allies as a basis to build his own political support. His latest game of brinkmanship may actually boost his chances of playing a central role in the new political order — not the new order as defined by the U.S. via its appointment of Allawi, but the one that will emerge as U.S. influence begins to recede and Iraqi parties compete for power. Sadr's rejection of direct participation in the national conference, for example, was couched not in complete rejection of the idea of a national assembly, but instead on the basis of a demand for such an assembly to be dominated by parties with proven mass support, such as his own.

But Sadr may have hedged his bets. The Financial Times reports that even as the showdown continues at Najaf, Moqtada's Baghdad representative has in fact been participating in the national conference. Not only that; according to the FT he's also co-sponsoring an "opposition" list of delegates for the interim national assembly in alliance with an unlikely bedfellow — the former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi, who has reacted to his fall from favor in Washington (and his legal troubles with the new government in Baghdad) by seeking to reinvent himself as a champion of the Shiite masses.

Despite cloaking himself in the mantle of defender of the holy places, Moqtada Sadr has little claim to religious authority. He lacks the theological status of a Marjah ("object of emulation") like the Grand Ayatollahs, and there are questions over just how much seminarian learning he has under his belt. Sadr is, in other words, purely a political leader — and one quietly reviled by much of the clerical leadership. But operating in secret under Saddam's rule, he built a mass following among the Shiite urban poor, trading on the reverence for his father and grandfather, legendary rebel clerics murdered by the old regime. As Shiite resentment at the U.S. presence has grown, Sadr's record of consistent defiance of the Americans since Baghdad fell in April of 2003 has made him one of the most influential Shiite political figures in Iraq.

Moqtada Sadr's political ambitions give him an incentive to peacefully end the standoff at Najaf — although he?s unlikely to do it in a way that loses face. If he emerges triumphant from yet another showdown with the Americans bringing an end to a stalemate that had improbably become a national crisis (even if it was largely of his own making), Sadr could conceivably even expand his following. To achieve that he'll have to be able to demonstrate whatever deal was struck to pull his own men out of the holy sites also resulted in a withdrawal of U.S. forces.

And so the high stakes game continues. While prospects for a peaceful outcome at Najaf persist, its attainment will depend in large part on Moqtada Sadr's sense of timing — and his, and Allawi's, grasp of the maxim that "politics is the art of the possible."