Aug 30, 2004
"There will be a mechanism that will preserve the dignity of everyone in getting out of the holy shrine," said Hamid al-Khaffaf, an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. "We're close to being in a position to finish this," said an American official. But without the withdrawal of all of the militiamen loyal to cleric Moktada al-Sadr, "there will be a fight," he said.
In the end, it seemed that at least some of the "dignity" of all the top leaders involved was preserved. Al-Sadr and hundreds of his militiamen did not surrender to U.S. and Iraqi government forces as they left the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, mingled in among thousands of people who had come to the shrine at the call of al-Sistani. Al-Sistani could claim that he had saved the shrine from destruction as well as the lives of al-Sadr's remaining fighters. U.S. officials could claim that American military forces had forced the withdrawal of al-Sadr's rebel forces from both Najaf and nearby Kufa. And Iraqi government officials could claim that they had negotiated a deal with al-Sadr through al-Sistani that eliminated a violent end to the affair.
Most of Najaf, however, now lies in ruins. Hundreds, if not thousands, of ordinary people died – many from U.S. tank shells and bombs, but also from intense automatic weapons fire, exploding grenades and mortar attacks as American forces tried to capture al-Sadr's militiamen.
The fighting in Najaf may be over at least for now – but the violence in the rest of Iraq seems to be increasing. Fighting broke out between U.S. and rebel forces allied with al-Sadr in the Sadr City area in Baghdad, another of al-Sadr's strongholds. In the mixed Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim town of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, gunman killed six policemen and wounded five. A mortar attack in Baiji, north of Baghdad, killed an Iraqi civilian and wounded another, as well as a policeman. Rebels blew up a pipeline inside an oilfield in the southern part of the country. Another oil pipeline was set afire in Nahrawan, a region east of Baghdad. And during the three weeks of the fighting in Najaf, a former officer in Saddam Hussein's army who had accepted appointment to head one of the Iraqi National Guard battalions in Falluja was executed by militiamen there, precipitating the final breakdown of those battalions. The mayor of Ramadi after the kidnaping of his three sons publicly renounced his support for the government, resigned from his post and urged other government officials to do the same.
In fact, the situation in Iraq is developing toward a wider civil war – a disaster prepared by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The continued U.S. occupation only makes things that much worse.
The end of this story has not been told, and won't soon be.