U.S. and Iraqi Troops Launch an Offensive in Najaf
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MARGARET WARNER: To further assess the situation in Najaf, we’re joined by retired Army Colonel W. Patrick Lang, a former special forces officer and longtime Middle East intelligence analyst; Ahmed al-Rahim, an Iraqi American who spent last summer in Iraq advising the coalition provisional authority. He’s now doing research for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. Stephen Zunes, associate professor of politics, and coordinator of the peace and justice studies program at the University of San Francisco. He’s written extensively about the Middle East. And Nir Rosen, a freelance journalist who reported in Iraq for the New Yorker, the Asia Times, Time Magazine, and other publications from April 2003 to June of this year. He interviewed Muqtada al-Sadr twice during that time. Welcome to you all.
So this military offensive, this U.S. offensive, Pat Lang, this U.S. offensive, was this the right move politically and militarily?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think that, as the marine who was talked about on this thing said, the real game here is largely political and has to do with Iraqi post-occupation politics in which they’re trying to sort out who is doing what to whom.
The object of the game here from the point of view of the U.S. military is to crush the guerrillas, but the real object from the point of view of the Iraqi interim government is to see if Prime Minister Allawi can coax this fella, Sadr, back into a position in which he’s usable and not a danger.
MARGARET WARNER: So do you mean you think a double game is going on here, in other words that the U.S. is putting a lot of military pressure on al-Sadr and then Allawi is hoping to lure him into the political process?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: He’s tried repeatedly to do that. After Sadr’s force were badly beaten up in June, they brought him into the political process, and a couple weeks ago the political process, from what I’m told from inside Iraq, got to be very unfortunate from Mr. Sadr’s point of view, so he took his people back on the streets, and Prime Minister Allawi went to Najaf to see if he could patch this up with him unsuccessfully
MARGARET WARNER: This past weekend?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: That’s right. So now we’re locked into this position and with these guerrillas defying everybody in the city, there is no choice but to render them ineffective.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Zunes, what’s your assessment of the wisdom and the sort of strategy behind this offensive?
STEPHEN ZUNES: I fear it’s going to be counterproductive. The main concern is that despite the best efforts of the U.S. Military, there’s going to be quite a bit of collateral damage, both in terms of civilian casualties and also physical destruction of many important areas, not just the holy sites, but the marketplace, the historic marketplace was already destroyed a couple days ago, that it’s going to create, I think, stronger anti-American reaction, stronger reaction against the central government in Baghdad, and I’m afraid it will bring national sentiment away from more moderate, secular forces in the direction of a radical Islamists, like the Mahdi army.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Al-Rahim, what’s your take on this? Where do you come down on whether this is a wise move and what impact it may be having?
AHMED AL-RAHIM: Well, my take is that it’s long overdue. We should have gone after Muqtada al-Sadr last summer when he established a governing council alongside the Iraqi governing council, when he established a court system. We should have gone after him then.
Now the question is: How are we going to finish the job there? My sense is that the residents of Najaf and the Shiites in the South are quite fed up with Muqtada al-Sadr’s insurgency and calls for not going after the… so my sense is that we need to finish this. We need to go after Muqtada al-Sadr and finish the job now.
MARGARET WARNER: Nir Rosen, you’ve been on the ground there. What kind of popularity does Muqtada al-Sadr have? What’s your assessment of what happens to his standing when he is attacked – as you were still there this spring when he was?
NIR ROSEN: I found that starting actually in April or May of 2003 and continuing without any exception until the present, Muqtada’s popularity has only increased 50 to 75 percent I would say at least of Shia support him. He’s certainly the single most popular Shia leader able to mobilize thousands of people at once.
And these sort of attacks only increase his support, only increase his following amongst Shias and amongst Sunnis whom I spent a lot of time in Fallujah amongst the Sunni resistance, and Muqtada al-Sadr was the only Shia leader that they admired because of his defiance and because of his defense of what they viewed his defense of the Shia holy places which are in fact holy to Sunnis, as well.
MARGARET WARNER: Pat Lang, what’s your sense now of what al-Sadr’s strategy is here? In other words, there was this ceasefire. He reignited it essentially, reignited the uprising. Why? What’s his game plan?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think he had the feeling a couple weeks ago that in the election of delegates for the national assembly that political games were being played. They were going to exclude him.
MARGARET WARNER: In other words, the short of Shiite powers that weren’t going to let him play?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Being secular and he religious, they were going to squeeze him out of the process. And so he decided to make enough of a demonstration of his four make himself a figure of importance, but the trouble is, you start this in a place like Iraq amongst the Shia, in fact, you know, it’s very easy to have this get out of control. And I suspect that that’s what has been happening. I mean, he’s a figure around whom the more apocalyptic feelings of Shia tend to rally.
Once this got going, he found himself in a position which he had to go and try to reassume control of this thing in Najaf. Now, you know, having got himself into that position, he doesn’t have a real easy way to climb down and still remain the kind of figure that we were talking about here just a minute ago. So he’s kind of stuck. And we’re stuck on the other side because our forces cannot allow themselves to be defied this way or the Allawi government to be defied. There are all kinds of really bad consequences can occur, including all the collateral damage that was mentioned before.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Al-Rahim, give us a similar assessment of the strategy here of interim Prime Minister Allawi. I mean, the government gave its blessing to this offensive, but what’s he really up to?
AHMED AL-RAHIM: Oh, I think what he’s up to is asserting the government’s control over Iraq, and I think he’s also not willing to negotiate with Muqtada al-Sadr, who has gone back between starting up the insurgency and between ceasefires.
