Najaf: At the Precipice in Iraq

Professor Juan Cole, University of Michigan, 8/17/2004

On-line dialogue of Washington Post readers who are calling in to speak with Juan Cole, Monday, August 16, 2004.

[Cole has been professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian history since 1984, and writes a weekly column for the Post. The place names below are where readers are calling from.]

COLE: The fighting in Najaf is more than a battle between an insurgent militia and an occupying army—it is also a battle for the heart and soul of Shiite Iraq. In taking on the American military, Moqtada Sadr and his Mahdi army have challenged the authority of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a champion of parliamentary democracy and the current leader of the Iraqi Shiite community. Beyond these two men, there are other Shiite leaders—including three grand ayatollahs educated in Najaf—whose views will help determine what happens in the coming months.

The transcript follows. [Place names indicate where callers live.]


Alexandria, Va.: The supporters of Sadr's militia seem to be younger to middle-aged men who are probably out of work, lack strong family ties, or have lost loved ones and have no one left — is this an accurate assumption of a majority of the militia? This would seem to polarize and/or shift such people in directions leading to more extremist stances. In the past, Iraq seemed to be fairly moderate concerning religion — such strong opposition was seldom claimed in the name of Islam. Do you believe that concentration on reducing poverty, crime, unemployment, etc. would lead to less support from Shiites for Sadr' more radical visions?

Juan Cole: As with any mass movement, the Sadrists have all sorts of people among their ranks— young, old, and various clans and city neighborhoods throughout the country. The center of gravity of the movement does seem to be the Shiite slums of the south, including East Baghdad ("Thawrah" or "Sadr City") but also including the shanty town of southern cities like Amara and Kut. Also some poor neighborhoods of Basra. In the case of Amara, the Marsh Arabs who were made homeless by Saddam's draining of the swamps settled in bidonvilles there, and many of them seem to have joined the Sadr movement in the past year.

The Iraqi Shiites back in the 1950s and 1960s were predominantly rural, and while they had a kind of folk religion, were not firmly connected to the formal, urban kind of Shiism practiced by the ayatollahs in Najaf. Many of the youth were attracted to secular ideologies like Baathism and Communism. But over the past 40 years more and more of them seem to have put their hopes in religious parties and militias, and this movement accelerated during the past 17 years or so. There seems to be a major religious revival going on now in the Shiite south, since the fall of Saddam.


Dalton, Pa.: Juan, I just recently discovered your daily blog and have found it remarkably informative and insightful. Now that the cease fire has ended in Najaf, mainstream news is reporting that Iraqis will lead the charge into the Ali shrine. With reportedly thousands of Shiite rushing to Najaf to be human shields, and thousands more demonstrating all over the Middle East, it seems as if the second any force enter that mosque, all hell will break loose. Why do you suppose Allawi think he has a chance to turn this into his advantage? Are there any other options left for Allawi and the US besides this mother of all gambles?

Juan Cole: I think that if the Shrine of Ali in Najaf (it is not just a mosque) is stormed by Iraqi troops or by Americans, the effects will be horrible for everyone. Shiites all over the world are already enraged by what the US military has done to the sacred cemetery. We had a demonstration here in Dearborn, Michigan, by Iraqi Shiites who used to support the Bush administration policies toward Iraq. I think the Allawi caretaker government has undermined itself and will be completely shot if it takes this step. And I think Americans will suffer for years to come from the rage of Shiites. The shrine of Ali is a very major thing in people's spiritual lives there and they feel it is being desecrated.


Paris, France: Mr Cole:

What elements of Iraqi language, culture and history could serve as the basis for an American style democracy (pre-Bush II that is)?

As far as I can see, the sun of time has vaporized the seedling of democracy: The crescent moon now appears on the horizon.

Juan Cole: The Iraqis had a constitutional monarcy with a parliamentary system from 1922 until 1958. But it suffered from several military coup and from a British take-over during World War II. It was largely Sunni Arab in character (the minority) and dominated by big landlords created by Ottoman and British land policies. So it had excluded most ordinary Iraqis. It was overthrown by a military coup, and from 1958 until the present Iraq has either been ruled by officers or by the civilian, one-party Baath regime.

So there is actually a precedent for parliamentary rule in Iraq, though it is a distant and weak one. Some parliaments in the Arab world have been not insignificant at some points in modern history (Lebanon, Egypt), though mostly they have been shaped by ballot stuffing and can seldom decisively challenge the executive.

