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Against the Odds, the U.S. Looks for a Win-Win Strategy

In Najaf, the military is limited by worry about damaging the Imam Ali shrine and fear of making Sadr a martyr.

August 15, 2004|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — With hundreds of fighters loyal to Muqtada Sadr holed up in Najaf's Imam Ali Mosque compound, U.S.-led commanders in Iraq faced two immediate military options last week, neither of them good.

They could launch a headlong assault on the mosque and risk damaging one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, which could turn the nation's Shiite majority against the interim government.

Or they could cede the ground to Sadr and back off, a course that probably would make the new government look weak and ineffectual -- particularly since the U.S. military, in a June truce, had allowed Sadr's militia to remain armed after an uprising.

Instead, they chose to navigate a perilous middle ground: battling Sadr's forces throughout the rest of Najaf, isolating his Al Mahdi fighters inside the mosque compound, and using public statements by top Iraqi officials to try to discredit the radical cleric. It is a strategy, they hope, that will once and for all deal with a lingering thorn in the side of the U.S. and the interim government, yet keep Sadr from becoming a martyr.

In charting this course, military commanders and Iraqi officials have made a risky calculation: that most Iraqis would blame Sadr, not U.S. troops and the Iraqi government, if the gold-domed mosque was damaged. And that Shiites would side with Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, himself a Shiite, against Sadr, scion of revered Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, who was slain under Saddam Hussein's rule.

As the Najaf fighting failed to inspire widespread uprisings in the Shiite south, and public concerns centered on possible damage to the Najaf shrine and a mosque in neighboring Kufa, U.S. commanders judged that the bulk of the Shiite community was not rallying behind Sadr.

"Their concern is less 'what's happening to Sadr' and more 'what's happened to our holy site?' " said British Maj. Gen. Andrew Graham, deputy commander of coalition forces.

But then came violent clashes in half a dozen cities as U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major offensive to isolate Sadr and his forces in the mosque compound and the Old City of Najaf. At least 157 Iraqi civilians, police and soldiers were killed and 600 more wounded across the country, from Baghdad's Sadr City (named after Sadr's slain father) to Kut in the southeast.

On Friday, the U.S. and Iraqi troops halted their advance at the request of the interim government, which called a temporary truce with Sadr while they tried to negotiate a peaceful solution. Yet less than a day later, Sadr was again issuing bellicose statements about remaining in Najaf until "victory or martyrdom," and officials declared that the talks had failed.

The back and forth, amid repeated vows by both Allawi and Sadr to fight to the finish, could make the interim government appear reasonable by trying to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. But it also could make Sadr more popular with the public, by focusing attention on his apparent ability to keep the powerful U.S. and Iraqi forces at bay.

Hussein Shahristani, a onetime contender for the post of interim prime minister, said the use of military force "strengthens" Sadr and has given him "more sympathy now than ever before."

"He is the only one who cares about the rights of the Iraqi people," said Majeed Ahmed, 27, a supermarket owner. "We love him because he represents us, unlike Allawi who is an American spy, or a CIA agent who was planted in Iraq to serve them."

Not all agree. Mohammed Auan, 33, an unemployed graduate of an industrial institute, said Sadr is "an aimless man, with no goals, no wisdom."

"He does not have the talent nor does he deserve to be a political figure. He is only capable of hiding behind the mask of his dead father, who was a great man."

In their public rhetoric since the crisis began, Iraqi officials have tried to drive a wedge between Sadr and the Shiite community, chastising him for using a mosque as a military base.

"They desecrated this holy shrine with their weapons," Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said at a news conference Thursday. "This is a desecration of the sanctity of the shrine."

Nevertheless, the risks of the military's strategy are clear.

In a poll commissioned by the Coalition Provisional Authority in May, one month after Sadr's Al Mahdi army first clashed with U.S.-led forces in Najaf, 68% of those polled said that they supported the rebel cleric. In fact, 81% of those polled said that their opinion of Sadr was "better" or "much better" than it had been three months earlier: Confronting the U.S. appeared to have added considerably to Sadr's stature.

In April, clashes began after occupation authorities shuttered a newspaper run by Sadr's supporters and arrested one of his top lieutenants. This time, U.S. commanders said, there was no immediate impetus for the fighting and both sides have blamed each other for the hostilities.

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