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Mosque Bombing in Najaf

September 1, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The bombing at Shiite Islam’s holiest shrine has sent off shockwaves of mourning, political tumult and promised revenge. It was the third highly visible attack of its kind in a month. The first two occurred at the Jordanian embassy and the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. So what happens now? We get three views. Hamid Dabashi is chairman of the Middle East and Asian Languages and cultures Department at Columbia University. Yitzhak Nakash is a professor of Middle East history at Brandeis University. And Juan Cole is professor of history at the University of Michigan. Hamid Dabashi, I just named those three incident which happened in the last month, the Jordanian embassy, the U.N. headquarters and yesterday the mosque in Najaf, or Friday the mosque in Najaf. Is there a connection between these two and what is the significance of these three events?

HAMID DABASHI: I’m very glad that we put these three events together, because we have a tendency to isolate one and not pay attention simultaneously to the other two. If you put these three incidents together, you really don’t need experts on Islamic doctrines or minor history. If you subject them to a detective in NYPD — the first thing they would look for is the common element.

The common element in all of these three devastating events is the element, the question of implication, how or if they have been implicated in the American invasion and occupation. The Jordanian government of course has been totally implicated in the invasion and occupation. U.N. has been discredited. If you go back to the history of U.N. involvement with this operation, first you have the bizarre case of sending Hans Blix to Iraq to dismantle the defense mechanism of the sovereign nation estate before the U.S. and U.K. have attacked it. And then Ayatollah Hakim so far as he was in opposition for 23 years in Iran, he was a national hero in Iraq. And in fact he was welcomed in Iraq as a national hero.

But the minute that he tacitly approved of the post-Saddam Hussein developments under Mr. Bremer and his brother in fact is serving in the council, he also became implicated in the process and as a result when you put the three events together, what you gather, plus other factors such as the sabotaging of oil fields, sabotaging of oil resources, and also systematic attacks on U.S. and U.K. forces, you will have this classical scenario of a guerilla movement against an occupation. Now, we can begin to divide these events whether it is within a Sunni-Shia bifurcation or Saddam loyalists against the occupation, all of these factors are important and probably plausible.

GWEN IFILL: Before we get to all those factors, I want to ask the other guests as well whether they think first of all that this idea that there’s a link is legitimate. Professor Nakash?

YITZHAK NAKASH: It is possible although it’s too premature to establish a link. But let me say it is very obvious that all three incidents involved soft targets, including the latest assassination of Hakim, and please allow me to elaborate on that. I think it’s a very important development. Hakim’s assassination came barely a week after a failed attempt on the life of his uncle, Hamid Sakim, who is one of the most senior clerics in Najaf. As you know, the senior clerics have given their tacit support to the U.S. attempt to rebuild Iraq. On Tuesday, last Tuesday, a shadowy organization calling itself the Islamic jihad, or also the Organization for the Liberation of Iraq, issued death threats against all those who cooperate with the U.S. Administration, calling them traitors, and collaborators. They also claimed that the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was because of U.S., of U.N. in support of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. So obviously there is here an attempt to undermine the rebuilding of Iraq and hurt those groups in Iraq who are cooperating with the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Cole, do you think there is that sort of effort under way, and is it working?

JUAN COLE: Yes. It seems to me clear and I agree entirely with Professor Dabashi that there is a extensive guerrilla operation activated and working against the United States in Iraq. There are twelve attacks a day on U.S. Targets. These attacks have become more sophisticated and more numerous over time. And then there are these high profile attacks using truck bombs, using Soviet Arab Baath Party munitions. It seems to me clear that the primary suspect in these bombings is Saddam loyalists, Sunni Arab nationalists who wish to drive the United States out of Iraq, which demonstrate that Iraq is ungovernable, that the United States is not in control.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Cole, we did see that tape today which we have no reason to believe was not Saddam Hussein speaking, saying I had nothing to do with it. Did we just not believe that?

JUAN COLE: Well, that’s disinformation. Saddam called upon the Shiite clergy about three weeks ago to declare a holy war against the United States. All of the major Shiite clergymen in Najaf rejected that call publicly and they derided Saddam, they said he had a lot of nerve asking them for help after the way he had killed thousands of Shiites over the years. I believe that this bombing may have been a response on the part of Saddam loyalists to this debacle.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Dabashi, do you think Saddam loyalists are playing a role in this, or is it something that –

HAMID DABASHI: I completely agree with Professor Cole that Saddam loyalists could be possibly indicated in this and actually be quite active in them. But I think there is no doubt that there’s no love lost between Saddam Hussein and the Shia community after the first time that President Bush the first promised the Shias they will be helped, they were not helped and in fact Saddam Hussein perpetrated a massive massacre of the Shia uprising in the early 1990s. But I think in order to understand the present circumstances we will be wrong in assimilating this data backward into the existing political culture of Iraq, and we have to put every factor in after the occupation.

The problem that now we face in Iraq is the question of legitimacy. Any political or individual organization or character that comes close to this colonial occupation is immediately de-legitimized. Now, we can always go back to the previous history of Iraq and identify what was what and sectarian divisions within Iraq and ideological differences and so on, but ultimately we need to go back to the commencement of this illegal and immoral war and see how did we get to the presently circumstances, which is now turning into a quagmire and increasingly getting worse and worse.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Nakash, let’s talk about this idea of legitimacy and who is legitimate today. The members of the council were announced. Are they legitimate?

