The Battle of Najaf: The War "Goes South"

Revolutionary Worker #1250, August 22, 2004, posted at

"We are here to liberate the city."

Message broadcast from U.S. tanks in the streets of Najaf -- as the Marines began the offensive that destroyed large parts of the city

Ever since the U.S. "handed over" so-called sovereignty to the regime of Iyad Allawi in June, the Bush White House has been claiming that the situation in Iraq is well on its way to becoming "stabilized." News about Iraq disappeared from the front pages--as the Bush team fostered the fiction that Iraqi resistance to the occupation is being pacified and that the Allawi government is increasingly in control over the country.

The truth about the situation in Iraq burst into the light of day in early August, as clashes between the U.S.-led occupation military and forces led by fundamentalist Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr spread throughout southern Iraq, from Najaf to the port city of Basra on the Persian Gulf.

This region of Iraq is where Shia Muslims are the majority. Even before this flare-up of resistance in the south, large areas to the north and northwest of Baghdad--known as the Sunni Triangle because of the majority Sunni Muslim population--had already become no-go zones for the occupation forces.

These recent developments reveal the real situation in Iraq--huge parts of this country are seething with outrage at the brutal and unjust occupiers.

Fighting Spreads Across Southern Iraq

On August 2, U.S. occupation forces in Iraq launched a major military offensive against the Mehdi Army-- the Shia militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr--in Najaf, south of Baghdad. For days U.S. warplanes, Apache helicopters, tanks, and Predator drones bombarded this city of 600,000 people, reducing much of the downtown area to rubble. Meanwhile, 2,000 Marines pushed toward the center of the city. Particularly fierce battles raged at the large cemetery. The U.S. military said they had killed hundreds of Mehdi Army fighters. It was unclear how many civilians in Najaf had been killed by U.S. firepower.

As of August 14, there were reports that negotiations between Sadr and the Allawi government for an end to the fighting had broken down. As fighting between the Marines and the Mehdi militia seemed poised to start again, thousands of Iraqis were reportedly headed toward Najaf to oppose the U.S. offensive in what Shia Muslims consider a holy city.

In the center of Najaf is the Imam Ali Mosque, a very important religious shrine for Shias. The U.S. assault on this city--including a threat to attack the Sadr forces in the mosque--has sparked much anger across southern Iraq, as well as among Muslims generally in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

The Christian Science Monitor reported, "As fighting in Najaf seemed to approach a climax, there were other battles raging across the southern portions of Iraq as well. In the southern city of Kut Wednesday (Aug. 11), wire services reported that Iraqi and coalition forces battled militants loyal to Sadr who attacked police stations, the city hall, and Iraqi National Guard barracks. In what was the fiercest battle there in months, 72 people were reported killed and more than 100 wounded. Many, if not most, of these casualties were civilians, something that could turn sentiment against the Iraqi government and its U.S. backers."

In Basra, Iraq's second largest city, the Mehdi Army was reported to be in control of the center of the city--while British occupation troops retreated into their bases. Basra is crucial to the Iraqi economy--90% of the country's oil exports go through this port.

In the city of Falluja, in the Sunni region north of Baghdad, thousands marched through the streets chanting, "Falluja is with Najaf, the target is America!"

What Sadr Represents

Moqtada al-Sadr puts himself forward as an uncompromising leader of anti-U.S. resistance. And Sadr's social base is largely among the poorer strata of the Shia people. Aside from Najaf, Sadr's main political stronghold is in the huge Shia ghetto of Baghdad called Sadr City (named after Moqtada's father, a well-known Shia cleric who was assassinated in 1999, reportedly by the Saddam regime). But while Sadr has certain contradictions with the U.S. occupiers, his ideology and political program do not represent the real interests of the masses of Iraqi people.

When the U.S. invaders took over Baghdad last year, they set up a puppet Iraqi "governing council," which included various Islamic forces. When he was iced out of this council, Sadr began promoting himself in competition with other Shia figures more favored by the U.S.--while at the same time making clear that he was willing to work with the occupiers and other reactionary Iraqi forces.

