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May 27, 2004
Another Roll Of The Dice, In Najaf This Time

The CPA and the Bush administration rolled the dice again today, reaching a negotiated settlement with radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Under the agreement, the Americans and al-Sadr's al-Mahdi army will both pull back from Najaf as well as Kufa and allow Iraqi civilian authority to once again take control of the cities:

American forces and guerrillas loyal to the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr agreed today to pull back from the holy Shiite city of Najaf, in a deal that signaled the end of a seven-week-old stand-off that has left hundreds of Iraqis dead.

The agreement, hammered out between Mr. Sadr and Iraqi leaders and approved by the Americans, calls for the Mahdi Army, whose fighters have held the city since April 5, to put away their guns and go home, and for the American forces to pull most of their forces out of the city. Under the agreement, the Americans can maintain a handful of posts inside the city and may still run patrols through the city center.

The deal also applies to the nearby city of Kufa, the site of Mr. Sadr's mosque.

What did the CPA trade for peace? The warrant on al-Sadr. The CPA agreed to spike al-Sadr's arrest warrant and allow the Iraqis to deal with the murder of a rival, more moderate cleric in Baghdad shortly after its fall. The agreement also allows the Shi'a to guard their holy shrines but maintains a mostly-disarmed al-Mahdi army as a potential problem, but one for the Iraqis to handle after the transfer of sovereignty.

Is this a smart trade? Possibly. Unlike Fallujah, where the insurgents were mostly of the Sunni minority, the Shi'a comprise the most significant factional block, especially important in an Iraq with a representative government. While al-Sadr never sparked Shi'a loyalty -- his followers were small in number and not particularly bright -- his close proximity to the holy shrines made a lot of Shi'a in Iraq and elsewhere extremely nervous. And like it or not, these are the people with whom we must build relationships if we want to succeed in Iraq for the long term.

The agreement appears to me to be designed to save as much face on both sides as possible, and as the NY Times article indicates, has the fingerprints of Shi'ite imam al-Sistani all over it. Al-Sistani is hardly an ally of al-Sadr; in fact, the two are bitter rivals for Shi'a supremacy, and in that internecine political battle, al-Sistani provides the best hope for a reasonable relationship. In fact, he gave the CPA considerable political support in just keeping quiet about the effort to stamp out al-Sadr and his militia, even when the fighting began to drift near the shrines. However, al-Sistani threatened to pull his support if the Americans weren't willing to compromise in order to end the fighting, and at this delicate stage, losing al-Sistani would be a mistake.

Also consider that in five weeks, the Iraqis have to be responsible for their own security, and even the Governing Council had been objecting to the continuing mission to kill or capture al-Sadr. At best, we had a month to go before the mission would be shut down by a sovereign Iraqi government and their security forces, which we have to support politically. In order to beat the deadline, it looks like we would have had to force our way into the mosques, and that would have changed the political landscape in a way that would make Abu Ghraib look like a Sunday picnic.

In this agreement, we defuse the immediate problem and reintroduce civilian authority to both cities, negating the "justice" system that started the problem in March. We wind up supporting the secular government and force the radical Islamists to retreat from their holiest towns; even though al-Sadr remains free, that result will not impress the faithful of his congregations. It also bolsters al-Sistani politically, and while we may later regret that, at this point he's the better choice. It's nowhere near as satisfying as seeing al-Sadr get perp-walked into American military custody, but that's the nature of compromise.

In my opinion, we just improved the likelihood of a reasonable transition to Iraqi sovereignty by half. Let's hope this gamble pays off.

UPDATE: This Washington Post story has more detail.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 27, 2004 6:09 PM

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» I can't wait to hear the final version of the truth on this one from Opinion8 - More than one man's opinion
Regarding today's truce in Najaf, I'm quite curious what the real story is, and I've not yet heard anything that even remotely reconciles the two vastly different versions of reality [Read More]

Tracked on May 28, 2004 2:47 AM

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