YITZHAK NAKASH: Well, it’s hard to tell. It’s too early to tell. The governing council is a mixture of returning exiles and Iraqis who have never left Iraq, it is too early to tell how Iraqis will react to it. But, Gwen, with your permission, I’d like to follow up on the earlier points. I also think that it is very unlikely that the Shiite group was behind the assassination attempt. I think the assassination attempt was quite possibly carried out by elements who are supporters of the former regime, possibly assisted by foreign elements who seek to target Iraq Shiite clerics, and to undermine the U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq. I’d like to elaborate a little bit further.

To me the assassination of Hakim is an indication that we are at the crossroad in Iraq. In fact, I think we are witnessing a struggle for the soul of the Iraqi state. And the fact is whether the U.S. would be able once again to take the initiative in Iraq. In the past few months, the U.S. has been very passive, it hardly talked directly to Iraqis. It hardly made any visible gestures. I think the U.S. has to take the initiative and we will see some results if this happens.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Professor Cole, let’s talk about the U.S. Role, pick up where Professor Nakash left off. There is criticism of the United States for not having provided enough security at the mosque. Yet there is criticism at the United States for having been too visible in places like Najaf. Isn’t there a catch-22 situation on some level?

JUAN COLE: Well, I think what it indicates is that the United States may have put itself in an impossible situation. It is true that it’s highly offensive to local Shiite Muslims to have G. I.’s stomp all over their holy places in their boots. It’s also true that people of Iraq expect the United States, having deposed Saddam and gotten rid of the Iraqi army, to now provide security to them. And these two expectations are contradictory. I think it’s a symbol for the general difficulty of the United States in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry to interrupt. So what should the United States do?

JUAN COLE: I believe that the United States should go to an elected government for Iraq as soon as humanly possible. I believe it was a mistake to cancel the elections that had been scheduled for July and to appoint a council, I think the council has no legitimacy. I don’t think people in Iraq mostly know even who is serving on it. The council has no real power, it can be vetoed at any time by the Americans, and it’s not in charge of security. One member of the council has more or less resigned, out of frustration over the bombing in Najaf and his inability despite being at the top of the Iraqi government to do anything about it.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Dabashi, what do you think the United States should do?

HAMID DABASHI: Withdraw, withdraw immediately. I was on your program two months ago and I said this then and I repeat it now. We have no choice, every single day since May 1st that President Bush declared victory, one, two, three, a number of U.S. soldiers have been killed. But because there is no draft in this country and these soldiers are poor, nobody is counting these body bags that are coming home. But fortunately we have an election coming soon and somebody has to be accountable for these casualties, not only on the Iraqi side but also on the American side. This does not mean the creation of a vacuum. The Organization of Islamic States, the League of Arab Nations and the United Nations to which credibility has been restored, in addition to some sort of security arrangement in the region in the Persian Gulf region, can under the general rubric of the United Nations supervise the legitimate process that Professor Cole was referring to of restoring legitimate government in Iraq. United States is neither in the moral or in the political position to convene such a constitutional assembly.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Nakash, I’d like your thoughts on that. What should the United States be doing now?

YITZHAK NAKASH: Gwen, in my opinion the problem with the U.S. staying in Iraq thus far is that the U.S. Had credibility problem in Iraq, it failed to commit enough resources that will match the growing vision of the Bush administration for the new Iraq. Let me give you a quick example. Right after the assassination of Hakim in Najaf, the U.S. should, in my mind, should have established a field hospital at the outskirts of Najaf, stsaffing it with the best doctors, the best equipment the U.S. has on the ground to treat the wounded, and thereby deliver a signal that we care about Iraqis. Unless the U.S. projects authority in Iraq, and unless it makes concrete gestures towards Iraqis and towards Shias that we care ‘that we intend to stay for the long haul, the consequences will haunt the United States for many, many years.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Cole, we saw also the pictures today of the Shiite pilgrims on their way from Baghdad to Najaf with the coffin, the apparently empty coffin of Ayatollah Hakim. Is what we were watching, was it, were we watching mourning or defiance and what implication will that have?

JUAN COLE: We were watching mourning, I think. I don’t believe that the Shiite community is as yet in a mood to rise up against the United States. But if this sort of thing goes on, it could happen and it could be disastrous him the United States desperately needs to internationalize this endeavor, to bring in NATO, or bring in the United Nations, put other troops on the ground, and have a transition to a new Iraqi government very quickly. We don’t have much time.

GWEN IFILL: And Professor Dabashi, when you say withdraw, do you mean withdraw in favor of the international troops that Professor Cole is talking about?

HAMID DABASHI: Absolutely. No, except for NATO, here I disagree with my distinguished colleague. Not NATO. We need to have regional, League of Arab Nations, Organization of Islamic States, or an ad hoc organization in the Persian Gulf area. I don’t think, I think NATO is also too much affiliated with the United States.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, Professor Nakash, I’m curious about whether you think there are Shiite radicals who are behind this who may be fueling maybe some of the defiance that we see in this expression of emotion?

YITZHAK NAKASH: I don’t think that Shiites are behind the assassination attempt, but I think that some of the more activist and radical Shiite groups actually stand to benefit, at least in the short term, from the assassination attempt. There will be people in the Shia community, particularly those around the young and activist cleric al Sadr who would be in fact questioning the wisdom of a decision of the senior clerics to give their tacit support to the United States and who might be calling for their constituencies to be more assertive and perhaps even to rise against the United States. But I agree with Dr. Cole that this is still a long shot.

GWEN IFILL: Is there anyone in line to replace Ayatollah Hakim, the role that he played in this as somewhat of a moderate?

YITZHAK NAKASH: Hakim played a very interesting role. He was a link between two worlds, the world of religion and the world of Shia politics, the world of grass root politics. It would be hard to replace him. It will take time to replace him. But there are other moderate figures within the Shia community and hopefully they will prevail.