Iraqi National Council Steps in To End 11-Day Najaf Standoff
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TERENCE SMITH: John Burns, welcome to the broadcast once again. Bring us up to date, if you will, on this national conference. It’s its focus has certainly shifted over the weekend.
JOHN BURNS: Yeah, it’s a glass half full or a glass half empty. The success in bringing to Baghdad over 1,000 delegates from every part of the country and from all but the most marginal parts of the political spectrum here is quite a success for the new Iraqi government and for the Americans here.
On the other hand, the conference has been dominated from the start and thrown into some turmoil by the fighting in Najaf and the insistent demand from delegates that that fighting be stopped and that Iraqi and American troops not advance on the holy shrine at the heart of Najaf. Politics, you might say, as usual. But they’re not doing a lot of business at that conference that relates to what the real task of the conference was supposed to be which was preparing for the elections in January and electing a council which will supervise the government of Prime Minister Allawi through and until those elections in January.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s the state of play in the efforts to reach a compromise of some sort with Muqtada al Sadr down in Najaf? Is that going on and what are the prospects?
JOHN BURNS: Well, the government has said that the door is open for Mr. Sadr to resume negotiations, but the positions of the two sides seem to be pretty far apart. And they are essentially from the government side from the Americans that Mr. Sadr abandon his militia, disband his militia, and join the political fray and himself as a candidate in the elections.
This, he’s refused to do. He said the elections were meaningless, that Iraq does not need an American-style democracy. He’s entrenched himself in or somewhere near that shrine in Najaf and in effect challenged American and Iraqi troops to come after him. He’s pretty plain that they will not do that, at least not now. Dr. Allawi has said they will not and American commanders have said they will not. Their purpose is to squeeze him out.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s the situation on the ground there, the cease-fire in Najaf certainly was battered over the weekend. What’s the situation this evening?
JOHN BURNS: Well, it was battered. Three American soldiers died in the last 36 hours in fighting there. There’s been renewed fighting there today but not of the intensity that we saw last week. When the fighting in the cemetery, the old cemetery that joins the mosque, took according to American accounts something close to 400 lives that’s Sadr militiamen and civilians caught in cross fire so at the moment there’s a hold down on that. I think both sides are warily watching the other.
It’s come to the point where it’s really too dangerous for journalists to even enter Najaf. The provincial government in Najaf issued what amounted to “shoot to kill” orders for journalists and said any of them emerging from the hotel where many of them have been quartered would be shot on sight by snipers. This is pretty disturbing because last week’s 30-day shutdown of the al Jazeera Arab language television network here and it’s reporting on Iraq. It begins to look at though Dr. Allawi’s government for all of its profession that it wants to protect journalists is not very keen on us giving too close a coverage to what’s going on down there.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s their concern? What are they worried that journalists might report if they were free to do so?
JOHN BURNS: You know, I think I’ve come to the brink that American forces came to back in April. There’s a recognition that the American political project here, that is to say, the advance towards constitutional democracy in Iraq, is impeded, if not actually voided, by the challenge posed by Mr. Sadr and of course by the Sunni insurgent groups that at some point or another he has to be faced down, disarmed and removed from the scene at least as a military threat.
The problem is that they’re dealing with a very wily fellow in Mr. Sadr. He holds two trump cards. He holds the golden shrine in Najaf, the holiest shrine in Shiite Islam and he holds Sadr City, a slum of about two million people on the north eastern outskirts of Baghdad about three or four miles from where I’m standing right now. As long as he holds these two trump cards, he is a dagger pointed at the heart of the entire American enterprise here but to dislodge him from Sadr City, very difficult urban warfare.
To dislodge him from Najaf an attack on the shrine, it seems unlikely. So the outcome seems again to hinge on some sort of messy political compromise which will leave the Americans and their Iraqi partners, Dr. Allawi and his government, in the same, if you will, fraught situation that they have been in now for quite some time.
TERENCE SMITH: Mean while as that stalemate continues in Najaf and even Sadr City, what’s the situation, security situation elsewhere around the country?
JOHN BURNS: Well, it is quieter, I think. There is continuing combat in and around Fallujah, in and around back Baquba, two Sunni Muslim cities. I today went on an American forces helicopter to Tikrit, which was at one time a major center of insurgency in opposition to the Americans. It’s true while I was on the base there, there was firing. I could hear it. There was a graduation ceremony for a new battalion of the Iraqi National Guard, the Iraqi security forces on whom so much hopes have been placed by the Americans for dealing with these insurgencies but there’s no doubt Major Gen. Batiste, the commander of the first infantry division, told me that the situation there is very much improved from what it was a few months ago.
As it is, he says across the provinces that the first infantry division is responsible for north of Baghdad so there is good news here from the American standpoint. There is, as he said, momentum in the right direction. But there is still a very widespread problem here, insurgency problem both Sunni and Shiite, and it doesn’t seem likely to me that that is going to end anytime soon. And as long as it doesn’t end, then the path to any kind of a democracy here, any kind of constitutional democracy, is going to be very bumpy indeed.
TERENCE SMITH: And finally, just very briefly if you would, John, what’s the atmosphere like in this national congress or convention rather? Is it like an American political convention or is it like a parliament? What is it like?
JOHN BURNS: Well, I think it has to be said that it’s a new thing for Iraq. I mean, of course, there were large political gatherings under Saddam Hussein. But they were convened solely for the purpose of singing the praises of Saddam Hussein and rubber stamping whatever policy he put forward.
This is a real political gathering of contending political groups, different ethnic, religious, political groupings, all of whom are clamoring to have their say in the new Iraq. This of course is all good. It’s just a shame for the sponsors of this conference, as I say, the United States and its Iraqi allies, that it has come to together just at the moment when the Najaf situation is so delicately poised and therefore is dominating the proceedings.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. John Burns, thank you very much.
JOHN BURNS: It’s a pleasure, Terry.