SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 86 - September 2004

The Siege of Najaf

For three weeks, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army fought fierce street battles with US forces in Najaf. US troops were unable for political reasons to attack their base in the Imam Ali shrine – the holiest site for Shia Islam. Al-Sadr’s defiant stand has brought him new supporters, mainly from the poorest sections. Meanwhile the stooge government of Ayad Allawi looks increasingly weak. LYNN WALSH reports on recent developments in Iraq.

EARLY IN AUGUST, renewed fighting broke in Najaf between US forces and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army. This was sparked off by a newly arrived US marine force provocatively entering the ‘exclusion zone’ which was part of the ceasefire agreed after the conflict in April-May, from which the US forces had to retreat. According to the New York Times (19 August), local marine commanders decided to smash al-Sadr’s militia forces without seeking authority from their commanders in Baghdad, though with the encouragement of the new US ambassador, Negroponte.

The gung-ho US marines met with stronger resistance than they expected, and had to call in US army reinforcements. The conflict rapidly escalated into a major confrontation between the US and al-Sadr’s guerrilla forces.

Al-Sadr called (5 August) for an uprising against the occupation forces. Hundreds of young fighters flocked from other cities to join his Mahdi army, and thousands also came to provide ‘human shields’ in the Imam Ali mosque. There were uprisings in at least seven other Shia cities in southern Iraq, most of which became no-go areas to US and Iraqi government forces. Renewed fighting also flared up in a number of cities in the Sunni triangle, especially Falluja.

Al-Sadr’s insurgency demonstrated the weakness of the Allawi government. Allawi authorised the US offensive against al-Sadr’s forces. But he could not give the go ahead for a US assault on the Najaf mosque, the shrine of Imam Ali, founder of Shia Islam. Serious damage to the mosque and occupation by foreign forces would have provoked an explosion amongst the whole Shia population, with reverberations throughout the Islamic world.

Reflecting their dilemma, Allawi and his ministers followed a zigzag course. They issued at least three ultimatums to al-Sadr, threatening to destroy him if he did not leave the mosque. In between, they offered various compromises under which al-Sadr could leave the mosque and ‘join the political process’. Al-Sadr indicated that he was prepared to leave the mosque – provided US forces withdrew from Najaf. These ‘negotiations’ led to nothing.

Meanwhile, US forces used increasingly heavier forces to pulverise parts of the old city and the huge Valley of Peace cemetery where much of the early fighting took place. Tanks, helicopter gunships and bombers were used to smash any buildings thought to be providing cover for al-Sadr’s militia – causing scores of deaths and hundreds of casualties to non-combatants.

Step by step, the US forces tightened the military cordon around the mosque. There were signs around 24/25 August that preparations were being made for a final assault. Allawi claimed that only Iraqi forces would enter the mosque. But the presence of Iraqi National Guard contingents was purely symbolic. They would not have been able to enter Najaf at all except behind massive US forces. They were present purely to create the illusion of an ‘Iraqi operation’ to recover control of the mosque. Al-Sadr appeared to recognise the probability of an assault, reducing the defenders to around 300 for a last stand.

Events took a different course, however. The Grand Ayatollah, al-Sistani, who had been in London for medical treatment for three weeks, returned to the country, and called for a march of all Shias to Najaf to reclaim the mosque and end the conflict.

Support for al-Sadr

AL-SADR’S CONTROL of the Imam Ali mosque, which he seized early this year, gave him a powerful base. Not only is the mosque one of the world’s most revered sites for Shia Islam, but tens of thousands of pilgrims bring a considerable income to the mosque. Al-Sadr’s main mass support, however, comes not from Najaf, but from the poor Shia districts of Baghdad and the cities in the south. Shia Islam and Iraqi nationalism have always had a powerful influence amongst the poor and dispossessed.

Baghdad’s Sadr City, named after Moqtada’s father who was assassinated by Saddam in 1999, is crowded with over two million people (40% of the city’s total population). They live in hellishly hot and overcrowded slums, afflicted by extreme poverty and mass unemployment. There is deep-rooted rage at the lack of any progress since the overthrow of Saddam’s regime. Memories of Saddam’s ruthless repression of the 1991 Shia uprising are still strong, and many fear that Allawi, a former Baathist, is attempting to reassemble Saddam’s former Sunni-dominated state apparatus. They see Allawi and his ministers as stooges of the US occupation.