So my sense is that he wants to show Iraq that he is in control, that the militias are no longer acceptable, and this is, I think, something that Iraqis will particularly in the South, the Shiites will look favorably to. They are, as I mentioned, quite tired of the insurgency, and this has caused the religious tourism to decline in the area. So I think they’re ready to get back to normal life.
MARGARET WARNER: And you disagree with that, Mr. Rosen?
NIR ROSEN: Certainly Shias everywhere are tired of the fighting, but they make may take the view that the Americans are responsible for the fighting, and if there was no occupation, then there would be no one to fight and there would be no interference with the pilgrimage.
The city of Najaf especially is dependent on two things: financially the pilgrimage route where they get millions of pilgrims from all over the world and the cemetery, which the American military is now occupying from where Shias throughout the world come to bury their dead. So I think they may blame the Americans more than they blame Muqtada al-Sadr’s army.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Zunes, as we reported earlier, there has been fighting and demonstrations in I think more than 20 Iraqi cities and Shiite leaders elsewhere in the region have now criticized this. To what degree do you think this is a watershed or real test for this new interim Iraqi government?
STEPHEN ZUNES: It depends on how long and how bloody the siege continues. I would say only one out of five Shiites really identify with the… that the militia in terms of their politics and ideology and their radical interpretation of Islam.
But again the more the Americans attack, the more they’re going to be seen as heroes, and even though we may decimate much of the core of the militia, the younger brothers of these so-called martyrs will arise months from now. We may see another uprising. So this, even if the United States is victorious, this won’t be the end of the struggle.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you think the alternative is? Do you think there is a way… I mean, you heard Pat Lang say earlier he thinks it’s hard for… I think you said, Colonel Lang, that it’s hard for both sides to talk their way down from this the way they did last spring, but what do you think the alternative is?
STEPHEN ZUNES: One thing worth mentioning is that the Iraqi government itself is divided about this offensive. Both the president and particularly the vice president, in fact, have expressed some rather serious concerns about the backlash and what may happen.
My own view in terms of what should happen is that while certainly one needs to be firm about having these militias when you’re springing up and you’re trying to create a unified government, bringing them into the process the best you can is generally a more effective way because, remember, these guys are really into this kind of martyrdom complex. In fact, Sadr talks about him being the third martyr, the first two being his father and brother, and in many ways this kind of overkill I think plays right into his hands.
And this is an example where co-optation might be more effective. Even Hezbollah, for example, as extreme their ideology and past is now a legal Lebanese political party. They’ve restricted their military operation to Israeli occupations forces in border areas. So there is precedent for radical Islamic militias to be co-opted into the political process.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask Nir Rosen next, because you’ve actually interviewed Muqtada al-Sadr, what’s your sense of what he’s really after here? Does he actually want to be part of the political evolution, or does he really want to lead a revolution?
NIR ROSEN: Both. He’s not motivated by a very sophisticated ideology — unlike some other clerics, such as his father or his great uncle, the first and second martyr. He’s after power, and he’s not after martyrdom.
MARGARET WARNER: He’s not or he is?
NIR ROSEN: He’s not after martyrdom. He’s after power. There is no ideology. He does want a Khomeinist-type government. This is clear his followers and he himself says often they want a government similar to the one in Iran, not led by Iran, not even influenced by Iran, they don’t like Iran, but the structures would be the same, the clergy would be ruling, so this of course is a revolution.
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: In Islam, you know, the difference between politics and religion is often imperceptible to an outsider. And in this case, although I’m sure Prime Minister Allawi does not wish to negotiate with this guy in public, I think it’s probable that he does want to negotiate with him in some sense to try to bring him back out of the position he’s in now.
And he went to Najaf a few days ago to try to make some arrangement which failed, which is the result of our being locked into this position now. I would imagine that the Iraqi government is continuing to try find a resolution to this that doesn’t result in American troops assaulting the Imam Ali mosque.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Al-Rahim, every member of the Iraqi government has said no foreign forces, meaning no U.S. Forces, would be involved in an assault on the mosque. Do you think this government, if it came to that, would order an assault by Iraqi forces on the mosque, and do you think the Iraqi forces are capable of taking it?
AHMED AL-RAHIM: I mean, I think it’s quiet possible. We’ll have to see what happens. But I think you’re right. You need Iraqi forces going into this mosque.
What Muqtada al-Sadr is trying to do is he’s trying to play out what happened in 1991 with the uprising, where the Iraqi… the Saddamist force went into the mosque and put down the uprising. So that very much is in the background of this conflict right now between the Americans and the government and Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi army.
MARGARET WARNER: In other words, he’s trying to make the interim government look like Saddamists essentially?
AHMED AL-RAHIM: Exactly. He’s trying to draw them into a battle at the mosque, and I think he might be successful at doing that. The question is whether the Iraqi forces will do it. My sense is that they will. They’ve reorganized, and Allawi has been pretty firm. Otherwise I don’t think he would have made the statements that he’s made.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, Mr. Rosen, there has been some speculation that Sadr might blow up the mosque himself or damage the mosque himself, either as a political act or just sort of a last stand?
NIR ROSEN: It’s unthinkable that a Shia would do that. This is the holiest place in Shia Islam. Many Shias believe the Mahdi, who is like the Shia messiah disappeared in the ninth century from Najaf and they’re expecting his return to Najaf. And one of the reasons why they’re fighting so bitterly is because many of Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers believe that the Mahdi, the Shia messiah, is about to return.
They say this often, he’s going to return to kill the Americans, to defeat the Americans and the Jews who are occupying our country. You hear that statement from Muqtada al-Sadr’s associates very, very often. It’s unthinkable he would damage the shrine, although he would probably not mind if he could provoke the Americans to do some damage to the shrine.
MARGARET WARNER: Thank you Mr. Rosen and the other three. Thank you all very much.