The Attack on Najaf

Oppose the oppressor and support the oppressed.

Imam Ali, Last Will and Testament (39 AH; 661 CE)

I have been thinking for months that if those commanding U.S. forces in Iraq really wanted to perform the ultimate stupidity, and ratchet up exponentially the degree of hatred they face in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world—then they’d surely attack the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, or be drawn into a situation where they’d damage it. This is the most important Shiite site in the world, and is holy not only to Shiites (about 120 million people) but also to all the billion-plus Muslims on the planet. It sits atop the tomb of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, fourth caliph (“successor” of Muhammed and political and religious leader of the expanding Muslim world), assassinated by opponents in 661. Ali’s partisans supported his son Hussein as next caliph, but Umayyad foes defeated Hussein and 72 followers in battle at Karbala in 680, their martyrdoms producing the enduring division between Sunni and Shia Islam.

Hussein is entombed, not with his father, but in Karbala. But according to Shiite tradition, an even more remarkable figure rests under the golden dome of the Ali Shrine: Adam, the first man. A son of Noah, who refused to enter the ark, died in Najaf, and here the patriarch Abraham and his son Isaac once bought a parcel of land now called the Valley of Peace. This is the sprawling Wadi al-Salaam cemetery (the world’s largest) that adjoins the shrine. Pilgrimage to Najaf will supposedly bring 70,000 Muslims immediate entry into Paradise. Najaf was home to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for twelve years. It was a target of Saddam Hussein during the Shiite rebellion after the 1991 Gulf War, in which the first President Bush encouraged the Shiites to rise up, only to abandon them ignominiously. (In that episode the shrine was looted and bombed, although soon repaired by the Baathist regime.) Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, was assassinated here in 1999. In short, Najaf is a hub of mythology, tradition, and historical memories of injustice, resistance and martyrdom that inevitably affect its significance as a military target. Especially when Shiite resistance fighters take refuge there, and use it as a base of operations against unwelcome infidel troops.

Shiites constitute about 10% of the world’s Muslims, and are the majority population in Iran (93%) and Azerbaijan (61%). They comprise large communities in India and Pakistan (over 50 million total), but are the majority in only two Arab nations, tiny Bahrain (65%) and Iraq (60%). In Iraqi Shiism, the Arab and Indo-Iranian worlds intersect, and by chance the holiest site of Shiism is located in a proud Arab country, next door to the Shiite powerhouse of Iran, and now surrounded by foreign invaders. The latter, under fire from the general population, come to hate, fear and disparage the Iraqis and, regardless of the orders they receive from their officers, cannot be expected to treat Muslim sites with sensitivity and deference.

“We Do Not Wish to Get Involved with the Mosque”

It is of course, official U.S. policy to avoid damaging the Ali Shrine. “We do not in any way wish to get involved with the mosque,” says Secretary of State Colin Powell. “It’s a very holy place for all Shia.” But how can U.S. forces and their token allies, occupying Najaf and the rest of Iraq, not “get involved” with a prime symbol of the identity of the invaded population? Especially when 1000 members of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army are holed up in and around Najaf’s Old City, demanding U.S. withdrawal, and amnesty for the militiamen, as the price for their own retreat?

Blaming continued attacks on the Mahdi Army, U.S. forces broke a cease-fire August 2 in Kufa, next to Najaf, and an earlier agreement not to attempt to arrest al-Sadr. The cleric’s forces responded by seizing 18 Iraqi police officers, while in Basra the Mahdi Army declared a jihad against British forces that had arrested four al-Sadr supporters two days earlier. Even so, al-Sadr called for a restoration of a truce signed in June; but this was rejected by the U.S.-appointed governor of Najaf. “Major operations to destroy [al-Sadr’s] militia have begun,” announced Marine Major David Holahan, of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines Regiment, while the U.S. and British press promoted the Najaf operation as the “final” assault on the Mahdi Army. “This is one battle we really do feel we can win,” a U.S. diplomat told the Telegraph. On August 5, ostensibly responding to attacks on themselves and an Iraqi police station launched from the Valley of Peace by the Mahdi Army, U.S. forces moved into the graveyard, later claiming 300 enemy dead.