Al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi army, is drawn from these strata. Iraqi leaders who fear the potential power of the Shia poor, denounce the Mahdi army as ‘gangsters’, ‘fanatics’, ‘uneducated rabble’, and so on. But al-Sadr’s militia are highly organised, with a neighbourhood command structure. They have organised medical care and food supply. The militia clearly has strong support in the areas where it operates. Moreover, sections of the police are sympathetic to the militia.

During a demonstration to protest at the US siege of Najaf, "two police stations near the area allowed posters of Sadr to be propped up on rooftop watchtowers. The afternoon prayer was broadcast from speakers hooked up to a police vehicle". (International Herald Tribune, 16 August 2004)

Al-Sadr has been criticised by other Shia leaders as a young hot-head, a semi-educated upstart, etc. But he inherits a family tradition of resistance. Family members, al-Sadr often reminds his audiences, played a prominent part in the 1920 revolution against British occupation. His uncle, who was attempting to build an Islamic opposition to Saddam, was murdered by Saddam’s thugs in 1980. In 1999, his father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was also murdered by Saddam for organising opposition amongst Baghdad’s Shia poor.

Until recently, however, Moqtada al-Sadr’s influence was relatively limited. But it has grown dramatically, partly because of his increasingly open opposition to the occupation and Iraqi collaborators, and partly because of the US forces’ unsuccessful attempt to ‘arrest or kill’ him.

"The interim government is illegitimate and doesn’t represent the Iraqi nation", al-Sadr’s representative, Sheikh Azhar Kenani, told reporters in the Najaf mosque. "Therefore we reject it. We demand that all occupying forces leave our country". (Observer, 22 August)

A young militia fighter, who came from Amara to help defend the mosque, explained why he supported al-Sadr. "They [other Shia parties] just use Islamic slogans to cover up what they are doing. Syed Moqtada is a nationalist and he demands the rights of the Iraqi people and the rights of the poor. He is the only one who didn’t betray the people and cooperate with the Americans". (Guardian, 12 August)

Support for al-Sadr has grown as disillusionment with US ‘liberation’ has intensified. His intransigent opposition to Allawi as a vehicle for continued US occupation resonates with wider and wider layers.

Some media reports suggest that some inhabitants of Najaf and other conflict zones are angry at al-Sadr’s tactics, which have resulted in many civilian deaths, injuries and massive destruction of neighbourhoods. "Moqtada Sadr is just another man looking out for himself", says a woman forced to abandon her home in Najaf. "He doesn’t look after the people. If he cared for the people, why is he fighting? Why are people being killed?"

Most people, however, appear to blame the occupying forces. A senior Najaf cleric, Mohammad Bahar al-Uloum, a former member of the Iraqi Governing Council, blamed the US and Allawi’s government for the violence. "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 will change this". (Financial Times, 14 August)

Some Shia families are divided. A Najaf factory owner said that "when the Americans [came] they said, and we thought, they were liberators. Now we think of them as occupiers. Of course, Moqtada al-Sadr has the right to resist the occupation but this is not the right time. We should wait and see what happens with the election". His son, however, said that he intended to join the Mahdi army. "I am ready to join Moqtada al-Sadr now. Did the Americans come to Iraq because of Saddam Hussein? No, they came for money and oil and because they want to destroy Islam. They want to control the country and leave the poor people suffering". (Independent, 14 August)

Another member of al-Sadr’s militia, said that he initially supported last year’s US invasion. Now he sees Allawi as a US stooge and a tyrant no better than Saddam. "Americans came here to remove Saddam, but they did not kill him. Instead, they are killing us while Saddam stays in an air-conditioned room". (Telegraph, 20 August)

Support for al-Sadr’s stand in Najaf is shown by the thousands of Shia who have flocked to the Imam Ali shrine from the Shia strongholds in the south. One time, there were over 3,000 ‘human shields’ in the mosque.

In October 2003, a poll conducted by the Iraqi Centre for Research and Strategic Studies showed that only 1% of Iraqis supported al-Sadr. But by May this year, a poll by the same organisation showed that his support had risen to 68%, second only to support for the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This was the result of Paul Bremer’s attempt to ‘arrest or kill’ al-Sadr, and the Mahdi army’s uprising at that time, from which the US was forced to retreat. In June, a poll conducted by the CPA itself, found that 81% of Iraqis said their opinion of al-Sadr was ‘much better’ or ‘better’ after his April uprising. A recent poll, moreover, showed that Allawi’s approval rating is just 2%, about the same level as Saddam Hussein’s. (Independent, 24 August)

Al-Sadr’s programme

AL-SADR HAS been identified with the call for an Islamic republic in Iraq, a theocratic regime based on the rule of clerics and sharia law. This ideology is that of right-wing Islam, comparable with the outlook of Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian Islamic republic after 1979. At the same time, al-Sadr has attempted to position himself as leader of Iraqi nationalist resistance to US imperial occupation. His intransigent opposition to the occupying authority and its Iraqi collaborators with it has not only won him increasing support amongst Shias throughout Iraq, but has also drawn support from Sunnis.

In recent months, al-Sadr has been more reticent about his desire for an Islamic republic in Iraq. Last year, after the US proconsul, Paul Bremer, appointed the now defunct Iraqi Governing Council, al-Sadr unilaterally proclaimed an alternative government composed solely of his own supporters. This received little support from other groups. "However", writes Sami Ramadani, "when asked last week about the political and social programme of al-Tayyar al-Sadri’s (the Sadr current), one of al-Sadr’s main spokesman said that al-Sadr opposed the publication of such a detailed programme because it had to evolve from and be agreed at a conference of all Iraqi political forces". (There’s More to Sadr than Meets the Eye, Guardian, 24 August)

Al-Sadr appears to recognise, at least to some extent, that the idea of a Khomeini-style regime lacks broad support in Iraq, which has a different ethnic and religious composition and history from Iran. Although the Shia are a majority (about 60%), there are also Sunnis, Kurds, and other minorities and secular trends who are not attracted by the idea of a Shia theocracy. It has been reported that al-Sadr recently broke with his clerical mentor, Kazen al-Haeri, a Khomeiniist ayatollah based in Iran. (Unruly Hero, Financial Times, 21 August) This may indicate an attempt to distance himself from Khomeiniism and make a broader nationalist appeal to Iraq’s opposition forces.

"Secular as well as Islamic anti-occupation forces in Iraq are now beginning to drop their caution about Moqtada al-Sadr and are openly siding with his resistance forces in Najaf", writes Sami Ramadani. "The National Foundation Congress, the influential umbrella organisation that represents most religious, nationalist and other secular forces opposed to the US occupation, on Saturday issued an eight-point proposal, already approved by Sadr, to peacefully end the crisis in Najaf". (Guardian, 24 August) The proposal was essentially pro-Sadr, in calling for an end to the US-led forces’ offensive in Najaf, Baghdad, and other areas of Iraq.

Al-Sadr appears to be trying to model himself on Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the radical Lebanese Shia movement, Hezbollah, which forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000. After establishing itself as a powerful guerrilla force, Hezbollah has also developed as a powerful political party in Lebanon. Iraq, however, is not Lebanon, anymore than it is Iran, and it remains to be seen how Sadr’s movement will develop.

Referring to the rapidly growing support for al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, Ramadani comments that "most of the parents and grandparents of the young Sadri patriots were probably supporters of the once powerful Iraqi Communist Party, now in Ayad Allawi’s interim government…"

The current domination of the national resistance by Shia and Sunni right-wing Islamic forces is indeed a powerful condemnation of the ‘Communist’ party and of the Stalinist policies that were at one time the predominant influence on the workers’ movement throughout the Middle East. In the post-second world war period, strong secular forces developed, including workers’ organisations. Stalinist leaders tail-ended bourgeois-nationalist leaders, including military dictators (like Kassim and later Saddam in Iraq), who rewarded their support with ruthless repression. Today, the party supports Allawi’s government and advocates a broad coalition for the promised elections on the basis of support for ‘democracy’ and a mixed economy (a capitalist economy with a state sector). The Financial Times describes the party’s leader, Hamid Majid Mousa, as "aside from his communist label, in many ways the US’s ideal partner". (12 August)

Failed time and again by bourgeois nationalist parties and Stalinist caricatures of ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ parties, a new generation has turned to Islamic leaders like al-Sadr and his underground Sunni equivalents.

