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The Conflict in Iraq

U.S. Won't Negotiate With Sadr

Fight in Najaf won't end until cleric is defeated, military says. Options include a slow squeeze.

August 11, 2004|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — After failing in previous attempts to rid Najaf and Fallouja of insurgents, U.S.-led forces say they hope to avoid an inconclusive cease-fire during the current fighting in Najaf. This time, military officials say, they will not negotiate and will not stop applying pressure until they "defeat and destroy" radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's Al Mahdi militia.

After a series of skirmishes that began Thursday, Sadr's forces appeared Tuesday to be holed up in one of Islam's holiest shrines -- the Imam Ali Mosque compound in Najaf.

That has left the U.S.-led forces, undertaking their first major urban offensive since April, with three options: assaulting the sacred compound, having the Iraqi national guard flush out Sadr's forces or eventually forcing him out in a siege.

In contrast to the spring fighting -- triggered by the killing and mutilation of four American contractors in Sunni Muslim-dominated Fallouja and a simultaneous uprising by Sadr that turned Najaf and other Shiite Muslim cities into combat zones -- the U.S. military says it now has two advantages. This time, an interim Iraqi government is in place that is backing the fight against Sadr and a more capable Iraqi national guard is helping in the battle.

At the same time, the fighting that erupted in Najaf on Thursday -- and continued Tuesday with U.S. tanks and helicopters firing on insurgents in a centuries-old cemetery near the mosque compound -- has thus far resulted in something of a standoff. Although U.S.-led troops have made deeper and longer incursions into the Shiite holy city, the endgame is uncertain because of the possible repercussions of fighting at, and possibly damaging, sacred sites. Military commanders believe that about 1,000 fighters loyal to Sadr, and perhaps Sadr, are using the mosque compound as a base of operations.

A frontal assault on the compound is unlikely in the near term. Urban combat on the grounds is an option that commanders do not relish even though, as a senior U.S. military official said this week, permission to strike if necessary has been granted by Najaf's governor.

"We, the Western-based coalition, respect and honor the belief of the Shia people," said British Maj. Gen. Andrew Graham, deputy commander of the multinational forces in Iraq. "From our perspective, unless we are specifically requested by very, very senior Shia figures to say that this is legitimate because [Sadr] has been so appalling, we couldn't even consider going in there."

Another option is to send in the three battalions of the Iraqi national guard now under the tactical control of U.S. commanders.

Military officials are also considering a more nuanced approach, using U.S.-led troops, Iraqi police and the national guardsmen to tamp down violence in the rest of the city, restore law and order, keep Sadr's forces isolated and discredit the cleric for turning a holy site into a military bunker.

Such a slow squeeze, officials say, might be the best way to further isolate Sadr from the 450,000 residents of Najaf and force his fighters inside the mosque to capitulate.

Military commanders say a cease-fire similar to the one that began in early June, which left Sadr's forces intact and allowed them to continue to stockpile weapons in the mosque compound and the adjacent cemetery, is unacceptable.

"We will want to defeat them in detail," Graham said.

Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi agrees. Allawi, a Shiite, has called for a crackdown on Sadr's militia, saying that he opposes negotiations and demanding that "those armed should leave the holy sites ... as well as leave their weapons and abide by the law."

During the siege of Fallouja, many units of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (the national guard's previous name) crumbled and fled in the face of attacks by insurgents. Since then, commanders have overhauled the strategy for developing the national guard, devoting more time and money to training.

"We learned some very hard lessons in April," Graham said. "And in a strange way, it's just as well we learned them in April than if we learned them in July."

Whether the national guard units will be tested in a culminating assault in Najaf remains to be seen. Moreover, should the intense battles in Najaf and sporadic fighting in other southern cities spread, a military strategy of isolating and discrediting Sadr's forces in Najaf might need to be reconsidered.

Currently, three battalions of Iraqi national guardsmen are under the "operational control" of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit commander in Najaf, Col. Anthony M. Haslam, who also has two battalions of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division under his command.

As in Najaf during the spring, the siege of Fallouja resulted in a stalemate, with Marines moving away and the city remaining largely a haven for insurgents.

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