The First Shiite Uprising

This was not their first encounter with the Mahdi forces; in April, the U.S. military conducted “Operation Iron Saber” against this militia requiring an extension of tours of duty of the 1st Armored Division. (“The operation will continue until the goal of eliminating and disarming al-Sadr’s militia is met,” announced a Polish forces spokesman, adding, “I think that will take place soon.” That was three months ago.) But why did they attack this group, which needless to say had no connection to 9-11, or to al-Qaeda, or Saddam Hussein, or any previously mentioned target of the “War on Terror”? Al-Sadr, the son of a renowned and beloved cleric killed (hence martyred) by Saddam, whose power base is a huge slum area with a population of two million in Baghdad—a district now named Sadr City—had been in the crosshairs of the occupation for many months. This is because he had denounced it from the outset, and demanded that the foreign troops withdraw or face a jihad. In April, before the sham “handover of power,” his newspaper was banned, a top aide arrested, and a warrant for his arrest issued months earlier suddenly made public. (The charges were connected with the killing of Grand Ayatollah Amd al-Majid al-Khoei, a pro-U.S. cleric flown in from London during the invasion and pegged to administer Najaf. Al-Khoei, whom senior Shiite cleric al-Sistani refused to meet, and who was insulted by common people in the streets of the city, was blown to bits outside the Ali Shrine in April 2003.)

Not cowed by the measures against him, the 30ish al-Sadr turned from peaceful protest to active, armed resistance, as his popularity soared. In May, according to a poll conducted by the “Coalition Provisional Authority” itself, he was viewed favorably by 68% of the Iraqis, and the figure has doubtless risen since. After taking significant casualties in Operation Iron Saber, the U.S. agreed to a cease-fire in June. Al-Sadr urged his forces to leave Najaf and announced plans to enter the planned presidential race. In the course of this operation, machinegun fire from some source produced four twelve by eight inch holes in the golden dome of the shrine; U.S. forces accused the Mahdi Army of shooting up their own holy site, but many doubted this. Iron Saber, according to U.S. forces, killed several thousand militiamen and was a great success. But it didn’t rid the U.S. and its allies of this troublesome priest.
Negotiations Fail

On August 10 residents of the central section of Najaf were ordered to evacuate; soon Najaf became a ghost town. Meanwhile tens of thousands rallied in protest in five Iraqi cities, and in Iran, Bahrain, Lebanon, Pakistan and elsewhere. In their minds, Najaf’s holy places were already under attack. According to the Washington Post, about 10,000 Iraqis arrived in the city Saturday to defend the shrine. These included Sunnis and Sunni clerics from Fallujah expressing solidarity. The leadership of Shiite Iran has strongly condemned U.S. moves on the shrine, and the Sunni organization, the Muslim Scholars Board, has issued a fatwa ordering police from cooperating with occupying forces.

The assault paused Friday as al-Sadr’s representatives negotiated with the U.S.-installed President Iyad Allawi for an end to the confrontation. One reads conflicting reports about why the talks failed. Some suggest that Allawi’s national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie sought to meet al-Sadr, who refused; others state that al-Sadr wished to meet with Rubaie, but could not. Al-Sadr spokesman Qais al-Khazali said a deal had been reached and signed when “we were surprised that they [Allawi’s negotiators] got instructions from Dr. Allawi to leave.” An anonymous western diplomat quoted in the Boston Globe says that talks failed because Allawi had made al-Sadr a “relatively generous” offer, including clemency for the outstanding murder charge, but al-Sadr, as mentioned above, demanded a U.S. withdrawal and amnesty for his militiamen. Perhaps an agreement was vetoed by a third party; U.S. officials have opposed granting amnesty to anyone who has killed or injured U.S. troops. In any case, when the talks broke down, U.S. officials indicated that, on instructions from Allawi, Iraqi rather than U.S. forces (six of whom have already died in this operation) would attend to the destruction of the militia. American military officers praised this as a politically wise decision.