Through a nationalist guerrilla resistance, Shia and Sunni Islamic and perhaps other forces will sooner or later force the US and its allies out. As with guerrilla struggles historically, the Iraqi people are likely to pay a heavy price in death, injuries and social destruction. Moreover, if they came to power, none of the Islamic leaders would be able to find solutions to the burning problems of poverty, social welfare, economic progress, and democratic and national rights. As the Khomeini regime showed in Iran, ‘radical’ Islamists are too tied to traditional tribal leaders, landlords and the bazaar (merchants and small capitalists) to break out of the capitalist straightjacket and successfully throw off the chains of imperialism. Fundamental problems will only be solved by social transformation, with socialist aims. That means combining resistance to imperialism with a mass, democratic movement in which the working class and other oppressed strata play the leading role.

The ceasefire

ON 26 AUGUST, after 22 days of intense conflict, the Najaf crisis was diffused by al-Sistani, who returned from three weeks’ medical treatment in London. Al-Sadr’s forces in the mosque were tightly surrounded by heavily-armed US forces, who had fought their way through the old city to the perimeter of the mosque. It was reported that only about 300 of al-Sadr’s fighters were left in the mosque, prepared for a last stand. Al-Sistani, however, seized the initiative and dramatically changed the situation. He called for a march of all Shia on Najaf to reclaim the mosque and end the fighting, and proposed terms for the withdrawal of US/Allawi government forces and al-Sadr’s militia.

Thousands set out on the march, and around 20,000 arrived at the mosque. Some attempts were made by Iraqi police and National Guard to prevent the marchers entering the mosque, and several dozen marchers were killed and scores wounded. The French news agency AFP reported (26 August): "The gates of Najaf’s Imam Ali shrine were forced open Thursday by a sea of weeping and chanting Shiite Muslims… Outside the old city, a surreal scene unfolded as bewildered American soldiers trapped in their tanks watched as Sistani and Moqtada posters were waved in their faces".

A Sistani marcher said: "God is great. This is democracy, this is the new Iraq, this is the greatest defeat we could have inflicted on the Americans…" Another young marcher from Amara said: "When we reached the area, the National Guard and the Iraqi police tried to prevent us from heading towards the shrine, but there was nothing they could do…" Outside the gates of the shrine, a young Mahdi militiaman said: "God willing, the battle is over, but I will put my weapon in a safe place because I have a feeling I could need it again soon".

The deal proposed by al-Sistani was that al-Sadr should hand control of the mosque to al-Sistani, and the Mahdi army would disarm and leave. All foreign forces were to leave Najaf. The Iraqi government would repair the destruction inflicted on Najaf. The crucial point, however, was that ‘visitors’ – meaning the Shia marchers – would be allowed to enter the mosque and stay until midday Friday. This device would provide cover for al-Sadr’s forces to leave the mosque peacefully.

Al-Sistani’s proposal was a face-saving formula which none of the parties involved could reject. Al-Sadr was provided with a means of honourable retreat. His militia dissolved into the crowd. Even if they give up weapons, they can easily acquire more later. The Mahdi army will remain a force to be reckoned with. Its support arises from the deep-rooted grievances of the poorest strata.

Allawi’s government was also forced to accept the deal. They had presented at least three ineffective ultimatums to al-Sadr. Allawi would have liked to see al-Sadr’s forces smashed, and al-Sadr himself eliminated. But they could not afford to allow US forces to smash their way into the mosque. A senior (anonymous) Iraqi official acknowledged that al-Sistani’s deal will allow al-Sadr’s militiamen to return unchallenged to Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. "We are going to let most of them get away", the official said. (Washington Post, 27 August)

Through his initiative to defuse the crisis, al-Sistani has undoubtedly increased his authority, recovering some of the support he lost through his absence in London (capital of one of the occupying powers) at such a crucial juncture. In the eyes of many Shia, he alone was able to end the fighting which has devastated Najaf and threatened serious damage to the Imam Ali shrine.

Al-Sistani’s call for the Allawi government to repair the damage in Najaf is significant, though it is doubtful whether Allawi or the US will honour any such agreement. Although the shrine has not been seriously damaged, the old city of Najaf is now "a hellish landscape of standing water, Swiss cheese walls and ruined hotels". (Washington Post, 27 August) One US army officer compared it to Stalingrad, another to Sarajevo, and a third to Beirut. US forces lost about eleven troops during the 21 days fighting. But their use of heavy weapons, including tanks and airborne rocket launchers, have claimed the lives of hundreds of militia men and non-combatant civilians.

The ceasefire deal (as we go to press) appears to be holding. US forces have pulled back from Najaf. But even if it holds in the short run, the truce solves nothing. It is merely a temporary respite.


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