I wouldn't say Iraqi parliamentary democracy is impossible on the face of it. But it won't be easy to establish.


Kennesaw, Ga.: Many thanks for doing this chat, Dr. Cole.

To what degree is Sadr calling the shots in his own organization? The swings back and forth in his public statements suggest either a very mercurial personality or a policy being designed on the fly by a committee.

Also, why has not the intrepid Arab press so widely praised for giving another perspective on the war shown any footage of Sadrist weapon caches and strongpoint in this Ali mosque Muslims revere so much? Perhaps it is just my insensitive Western mind that has trouble grasping the idea that a shrine can be both sacred and fortified at the same time.

Juan Cole: Muqtada probably doesn't have good command and control of hi organization, but there is a network of people in it who are loyal to him and generally speaking will tend to do as he says. For instance, he gave strict instructions to his men not to attack the Americans from April 2003 until April 1 2004, and they almost never did (there were two small spontaneous incidents in October, 2003). Only when the Bush Administration decided to come after Muqtada in early April did he launch his first insurrection.

The Arab press is aware that Muqtada has weapons stockpiles, and actually reported the mining of the shrine three days before the US press did.

I think the attitude is, however, that the U.S. has no business in Najaf, whereas you could imagine a scion of the Sadr ayatollahs having a legitimate role to play there.


Eugene, Ore.: Professor Cole: Given that Mr. al-Sadr's support base i the two million impoverished people of Sadr City, do you feel that Mr. al-Sadr's resistance is directed mostly at the Americans because he feels: a. it's the best way to intimidate the secular Iraqi middle class? b. because he sees significant number of Iraqis who are dissatisfied with Ayatollah al-Sistani? or c. he may be able to gain greater recognition or respect from within certain Iranian circles?

Juan Cole: Muqtada wants an Iran-style government in Iraq, and is a follower of the ideas of Ayatollah Khomeini. He is also a strong Iraqi nationalist and finds foreign, Christian Occupation impossible to accept. Obviously, he cannot get a Shiite-dominated, clerical theocracy in Iraq as long as the Americans are occupying the country. So he has to try to get them out first. I think his dedication to an independent Iraq is primary, since he is risking his life for it. If he only wanted power, he would operate more carefully so as to ensure he was alive to get it.


Wheaton, Md.: Isn't it well known that the government of Iran i directly behind the incitement, funding and arming of the Shiite terrorists in Iraq? Why isn't the U.N. and the rest of the world condemning Iran for this?

Juan Cole: No, I don't think Iran is behind the Sadr movement or the Mahdi militia. It is a homegrown phenomenon, springing from the Shiite Iraqi ghettoes. Actually the Sadr movement are very critical of Iranian dominance of Iraqi Shiism.

The Iranians probably give Muqtada some money and supplies, but they give money to all major Iraqi factions— Ahmad Chalabi, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Kurds, etc. They seem to want to make sure that whoever comes out on top has reason to be grateful to them.

There are a handful of Iranian volunteers in the Mahdi Army. Some are pilgrims who got caught up in the fighting and joined the Sadrists. Others slipped across the border to fight. They don't seem to be numerous and there is no evidence that the Iranian government is sending them.

In fact, when Muqtada visited Iran in June of 2003, the high Iranian clerics told him to make a common front with Sistani and not make waves.


Springfield, Va.: What sanctions can the Hawza initiate against Sadr and why haven't they used sanctions against him — given his illegal behavior and activities?

Juan Cole: The four grand ayatollahs in Najaf who are called the Hawza could theoretically excommunicate Muqtada and forbid Shiites to cooperate with him. But since he is very popular (in May a US poll found him to have a 68% approval rating among Iraqis), such a move might backfire on them. Besides, Iraqi Shiism is a consensus affair where people try to have a big tent. Muqtada's father was widely respected among the clerics and people cut him slack because of that. In a way, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's withdrawal to London appears to have been a subtle way of withdrawing his mantle from Muqtada and washing his hands of him. But it was all done very subtly.


Dalton, Pa.: Juan, At what point does Shiite unrest in Iraq reach the point of critical mass and become a full blown civil war? With Sunni expressing support, and talk in the north and the south of breaking away from Baghdad, how close is Iraq to the tipping point? From what I read, (and these stories are not from major media outlets) main rivers are sewage pits, electricity is on for a few crummy hours daily, unemployment is over 50%. And finally, why do you suppose the new coverage from Iraq is, for the most part, so inadeqate? Thanks.

