Monday, August 16, 2004

The news from Iraq has always been a muddle, but the problems are getting more obvious -- as Juan Cole notes, every reporter at the Iraqi National Congress seems to describe a different meeting, with the New York Times and the Washington Post disagreeing most of all.

As you can imagine, the closer the story gets to the fighting in Najaf, the greater the confusion. AFP, for instance reports in a single dispatch that the National Congress will be sending in a delegation to mediate between sides in Najaf, and that Allawi's interior ministry is promising a quick and decisive assault. The Times' man in Baghdad reports meanwhile that

American commanders spoke of tightening the cordon they threw around the Old City last week, but of leaving any attempt to move into the immediate vicinity of the shrine to the Iraqi forces that Prime Minister Allawi said Saturday would now carry the brunt of the Najaf fighting.

By using Iraqi troops, Dr. Allawi and the American officials who are his partners in Baghdad hope to avoid the eruption of fury among Iraq's majority Shiites - and across the wider Shiite world, particularly in Iran - if American troops were seen to have damaged or desecrated the mosque, which is revered as the burial place of Imam Ali, Shiism's founding saint.

Which may not work so well if you believe this Knight-Ridder report (via Kevin Drum) that entire battalions of Iraqi troops, ordered into Najaf, are simply refusing to fire on their fellow Iraqis. (Nor is it clear, to me at least, that Allawi and his American bosses partners are right to believe that Iraqi troops would be less provocative -- if they're perceived as tools of the Americans, then the whole thing still comes off as an American operation, and Allawi and his troops will have merely tarnished themselves by the association).

And the situation immediately around the flashpoint Shrine of Ali, the holiest site to Shiites save only Mecca itself, is particularly muddled, with a late report from the Times which (as I write) relays claims from a Sadrist spokesman that the shrine's outer walls have been damaged. But CNN was earlier reporting that "Twenty-five heavily armed foreigners holed up inside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf have rigged it with explosives and are threatening to blow up the building if attacked"... a claim reflexively dismissed by Cole, who is apparently sick nigh unto death of American attempts to attribute every single problem in Iraq to unspecified foreigners.

Don't expect things to clear up anytime soon. Allawi's government is attempting to get all the reporters out of Najaf. Government spokesmen say that's just friendly advice, but the London Times' man on the scene says he was evicted at gunpoint. (via Crooked Timber).

But, if we can't be sure of the details of the fighting, that just creates a situation where anyone so inclined can legitimately believe the worst. And we can know what senior Shiite clerics are telling their followers about it. And even our former allies there have nothing good to say about it. Distinguished cleric and former IGC president(!) Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum tells al-Jazeera

"The Americans have turned the holy city into a ghost town. They are now seen as full of hatred against Najaf and the Shia. Nothing I know of will change this," the former president of the now defunct council said on Friday.

"I do not understand why America craves crisis. A peaceful solution to the confrontation with Muqtada could have been reached. We were hoping that Prime Minister Iyad Allawi would lead the way, but he sided with oppression."

From outside Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah (from Najaf, now residing in Beirut) is on al-Jazeera calling for Iraqis to use "all available means" to evict the Americans. And from Qom, Grand Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri has reportedly issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims from fighting other Muslims on behalf of Allawi's government. Al-Haeri, as you might guess from his current abode, is an ideological ally of the Iranian theocrats -- and yet Juan Cole worries that with all these developments (including mass demonstrations in Iraq and elsewhere -- read his blog for details)

It is not impossible that, given this level of disaffection, al-Haeri will pick up support from Sistani. (Shiite religious authority is in some ways a continual popularity contest, and the laity can switch their allegiance over time.) Al-Haeri is close ideologically to the Khomeinists in Iran and highly anti-American.

When we started this little adventure, Tom Friedman was promoting it as a way to propagandize for Western-style democracy, by installing one and showing how beautifully it works. We have now reached a point that ongoing armed operations are directly supplying propaganda to the most determined opponents of Western-style democracy in the region.

In short, a policy of hard-line assault has left us in the hole. Is it just nuts to suggest that we ought to stop digging?

Tom Friedman has -- he's off the Times op-ed page. Writing a book. With nothing, nothing at all, to do with Iraq...

And speaking of what we can and can't know, and what does and does not matter, Jeanne D'arc offers some very useful perspective on corruption in the Iraqi oil-for-food program, the available evidence appertaining thereunto, and the rightwing blogsphere's disquisitions thereupon...

Update: Just heard an NPR report of American tanks 500 yards from the shrine. Oy.

Yet more: Prof. Cole did a chat on the Washington Post web site, which, among other things, explains some of his more cryptic comments on the blog. It turns out, for example, that the Arab press reported the mining of the shrine of Ali days before CNN -- and without the "foreign fighters"...


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