America is its own worst enemy in Iraq

Category: Americas, World Affairs Topics: Iraq Views: 2265

When a discredited young firebrand cleric outsmarts American administrators and soldiers, you know the occupiers are at sea in the sands of Iraq. 

No sooner had Moqtada al-Sadr and the Americans got into a standoff two weeks ago than he headed with his militia from Baghdad to the holy city of Najaf. He has been holed up there since, daring the American troops to enter the sacred precincts. 

But they have not, despite initial declarations that they would. This is a welcome sign, the first in months that the visitors may be learning from their many mistakes.

The specter of Americans invading Najaf has evoked comparisons to past incidents involving violations of the sanctity of sacred places:

In 1979, Saudi troops stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca to flush out militants, the Osama bin Ladens of their day, who had taken it over as a protest against the ruling House of Saud.

In 1984, the Indian army invaded the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, to get at a Sikh separatist and his militia.

In 1992, Hindu mobs attacked a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya in northern India with pickaxes and crowbars. 

The Saudi regime paid little or no political price for its tough action. In fact, it was seen as doing its duty, as the guardian of Mecca and Medina, Islam's two holiest sites. 

Its Wahhabism helped, too, both with Saudis and Muslims elsewhere. The conservative strand of Islam, much derided after 9/11, holds little reverence for bricks and mortars. What is broken can be fixed. What matters is one's rock-solid faith.

But the incidents in India led to massacres, between Hindus and Muslims in the aftermath of Ayodhya, between Hindus and Sikhs following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh guards.

Among the warnings she had ignored was that of a visitor from Canada: Roy McMurtry, then Ontario attorney-general.

He was meeting her in New Delhi about the same time as troops were amassing at the temple. She lectured him that the separatist problem in the Punjab was entirely attributable to the financial contributions of Sikhs in Canada. When he finally got to speak, McMurtry warned her that attacking the temple would be the worst thing she could do. 

Najaf is revered by Shiites the world over. It has the mausoleum of Ali, their first Imam. For centuries, it has been a center of learning as well as a city of exile during periods of religious persecution in neighboring Iran, the only other Shiite majority nation. 

Al-Sadr's father was a grand ayatollah. But he himself has little theological standing. Rather, he is thought of as a thug, who was implicated last year in the murder of a rival cleric.

The 32-year-old al-Sadr is said to exaggerate his age, and encourage his followers to address him as a sheikh, so that he can be taken seriously in a culture that venerates age and learning. He is shunned by the religious establishment but does have a following among the poor, for whom he provides security and social services.

What elevated his status was the American decision to go after him. His newspaper in Baghdad was shut down. A warrant was issued for his arrest. As he moved into Najaf and the American troops encircled it, public opinion turned sharply anti-American.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered cleric, drew a "red line" that he said the Americans ought not to cross. The four grand ayatollahs of Iran also spoke up from their holy city of Qom.

They warned against an invasion of Najaf - "We will raise the whole Shia world to confront the enemy," said one. They attacked the American occupation of Iraq. In the words of another:

"The only way for America to free itself from the dreadful Iraqi quagmire is to evacuate the country and leave the affairs of Iraq to the Iraqi people unconditionally, so that a popular government could be set up under the supervision of the U.N." 

The episode shows how, setting ideology aside, Americans have been masters of mismanagement, turning minor incidents into major crises. 

Luckily in this case, they heeded worldwide warnings. They have sent word that they do not plan to invade Najaf. Instead, al-Sadr's militia is to be - is being - tackled in the suburbs.

Patience is already paying off. 

Najaf, like any religious city, likes its commerce. The liberation of Iraq spawned a business boom - both at the shops and at the shrines - until the al-Sadr mayhem. Local wrath, therefore, is turning on him. 

The situation in Sunni Falluja, while different, isn't, really. There has been an active insurgency there for months. But it has been mishandled. 

Depending on which American unit has been in charge - four have done six stints in one year - tactics have varied between helping the 300,000 Fallujans and punishing them collectively.