Juan Cole: First, you are right about the horrible poverty and lack of services for the Shiites in the urban slums. They suffered more than anyone else from the UN/US sanctions, because of the way Saddam manipulated them to insulate the Baath Party and make sure its official and their hangers-on continued to benefit from the oil money. The Shiites were the low group on the totem pole, even though the major oil field (Rumaila) is in their part of Iraq.

The Americans have done almost nothing for the poor Shiites. They structured what money they spent in Iraq so that it went to big American corporations and mostly came right back to the U.S. It generated very little Iraqi employment, while it supported 20,000 foreign contractors. The subcontractors painted a lot of schools, obsessively, but I can't see that much was done for Sadr City (to be sure, it was a dangerou area to operate in).

I don't think "civil war" of the Lebanon type is possible in Iraq a along as the US military is there. If militias tried to stage set-piece battles, the AC-130s could intervene and stop them. The big danger i major urban disturbances in cities like Kirkuk and Baghdad, where US military force would be much harder to deploy.


Washington, D.C.: What's with the recent rash of 'experts' and talking heads, who are calling Sadr a thug and are advocating to crush hi movement? From everything that I've read, Sadr's only crime was to protest corruption in Allawi's government and demand justice for hi people. Why can't they just leave Sadr alone?

Maybe the 'Mehdi' army doesn't want to give up their weapons; because if they do, Allawi and his thugs will kill Sadr the very next day.

Juan Cole: It is not impossible for all these assertions to be true. Muqtada does have thug-like tendencies. He enjoys having an "army" at his command, and using it to take turf and intimidate enemies. All the Grand Ayatollahs and their staffs have been harassed by his goons.

His "Mahdi Army" has firebombed liquor and video stores and harassed women who were not all covered up, and generally acted in an aggressive way to impose their puritanism on other Iraqis who don't want it. At one point they attacked a gypsy village and destroyed it, as a den of iniquity. They are vigilantes in spirit, and are incompatible with a healthy civil society in which politics is a matter of persuasion and public decision-making.

On the other hand, it is probably true that if he had actually disbanded his militia and left himself defenseless, Muqtada would have been arrested by the Marines the next day. There were Arabic press reports of US military attempts to capture him in the couple of weeks before the outbreak of the most recent fighting.


Washington, D.C.: In the Shiite view, is the Holy Shrine of Ali and the surrounding cemetery desecrated only when infidels/US soldiers fire their weapons on this site but it is okay for the Shiite to brandish weapons and kill from this site? I am having trouble with the logic here. How does Sadr get away with turning this site into a bloody battleground and it not be considered offensive to the Shiite? The other day I saw an image of a 10 year old boy brandishing a gun at this site? Is that not a desecration?

Juan Cole: Many Shiites deeply resent Muqtada's misuse of the Shrine of Ali and it vast attached cemetery.

But I don't see why it is so difficult to understand that the US action are more objectionable to most Muslims.

First, there is a matter of scale. Having some seedy-looking guy lurking around with Kalashnikovs is not the same as massively bombing the Valley of Peace Cemetery (where people's aunts and grandmothers are buried), firing tank shells into pilgrim hotels, etc.

Moreover, with regard to the Shrine of Ali itself, the idea of Christian soldiers storming it is extremely distressing to most Muslims.

If a Muslim group stormed (and damaged) the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome to remove a band of, say, IRA terrorists who had holed up in it, do you really think Western Christians would side with the Muslims?


Alexandris, Va.: Dr. Cole:

I found your op-ed piece an eye opener to the inner workings of the culture in Iraq.

Prior to the U.S.A.'s involvement in Iraq, Hussein released the prisoners held by his reqime and supplied the population with weapons. You mentioned in your piece that the fighting is compared to the Crip and Bloods.

How are Sadr's militia connected to the released prisoners and are they the rank and file that are his supporters?

Juan Cole: I think the charge that the Mahdi Army militiamen are former criminals, or are largely foreigners, is pure propaganda coming from the more hard line ex-Baath elements of the Allawi government, especially people like Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib. It is an attempt to de-legitimize what are essentially neighborhood Shiite gangs. I'm not sure why it i necessary to posit that they are more or less than that.


Falls Church, Va.: What do you think is the endgame here for Moqtada al-Sadr? I think is ultimate goal is to overcome what seems like an extremely marginal role in Shiite politics. Essentially we have an angry man with an inferiority complex. His operational goals — disrupt the interim government, inflame anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment, draw the American military into holy areas in the hopes they destroy something, kill Americans — all seem like a means to an end. And doe simply killing him make this problem go away? Your thoughts?

