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.
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