At this writing the US Marines are in the process of surrounding the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, Moqtada al Sadr has been reported thrice-wounded and a British journalist from the Sunday Telegraph has been taken hostage in Basra to back up Sadr's demand to lift the siege against his forces. Operations are also under way against groups affiliated with Sadr in certain Baghdad neighborhoods. Operational developments are moving so quickly in Najaf that the reporters can hardly keep up with it. But in general, US forces appear to have cleared the giant Najaf necropolis to the very walls of the Imam Ali Shrine. Then Marines and Iraqi government forces took sections of Najaf, if not the whole of it on the other three sides of the Shrine leaving the complex pretty much surrounded. There are reports of thousands of prisoners, although it is hard to disentangle this number from the large numbers of surenderees taken days before. The Marines are apparently swarming through the town, hopping from housetop to housetop while mechanized forces wind their way through the streets below.
However the details may be, there is broad agreement, even among the most Leftist of commentators, that Sadr's forces are militarily doomed should the Marines press home their attacks. One should remark in passing that the fighting in Najaf differs from April in that Iraqi forces have shown no reluctance about reporting for duty; nor do Sadr's efforts seem to be coordinated with Sunni insurgent forces at Fallujah or Ramadi. It may be significant that Grand Ayatollah Sistani, said to be under treatment in London, has remained largely silent on the fighting which has engulfed his religious capital, almost as if the Pope had no comment on fighting raging through St. Peter's square. Although every death is tragedy, US Marine casualties have been astonishingly low so far; almost as if they had invented an entirely new way of fighting.
The Marines may now pause, having come so far, leaving the reduction of the Imam Ali Shrine to entirely to Iraqi forces. From the operational perspective, the results are foregone. It is at the strategic level where all the difficulties lie. Many newspapers have darkly suggested that operations against Sadr's Madhi Army will "inflame" the Shi'ite street and cause a world-wide Islamic uprising against the United States. At the other extreme other publications warn that the United States must never repeat the pattern at Fallujah, where Marines were called off just as they were poised for the kill, lest this weakness embolden the enemy further. Just how this game will play out will be clear in the coming weeks as the last cards are turned over.
As more information becomes available it will be interesting to see whether the operation on Sadr was defensive -- a response to an intolerable recalcitrance on Sadr's part, perhaps a spoiling attack to forestall a new uprising by the Madhi Army -- or offensive in character, part of a wider operation against holdouts to the new Iraqi government. Some have even suggested that the ultimate objective of the entire operation is Teheran. According to this view, the Iranians are on the verge of declaring their nuclear capability. In necessary consequence, CENTCOM must "clear the decks" and secure its rear to create offensive options against Iran. But that path is deep into the mists of speculation. Nothing to do now but wait and see.
The US has suspended offensive operations in Najaf. The Associated Press reports:
NAJAF, Iraq - Iraqi officials and aides to a radical Shiite cleric negotiated Friday to end fighting that has raged in the holy city of Najaf for nine days, after American forces suspended an offensive against Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, officials said. Aides said al-Sadr had been wounded by shrapnel during U.S. shelling.
With the talks ongoing, the U.S. military said Friday that it had suspended offensive operations against al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, who are holed up the city's vast cemetery and the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest sites to Shiite Muslims. "We are allowed to engage the enemy only in self defense and long enough to break contact," said Maj. Bob Pizzateli, executive officer for the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. "That was a blanket order for everybody."
There are already fears that Najaf is becoming a replay of Fallujah campaign, now widely regarded as a missed opportunity to defeat insurgents sheltering within the inner city. (Click on this picture from Cox and Forkum : it's a gas). Whether that scenario plays out will soon be revealed. The one incontestable factor is that the end-game is now out of the hands of US forces, and indeed has been since the day that formal sovereignty was transferred to the Iraq government.
Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi said the talks were between Iraqi government officials and al-Sadr's representatives. National Security Adviser Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie traveled to Najaf on Thursday. U.S. officials were not involved in the talks, al-Zurufi said.
Readers may recall that Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie was involved in an "ceasefire" with Sadr in May 2004. The Christian Science Monitor reported then from what seems like a long time ago; though the terms, but for the date, could describe the present situation.
A Shiite uprising which swept southern Iraq for the past seven weeks, and boosted rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's popularity nationwide, now appears over. Thursday a Fallujah-like deal was struck in the holy cities of Najaf and Kufa, where Mr. Sadr's militiamen had fought for days against US-led coalition forces. As part of the four-point agreement, US forces halted military operations against Sadr's Mahdi Army late Wednesday night. But sporadic fighting continued in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad.
Thursday, Sadr's men were seen packing cars and pickup trucks and leaving Najaf. The US military has agreed to hand over responsibility for security in the city to the local Iraqi police. "As soon as the Iraqi security forces have assumed responsibility for public security and reestablished law and order, coalition forces will reposition to their bases outside Najaf, while maintaining protective units at the CPA offices and the governorate building and Iraqi police stations," coalition spokesman Dan Senor said in Baghdad. Although the coalition has not formally agreed not to arrest or kill Sadr, Iraq's National Security Adviser says he is confident the coalition will abide by the accord. "[The coalition authorities] gave the talks their blessing and have promised to respect the agreement," Muwaffaq al-Rubaie told a Baghdad news conference.
An end-game now in the hands of the Iraqi government can end differently only if the dynamics between it and Sadr have changed in the interim. Otherwise events are bound to follow the same trajectory, as if chained to some perverse Karmic wheel recirculating endlessly. Yet something has changed for the Iraqi government to authorize a near-fatal assault on Sadr and countenance the Marines approach to within rock-throwing distance of the Imam Ali Shrine. Whether it has changed enough is the question.
It now seems clear that Sadr overestimated the degree of protection which the necropolis and its proximity to the shrine afforded him. Yet the shrine itself cannot be so lightly trespassed. It is protected by a boundary civilized men hesitate to cross. In an irony that Sam Harris would appreciate, sanctity, though it be of the Christian Church of the Nativity, has become an object that can always be pressed into service to shield Islamic fundamentalists though it provides none for those they would slay. That becomes the danger itself; for the shameless abuses of Sadr and similar thugs inevitably cheapen and corrode the very restraints upon which civilization depends; that distinguish the civilian from the combatant; the church from the battlefield. When like the Najaf necropolis, sacred objects finally lose their power to restrain, it more than brick that is destroyed. The real metaphor for the terrorist war on civilization is not wide-bodied aircraft crashing into the twin towers. It is mortars firing from the courtyard of the Imam Ali Shrine by men who don't even sandbag their positions, secure in the knowledge that they can slay men too decent to fire back.
In the end, Sadr's walk-away position is to dare Rubaie to assault the Shrine: dare him to be a barbarian. In the face of that challenge, Rubaie must convince Sadr that he is prepared to cross that line, to pull down his temple if it means saving his soul. Either way, it will be a wild ride.