Juan Cole: Muqtada wants to create a public sentiment in Iraq that i angry at the U.S. and absolutely determined to toss the U.S. out of their country. It is the goal of all major insurgencies. One starts with small acts of defiance and violence, in hopes of encouraging more and more of the public to join in.

The FLN pursued this strategy in Algeria 1954-1962, and succeeded in moving from bombings in Algiers to a nation-wide revolt. Muqtada is not a great strategist, but something like Algeria is clearly what he has in mind.


Washington, D.C.: If the US were to pull out of Iraq today, what would happen? What would Iraq look like in five years?

Juan Cole: Since the Bush administration dissolved the Iraqi army, it has left the country with no security except that provided by US troops. If the U.S. abruptly withdrew, it would probably mean chaos.

On the other hand, if the U.S. doesn't withdraw, that might mean chaos, too. I'd say there is a 50/50 chance of the Iraqis tossing the U.S. out of their country within the next two years. It could be done, via a movement like the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79.


Charleston, W.Va.: Would you please comment on the possibility now being discussed in the Western media of the Mahdi militia transforming intself into a political party.

Juan Cole: The Sadr movement clearly could become a parliamentary political party, and some leading members would like to move in that direction.

Muqtada, on the other hand, considers the American Occupation of Iraq illegitimate, and considers joining in ordinary politics at a time of Occupation to be morally wrong. In short, he thinks he is General DeGaulle and Allawi is playing Petain. I am not saying it is a legitimate assertion. I am simply explaining why I think it is unlikely that Muqtada can be coopted into a parliamentary process under American supervision.


Lyme, Conn.: Iraq and Arabia have a long history of distrusting the presence of foreigners. Is it more the fear of a parlimentary system of government being associated with foreigners that is the objection, or i there resistance to any type democracy as a relatively new form of government?

Juan Cole: The Middle East has a long experience of parliamentary governance by now. The Tunisian parliament dates back to the early 1860s, and Egypt first had a consultative body in 1866. By 1881, the Egyptian parliament was relatively freely elected, and was demanding control over the Egyptian budget. That demand alarmed the French and the British, to whom the pliant Egyptian executive owed huge sums of money. Although it was a complex situation, these fears of Egyptian democracy were among the factors that led the British to invade Egypt in 1882 and to re-install the authoritarian Ottoman viceroy on the throne.

Likewise, Iran developed a lively parliamentary life in the 1940s, but the U.S. C.I.A. overthrew the democratic government of Iran in 1953, making the Shah an absolute dictator.

The various Middle Eastern experiments with parliamentary governance have been either undermined by Western intervention, or become associated with big landlord oppression and overthrown by populist forces, or undermined by ethnic conflict exacerbated by foreign interference (Lebanon, where Israel and Syria fought out a proxy war).


Munich, Germany: What is exactly at stake in Najef? Why is it so necessary for the occupying forces and the interim government to defeat Moqtada Sadr, at the risk of losing the entire nation?

Can you think of no other plausible alternative to storming the shrine in Najef, and evoking the hate of the Shiite people on the western world for the near and middle term future?

My impression is that this is all contrary to an effective war on terrorism.

Juan Cole: Najaf is a source of wealth through the pilgrim trade and prestige because ownership of the shrine of Ali bestows honor. The Allawi government and the US Defense Department seem to have decided that Muqtada should not be allowed to control it.

But I have to say, it does seem to me that there were more pressing problems in Iraq, and that the dynamics of Najaf were not at a crisi point. I think the attack by the Americans is elective.

It is also among the most stupid political moves any military has ever made. The War on Terror requires winning hearts and minds. The attack on Najaf has made all the Shiites in the world furious at the U.S. It doesn't matter whether that is fair or not, it is the way it is. And it is highly undesirable, and our grandchildren may be living with the effects of it.


Ottawa, Ontario: What do you think the chances are of the Shiites and Sunnis joining forces in order to undermine the present government?

Juan Cole: Disaffected hard line Sunnis in Fallujah have openly supported Muqtada al-Sadr. They have posters of him up on their walls and have sent food aid and water to Najaf more than once. The Sunni Board of Muslim Cleric has issued a ruling that no Muslim should cooperate with the US in attacking Sadr's forces. So, yes, the possibility of a pan-Islamic opposition to Allawi and the Americans is certainly there.


Juan Cole: Thanks so much, everyone, for the excellent questions and commments. See you in cyberspace!

C 2004 The Washington Post Company