- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

The big winner, the gold medalist of the Najaf battle, is without hesitation Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. If Olympic marks were granted for his intervention in the dispute at the shrine, the Ayatollah al-Sistani would have scored straight 10s.

And as in the Olympics, the three-week battle of Najaf, like all battles, produced both winners and losers.

The fighting, sometimes fierce, centered around the holy Shrine of Imam Ali, Shi’ite Islam’s most revered site. It pitted supporters of Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, a young firebrand cleric with a following of 1,000 or so men, against the U.S. military and tenderfoot units of Iraq’s newly constituted military.

The Ayatollah al-Sistani, who had just returned from London where he underwent surgery, wasted no time in settling the dispute. Hours after getting off an airplane in Kuwait, he drove to Basra and then up to Najaf in a convoy of hundreds of cars, supported by several thousand loyalists who heeded his call to march on the “burning city.”

Within hours, the much-respected grand ayatollah accomplished what interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had been trying unsuccessfully to do since the three-week battle began. Ayatollah al-Sistani got the fighting stopped and Sheik al-Sadr to lay down his arms. The highly respected Shi’ite leader emerges from this event with high laurels and greater clout.

The other big winner, of course, is Sheik al-Sadr. He comes out of the battle not only with his life, but with his honor and guns.

As part of the deal brokered by the Ayatollah al-Sistani, Sheik al-Sadr and his followers keep their weapons. Once the guns fell silent, Sheik al-Sadr’s loyalists proceeded to stash their weapons in safe places around Najaf, where they are presumed rapidly and easily accessible if and when the need arises. Given Sheik al-Sadr’s track record, chances are such an opportunity will almost certainly present itself before long.

The big loser in this is Mr. Allawi and his interim government. The Iraqi government’s repeated “final warning,” “last warning,” followed by “very last warning,” all went ignored by Sheik al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army who continued to shun the Allawi administration peace overtures and threats.

It was vital for Mr. Allawi to impose authority, establish security and to bring about some sense of normality to Iraq. For him, the Najaf affair proved disastrous. Mr. Allawi’s repeated orders were ignored and he was completely sidelined by the Ayatollah al-Sistani, who stole the show and the political limelight, along with the nation-building process Iraq so badly needs.

A number of analysts call the battle of Najaf “another Fallujah,” comparing it to the Sunni town further north, where U.S. Marines battled insurgents for weeks. Fallujah, where Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is believed hide, fizzled much like Najaf without a clear-cut outcome or political decision. And much like Najaf, Fallujah will most probably re-ignite some time in the not-too-distant future.

For the insurgents — Sunni or Shi’ite, dormant Ba’athists or Islamist fundamentalists — those two battles tested the government’s resolve. But they also tested U.S. resolve with the risk of escalation and increased American casualties so close to the November presidential election.

But mostly for Mr. Allawi, Najaf represents a loss of face — a primary concern in the Middle East. As a result, Mr. Allawi was greatly weakened by the Najaf battle.

Sadly, a bigger loser is the work of building a cohesive if imperfect democratic process in Iraq, an effort bested by the religious establishment. What Mr. Allawi was trying to do in weeks, the Ayatollah al-Sistani accomplished in hours. This demonstrates where the real political power lies in Iraq today.

The shrine battle episode will not pass unnoticed by Iraqis as they struggle to rebuild their war-torn country. Iraqis will be conscious that the Shi’ite religious establishment commands far more respect and influence than the government. This could be electioneering Iraqi-style.

Last, but by no means least, the U.S. military and U.S. policy in Iraq is greatly weakened by the Najaf battle’s outcome. The insurgents will consider the military backed down.

The U.S. military were constrained by two major factors in this battle. They were walking on eggshells fighting a battle so near a holy site. Major damage to the Imam Ali Shrine could have instigated more anti-American sentiment around the Arab world. The situation could have easily turned very ugly.

Then there was the U.S. preoccupation with minimizing civilian casualties while fighting in an overcrowded urban setting. This represents a worst-case scenario for most military officers.

Also, the battle’s outcome hampers U.S. political efforts to get the international community to help rebuild Iraq.

“Whether one calls them insurgent ‘victories’ or minor incidents, they also are enough to discourage any international aid and support, keep most NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and the U.N. out of Iraq, and intimidate or discourage many of the Iraqi interim government’s supporters,” writes Anthony H. Cordesman. “As was the case in Vietnam, the scale of tactical victories is irrelevant if the net strategic and political effect favors the insurgents.”

The danger is the vague conclusion of the Najaf battle could be seen by the enemies of a democratic process in Iraq as a sign of American and interim government weakness.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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