The Marines who took over last month came with good intentions. But when one got ambushed and four mercenaries got murdered and mutilated, the mood turned ugly.

Instead of targeting the militants, estimated at fewer than 2,000, the Marines have killed between 600 and 1,000 civilians, including women and children, and sent thousands fleeing into the countryside.

In statements to the media and in e-mails back home, some Marines have boasted about having taught the enemy a lesson. This is scandalous.

When a ceasefire was belatedly negotiated - it should have been at the start of the current conflict - the American rationale was not that civilians ought to be spared but that a renewed attack would look bad on Al-Jazeera TV. 

It ended up looking bad anyway, when the Marines bombed a mosque Tuesday night. They said they were only returning fire after the insurgents broke the ceasefire. Maybe. But one cannot imagine a worse signal at this time than American bombs toppling a minaret.

 

Haroon Siddiqui is The Star's editorial page editor emeritus.  [email protected].


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  7 Comments   Comment

  1. feeda from malaysia

    America should get out from Iraq for the simple reason that they are trespassing on another country's grounds. The world knows that America is fighting for a lost cause. The US army are like puppets. Their family wants them back home. Putting the US army in Iraq for a lost cause is simply pathetic. America is simply placing its army there for show and to cover up her emabarrassment to the world.

  2. mohammed junaid khan from south africa

    I totally agree with this article, AMERICA IS ITS OWN WORST ENEMY IN IRAQ! I have faith in ALLAH(s.h.w.a), his beloved prophet MUHAMMED(s.a.w) and all those great awliya in bagdad, that blessed city! The Muslims will suffer most definately, but there will come a time when this misery will end, and the west will see the muslims as they are supposed to be seen and not as terrorists! ISLAM shall PREVAIL! Insha-ALLAH! AAMEEN!

  3. Anisulla Khan from Canada

    I AGREE,

    Many American know that they have failed. Sooner the govt accept the fact instead of flip-floping the stories better it will be.

  4. Charles Jacks from USA

    Assigning John Negroponte as Ambassador to Iraq sends a clear picture on the intent of the US toward the people of Iraq. This is the person that bankrolled death squads in Central America, was appointed to the UN immediately before trying to steamroll the invasion of Iraq and CAST THE VETO against the UN resolution condemning Israel's use of assassination of a civilian population.

    Putting him in charge of the US occupation is likely to make the stories and pictures of the handling of Iraq citizens by the US and Brittan seem compassionate. Democracy? Sovereignty? I am reminded of the joke that was going around before the invasion. The one that ended with Hussane asking Bush what the flags flying over Iraq said. And Bush replying "I don't read Hebrew."

    What are these people thinking?

  5. Mohamed El Rashidy from Canada

    As usual everything brother Haroon says is right. However, his last sentence says "But one cannot imagine a worse signal at this time than American bombs toppling a minaret."

    I don't think we need to imagine it, we saw it, American soldiers torturing Iraqis!!

  6. ROBERT MOORE from USA

    It is sad that my government "leaders" have not studied history and intl. politics and fail, in their arrogance and ignorance, to try to understand other cultures but simply act on their war-mongering instincts.

  7. Akbar Khan from Canada

    Americans, Britons and to all those who support this invasion and neo-colonialism...if any of you believes that by putting black bags over the heads of Iraqi prisoners, chaining them, connecting wires to them giving them electrical shocks, and for British soldiers to urinate on Iraqi soldiers, is going to bring about your dreams of democracy, then I suggest you pack up this "dream, " which I call crimes against humanity, of your - or else more and more nightmares will be unleashed upon these Mercenary US and British soldiers by Iraqi's who are defending their nation, just as Americans would defend NYC to kick out any scoundrels trying to invade their land. Iraqi's are becoming more and more fed up with your support for occupation, lack of organization, direction, and incompetence when it comes to understand Iraqi's as being part of a nation that had hte highest literacy rate and the highest level of education standards amongst all Arab nations.