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August 27, 2004
Score One For Sistani

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani scored a huge political victory and put the Allawi government further in his debt today by accomplishing what they could not do alone -- force rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army to both abandon the Imam Ali shrine and disarm, according to this Reuters report:

Shi'ite fighters left the holiest shrine in the Iraqi city of Najaf Friday and began turning in their weapons, after tens of thousands of pilgrims celebrated a peace agreement that ended a bloody rebellion. Religious authorities locked the doors of the Imam Ali mosque after the Mehdi Army militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr left. The fighters had defied U.S. military firepower and the interim Iraqi government for three weeks. ...

Militants tossed AK-47 assault rifles and mortar launchers into wooden carts being pushed around near the shrine. Mosque loudspeaker announcements in Sadr's name gave the order. Al Arabiya television said Sadr's representatives had handed over the keys to the mosque, Iraq's holiest Shi'ite shrine.

A Reuters correspondent there said Iraqi police took control of the area around the mosque, as envisaged under the deal.

Over the past three weeks, while Allawi and the US Marine Corps' Najaf contingent lay siege to Sadr's militia, Sadr had brokered several cease-fire agreements, which he promptly violated. For most of that time, Allawi threatened to storm the mosque, a move which would have ultimately been his undoing, at least politically, while being completely necessary militarily. The Marines provided the protection necessary for the Iraqis to act, and so American prestige was also involved. And Sadr continued to vacillate between annihilation and surrender.

Sistani managed to succeed where all others failed, and don't think that will go unnoticed in an area of the globe where power only matters when it makes a difference. Not only did he broker the deal, but Sistani managed to get Sadr to actually follow through on his promise -- for now. He gave up the shrine, which was the only asset he had left and the only protection from the overwhelming Iraqi-American military force in Najaf. Sistani claimed control of the shrine and relieved the Mahdis of most of their weapons. Sadr gets to live another day and either transform his movement into a political party or try to regroup for further rebellion.

So who are the winners and losers from this confrontation? It will be endlessly debated over the next few weeks, and events may change all analyses, but I think a few issues are clear:

Allawi - Loser. He may get points from the West for his nuanced approach and openness to peaceful arbitration from Sistani, but the Iraqis will remember that Allawi couldn't effectively respond when Sadr reneged on previous agreements. Granted, the storming of the mosque and the inevitable damage done would have made Allawi highly unpopular, but it would have demonstrated some confidence and power. Allawi doesn't need the respect of the West. He needs the respect of the Iraqis, and this episode will only reinforce an image of weakness in the interim government.

Sadr - Loser. He's alive, and for a 30-year-old incompetent rebel, that's an accomplishment, but that's about all he can claim. Even that may not last long, as his more fervent rebels may resent being disarmed at the holy shrine they swore to defend. For the third time, Sadr has been stymied from creating a popular Shi'ite uprising, and in the end he wound up only irritating the people he intended to inspire. He lost hundreds if not thousands of militia to death and capture and gave up most of his weapons. He's been exposed as a pretender as both an insurrectionist and a general.

America - Draw. We made it clear from the start that the Marine contingent was only deployed in support of Allawi's initiative, unlike in Fallujah where we clearly went out on our own after the brutal murder and desecration of four American contractors. We had also made clear that we would not attack the shrine. Everywhere else, however, we tore apart Sadr's militia and suffered relatively few casualties as a result. The Marines, as always, performed magnificently.

However, since we hitched the mission itself to Allawi, we will share in the damage to his prestige. After all, although Allawi was not our choice to lead Iraq, the interim government structure was one of American and British design, with UN Security Council modification. Their failure to secure important areas, and arguably whole cities, from pirate 'governments' run by religious zealots underscores a weakness that may be understandable from a process point of view but which won't play well with a shellshocked population. In a time of instability, people look to power and align themselves with it for their own protection. If Allawi can't demonstrate power within the interim government, Iraqis will lose faith in it and him rather quickly.

Which brings us back to the only real winner in Najaf, Ali al-Sistani. Sistani has resisted involving himself in Iraqi politics and focused instead on religious and social matters, and it was on this nominal basis that he stepped in to resolve the Najaf crisis. The question remains as to how long he will resist the urge to seize civil power as well as the moral authority he has obviously built among the overwhelming majority of Iraq's Shi'a. So far, Allawi and the US have been fortunate that Sistani has refrained from doing so. Any more confrontations over mosques in Iraq may lead to different conclusions.

UPDATE: I've been informed by CQ reader Dan H that a significant portion of the fighting in Najaf has been handled by US Army and not just Marine Corps. I don't mean to leave out the fine soldiers of the Army -- you men and women make us all proud.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 27, 2004 8:18 AM

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» Muqtada Al-Sadr and The Religion Of Peace. from Knight Of The Mind
It seems Muqtada Al-Sadr has operated a Star Chamber in the basement of one Najaf's holy buildings. This behavior reminds us all that we deal with the likes of Francisco Torquemada when we enter into agreements with Muqtada Al-Sadr. [Read More]

Tracked on August 27, 2004 11:12 AM

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