As A World to Win News Service pointed out: "Sadr's political model for Iraq is the Islamic Republic of Iran set up in 1979. His program calls for the institution of Shia religious rule, especially in the Shia holy cities of Iraq like Najaf and Karbala, but on a national level as well to a large extent. For instance, he has been giving fiery sermons urging the application of Islamic law, including making the wearing of the veil compulsory for women. This has been combined with anti-U.S. rhetoric, which although fierce--and an important reason for his being able to keep the following he inherited from his father--has also been ambiguous. Because his goals have been centered on the establishment of religious rule and not on kicking out the occupiers, he has always left open the possibility of some sort of compromise with the U.S." (See "Moqtada al-Sadr: U.S. Friend of Foe in Iraq?" A World to Win News Service, July 5, 2004--online at

The precise nature of the relations between Sadr and Iran's fundamentalist rulers is unclear. Iran also has close ties to Sadr's rivals among the reactionary Shia leaders--including Ayatollah Sistani, one of the main pro-U.S. Shia leaders. As A World to Win News Service noted, "What is important here is.the unity between their politics and ideology and their attempts to trick the people into supporting them, while at the same time making the most contemptible concessions to reactionaries and imperialism."

In April and May, Sadr's Mehdi Army waged a mutiny against the U.S. occupation forces in Najaf--after the U.S. authorities had shut down a newspaper published by Sadr and made other moves against the cleric. Then, at the end of May, Sadr suddenly announced a unilateral cease-fire. He expressed partial support for the U.S.-appointed puppet government. And he said that instead of armed resistance, he would now focus on participation in the elections scheduled for next year by the U.S. and the Allawi regime.

The U.S., for its part, made some conciliatory statements toward Sadr and suspended a warrant that had been previously issued for Sadr's arrest in connection with the murder of a pro-U.S. Shia leader.

U.S. Motives in the Offensive

It was the U.S. occupation forces that broke this truce by carrying out provocations against Sadr and his militia. The U.S. policymakers probably had several goals in making this move.

First, the U.S. want to shore up the credibility of the Allawi regime as a government that is supposedly "independent" of the U.S. There was a whole theatrical setup where Allawi "authorized" the U.S. to move against Sadr's forces in Najaf, ordered several hundred of his troops to join the U.S. Marines, and sent representatives to negotiate with Sadr.

The U.S. occupiers also hope to significantly cut down Sadr's power and influence (if not eliminate him outright from the scene). This is related to the U.S. attempts to block the influence of Iran's mullahs in Iraq, including within the puppet government. As the Marines began the offensive in Najaf, the Bush White House once again cranked up the threats and accusations against the Iranian government around development of nuclear weapons.

And the U.S. wanted to make a harsh example out of Najaf--aimed at other cities like Falluja, where the people have stopped U.S. troops from entering for months. Give up your armed resistance, the message goes, or face deadly punishment by U.S. bombs and bullets.

But, like the occupation as a whole, things have not gone the way the U.S. wanted. The U.S. military may be able to crush Sadr's militia forces and make him capitulate on U.S. terms (or perhaps kill or arrest him). However, the whole battle of Najaf has only served to highlight the fact that the real decisions are made by the U.S., not the hand- picked Iraqi regime, which controls very little of anything. It's the U.S. that decided to make the move against Sadr, and it's U.S. troops that are doing the fighting against the Mehdi Army.

Even if the U.S. military manages to defeat Sadr's militia, the assault on Najaf might have set in motion developments that could mean even more serious problems for the occupation. One aspect of this is the increasing rifts among the pro-U.S. forces in Iraq. The deputy governors in the Shia districts of Basra, Dhiqar, and Maysun announced their intention to "secede" from the central government. The Shia vice president of the Allawi government, Ibarhim Jaafari, denounced the presence of U.S. troops in Najaf. And the deputy governor of Najaf resigned to protest "all the U.S. terrorist operations that they are doing against this holy city."

The Christian Science Monitor put the events in Najaf in the larger context of Iraq: "What's at stake is not just the control of Najaf, but perhaps Iraq's territorial integrity. Key territories are controlled by armed groups opposed to central government control from Baghdad. Kurdish militias in the north are vying for control of the crucial oil field town of Kirkuk; Sunni insurgents.control much of the center and the northwest, including the transit link to Jordan." And now, the war has "gone south"--figuratively and literally.

As troubles mount for the occupation, the main response of the U.S. overlords is to unleash even more cold- blooded terror on the people of Iraq. This is an unjust occupation--and the only means the U.S. imperialists have of enforcing it is through unjust violence.