U.S. Forces in a Bind

This tactical decision to deploy Iraqis against Iraqis seems not to have eroded support for the Mahdi Army’s resistance or opposition to U.S. behavior in Najaf. The residents of Sunni Fajullah, recalling the assistance that Shiites have given them in their resistance to the occupation, have demonstrated in support of al-Sadr and sent forces to his aid in the holy city. The occupation-appointed deputy governor of Najaf, and over half the provincial council, have resigned in protest. Even one of the two U.S.-appointed deputy presidents, Ibrahim Jaafari, has called on “multinational forces to leave Najaf.”

On Sunday, of the 1300 delegates to the national conference in Baghdad to select a provisional legislature, over 100 walked out in protest, one stating, “as long as there are air strikes and shelling [in Najaf], we can’t have a conference.” Many Iraqis fear the U.S. will, Powell’s words notwithstanding, “get involved with the mosque,” and by inflicting damage upon it, open the gates of hell upon themselves and all complicit in the occupation. 4000 Iraqi security forces in Najaf had defected to al-Sadr’s army by Saturday.

Officials of the Iraqi “defense ministry” told Knight Ridder on Sunday that “more than 100 Iraqi national guardsmen and a battalion of Iraqi soldiers chose to quit rather than attack fellow Iraqis in a city that includes some of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.” One high-ranking officer said, “We received a report that a whole battalion (in Najaf) threw down their rifles. We expected this, and we expect it again and again.” Perhaps the politically wise decision of using Iraqi rather than U.S. forces just won’t work. That would explain why all foreign reporters (except those embedded with the U.S. military) were ordered out of Najaf Sunday. (Al-Jazeera had already been booted for biased reporting. Fox remains.)

Al-Sadr’s only real rival for popular support, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein Sistani, is in London recovering from a heart operation, urging restraint on both sides and likely undercutting his own moral authority and nationalist credentials in the process. While Shiite opposition to the occupation has been growing for months, the confrontation at the shrine has drawn a clear line between the Shiites and the Coalition now operating through a puppet regime. Even if, as reported, many in Najaf are tiring of al-Sadr’s methods, which threaten the business stemming from religious pilgrimage; and even if ranking clerics in Iran are distancing themselves from the Mahdi Army; the second Shiite uprising in four months may well constitute a neocon’s “nightmare scenario.” Particularly if it widens into a broader patriotic uprising, and thence into an even wider international-Muslim confrontation with the American-dominated foreign forces. On the other hand, the presence of Syrians and Iranians (reported by the Telegraph) may embolden the more audacious warmongers to use setbacks in Iraq to justify further regime-change projects in the region. More Rumsfeldian “creative chaos.”


That creative chaos to date has involved the sacking of the Baghdad Museum, the sexual torture of innocents in Adu Ghraib and other prisons, lingering denial of basic utilities and services, the deaths of at least 11,000 civilians, breakdown in security, rampant crime including kidnapping and rape, ineptly improvised and constantly changing administrative institutions, ongoing attacks crippling the oil industry. All of this might be leading to some apocalyptic climax, glorious as the golden dome of Imam Ali’s shrine. But of what sort?

Even if among the occupied, some (confused, disoriented, naively optimistic) initially thought the foreigners might bring liberation, these must now conclude—through harsh experience—that liberation is not conferred but rather won. The Mahdi Army cannot, in my view, really liberate anyone with its fundamentalist religious agenda, and this, perhaps, many of its adherents will come to understand. But for the time being, it presents the imperialists with their thorniest challenge. The warriors of this jihad know that their countrymen will desert, or defect to themselves, rather than serve the infidels in Najaf. The original sin of the occupation is that it is, after all, an occupation. Worse, one based on lies. Justified after the fact, after the bogus rationales were all discredited, by the boast, “We overthrew a dictator,” the occupation now faces the jihadis’ charge that it is worse even than Saddam. (The occupier puzzles at the charge. Aren’t we rebuilding schools? he thinks, not realizing that Iraq once had the finest school system in the Arab world, and small need for its reconstruction—until somebody, for reasons some think worth it, damaged it and so much else.)

Worse than Saddam. From the minarets of the mosque joining heaven and earth, the muezzin calls out that charge, and in a land of martyred imams, it resonates powerfully among the oppressed.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: