The Destruction of Najaf
September 1, 2004

Maria Tomchick

The siege of Najaf is finally over, and what was the result? Hundreds of Iraqis dead, most of them civilians who couldn't leave their homes.

The US military, because of a deficit of troops on the ground and zero tolerance for US casualties, has a policy of destroying buildings in all-out aerial bombing raids and artillery barrages: if US troops draw fire from a building, it must come down. It doesn't matter who lives in that building or nearby. Hence, the entire historic, old city of Najaf--hundreds if not thousands of years old--is in ruins and much of the newer city is a blackened hulk. But the Imam Ali Shrine is undamaged! What a victory.

When Arabic satellite TV stations carried the video of Najaf in flames, the leading Iraqi Shiite cleric Ayatollah al-Sistani, who was in London for angioplastic surgery, cut short his treatment and headed back to Iraq, calling on all Shiites to mass together and march unarmed into Najaf to save the holy city. They were a little late. But they managed to save the Imam Ali Shrine, since the US military and the quisling Iraqi government were working themselves into a fervor that would have justified just about any atrocity in order to grab Moqtada al-Sadr.

The Pentagon had insisted that US troops would not raid the shrine, and only Iraqi police and national guard would go in. But after reports that a whole battalion of Iraqi troops threw down their weapons and refused to enter the city, the Pentagon knew it was in trouble.

Then came the news that the whole attack on Najaf was unnecessary, just a whim of the new Marine battalion based in that area. Without consulting either their higher-ups in the US military, the Pentagon, or the US proxy government in Iraq, the Marines decided to push on into Najaf and capture 'ol Moqtada on their own. It shouldn't take more than a day or two, they thought. They didn't count on the Mahdi Army being highly motivated to protect both al-Sadr and the holiest Shiite city in the world.

Well, the Marines got bogged down after 48 continuous hours of fighting in 110-degree heat, so they called Baghdad for reinforcements. It's only 120 miles from Baghdad to Najaf, so they expected help to come soon. They waited. And waited. It took two days for US army units to navigate through guerrilla controlled territory, dodging rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs, in order to reach Najaf. That, more than anything, testifies to how little control the US military and the new quisling government have over the nation of Iraq.

Though unwilling to invade the city, Iraqi police and national guard troops were on alert for anyone trying to enter or leave Najaf. When demonstrators massed in Kufa (a few miles from Najaf) to march on the holy city, Iraqi police opened fire on the unarmed crowd, killing at least 20 people. In addition, mortars ("from an unknown source") fell on the main mosque in Kufa, killing 27 people and wounding 63. All in all, the Iraqi government and its minions have completely lost any credibility they might have had before this Najaf fiasco.

Moqtada al-Sadr and his militia, meanwhile, are the real winners. In the seige of Najaf, al-Sadr gained something he has never able to obtain before: a face-to-face meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani, which has given al-Sadr enormous credibility. The peace deal that al-Sistani and al-Sadr struck allows al-Sadr to go free without arrest or trial, and ensures the same for his militia members, many of whom have kept their guns.

Any way you look at it, the US military lost this battle completely and disgracefully. Yet the Bush administration lumbers on, unaware of how much destruction and hate they're sowing in their wake.