The Najaf Confrontation: A Danish Evaluation

When I recently expounded my own evaluation of the settlement of the Najaf stand-off, naturally I was serious about presenting it “for . . . refutation.” You can’t escape that in this medium, anyway, and no definitive answer that I’m aware of as to “winners” and “losers” has emerged as of yet in any case, or may ever. In the meantime, an interesting contribution to the debate comes from “M.”, writing for the Danish commentary newspaper Information (Once al-Sadr, always . . .).

“What now, Allawi,” the piece begins, and the implicit follow-up to that is “now that you’ve blundered in Najaf?” In M.’s calculations, Sistani is a big winner from the affair, of course, but so is al-Sadr, while the Americans with their “iron-fist policy” are the big losers. “[T]he last three weeks have clearly shown that military strength is not worth a fig against an army of disaffected young men.” Oh, and Allawi is also a big loser, but that follows naturally from the above, since this incident revealed for all to see how he is merely in the Americans’ pocket. “The façade [of Allawi’s supposed independence] is cracked.”

Meanwhile, the problem of Muqtada al-Sadr remains and has in fact grown worse, as he has become a national hero for standing up to the occupying power, whose onslaught on Najaf is now supposedly viewed in the same light as Saddam Hussein’s murderous anti-Shia campaigns. His is a tricky problem, and M. takes us through the remaining options to solve it:

  • Kill or imprison Muqtada al-Sadr: Impossible. That will turn in him into a martyr and spark a nationwide guerrilla war. And remember that the Americans and interim government are still fighting the Sunnis as well, most notably in the area around Baghdad.
  • Simply continue to fight his Mahdi Army. That would merely bring the same result as above, if more gradually, as al-Sadr makes use of the new credibility he has won to attract more recruits and spread the conflict wider.
  • Ignore him. Too late: that option effectively disappeared last spring, when the occupation authorities moved to shut down his newspaper. Until then he was really only known of in the Baghdad Shia quarter of Sadr City; now he has his Mahdi Army which he should be able to reconstitute and resume making trouble with.
  • Concede to his demands. M. can’t quite see how that can happen, seeing as how his demands include outside forces leaving Iraq and the interim government shutting down. Besides, any concessions would signal to other potential trouble-makers that insurrection pays.
  • Involve him in the national political process. This is probably the best solution – ignoring all the trouble he has caused so far, and also the fact that he is wanted for the murder of a rival Shi’ite cleric. But this was also an option before all the fighting in Najaf of May and of August. In fact, it would have been a better idea to adopt this course of action in time to enable al-Sadr to get involved in a meaningful way in this month’s national assembly – which was seen by some as having been rather unrepresentative in its lack of Shi’ite delegates, and which in any case wasted a lot of its time trying to send a delegation to stop the fighting in Najaf.

Not only has that opportunity been missed, but al-Sadr has gained enough political power through the Najaf confrontation (again, in M.’s estimation) so as to discard the idea of playing by any set of political rules entirely, in favor of simply starting to set political demands. In any case, he isn’t going away; and events since he burst onto the scene last spring have only enlarged his influence and room for maneuver.

But in any case: who is this “M.”? Could it be James Bond’s old boss, writing the occasional commentary (er – in Danish?) on current affairs to keep the old mind sharp in retirement? No, a simple click reveals that this is the nom de plume of Mette Jørgensen, a (female) journalist in Information’s foreign department, with higher education in Middle Eastern studies at Danish universities to her credit, as well as a short stint as an “information worker” at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza City.

I still have to give Professor Cole of the University of Michigan the nod for relevant background over Ms. Jørgensen – and over myself too, of course.

Then there is today’s evaluation by on-the-scene New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins (Who Won?). Filkins makes an interesting point when he notes that Grand Ayatollah Sistani did not decry the American assault on Najaf. Indeed that the timing of his trip to London for medical treatment was most interesting: leaving the day after fighting there resumed, coming back to fashion the peaceful settlement just when the Americans had reached the point when assaulting the shrine itself was all that was left to do. Filkins quotes an American military officer: “he wants us to help disband the Mahdi Army.” This of course would reinforce my view of the Najaf settlement being good news for the Americans, to the point of strongly hinting that that what happened was the undercover common plan of the ayatollah and the American/Iraqi interim authorities all along.

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