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
- 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
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
And the situation immediately around the flashpoint Shrine of Ali,
the holiest site to Shiites save only Mecca itself, is particularly muddled, with
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
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
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
- "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
- 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
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
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
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"...