The on-again, off-again military offensive to destroy Moqtada al-Sadr’s “Mahdi militia” in the holy city of Najaf was on again Thursday. This outcome will be crucial to the competition between the conflicting goals for the future of Iraq: ours and Iran’s. Ours is to defeat the insurgency and enable freedom to take root. Theirs is to prevent a stable democracy from governing Iraq, and to damage our tenuous relationship to half the Islamic world.
The Shia majority of Iraq, long oppressed under Saddam, was ripe for insurgency or even revolution long before Saddam fell. Iran’s radical Shia kakistocracy has been funding, supplying–and in Sadr’s case operating–the insurgency in Shia Iraq ever since Coalition forces began massing to attack Iraq in 2002. According to one estimate, there are at least 30,000 Iranian-funded insurgents in Iraq.
One of the Iranians’ principal obstacles has been Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shia mullah in Iraq. Al-Sistani has called on Sadr to stop the fighting, but his power over Sadr is limited, and Sadr’s is expanded greatly by his Iranian backers. When al-Sistani left Iraq for medical treatment in London, Iran and Sadr began the latest round of fighting in Najaf and in the “Sadr City” area of Baghdad, the huge slum that used to be known as “Saddam City.”
There is important dissention among the new Iraqi government about whether American forces should be allowed to take the fight to Sadr in the heart of Najaf. Early Thursday, Ibrahim Jaafari, head of the Dawa party and one of Iraq’s two interim vice presidents, called for all American forces to leave Najaf. If we and the Allawi forces fail in Najaf, the internal dissention could cause a split in the interim government that won’t be healed soon. Al-Sistani, speaking from London, called for another ceasefire. If these pressures split the new Iraqi government, that alone would be a significant victory for Iran, which will stop at nothing to prevent the Iraqi democracy from taking root.
The Iraqi go-ahead against Sadr was given some time Wednesday, within some well-understood limits. The holiest site in Shia Islam is the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, and it is from this mosque and other sites in Najaf that Sadr and his militia have been launching their attacks. Imam Ali–who is buried in the shrine–is revered as the founder of Shia Islam. Ali was the six-year-old who took Mohammed’s place in his bed on a night when Mohammed expected an assassination attempt, and is believed by the Shia to have had divine guidance. But the Shia radicals–and I still believe that term isn’t redundant–see no inconsistency in using their holiest site as a base for terrorist activity. We’ve all seen the television coverage of them running out of the mosque, RPGs, and other weapons in hand, to engage American troops.
The shrine/mosque is only part of the problem. The “Valley of Peace” cemetery–the largest in the world with perhaps five million graves–is another favorite of the militia to hide within and fire at Coalition forces. The city itself, with about 600,000 people, is the typical Iraqi city of narrow, winding streets. The Marines are running the show, backed by the Army and both Air Force and Navy aircraft on call. They all are aware of both the dangers and the necessity of protecting the mosque. It is already a touch-and-go fight, and is evolving into the kind of urban warfare that we managed to avoid last year. It’s August, which means temperatures of 120 degrees during the day in Iraq. Kicking down doors, fighting sometimes room-by-room, the Marines, God bless ‘em, are doing their usual superb job. I’ve heard several reports of wounded Marines getting patched up and running back into the fight.
At this writing, American troops with armored vehicles, attack helos, and heavier air support, are trying to close the circle around the mosque, crowding Sadr and his fighters into a smaller and smaller area, diminishing their strength and numbers to the point that the Allawi forces can finish the fight. If we can do that, we will succeed. All Sadr–and Iran–need to do to succeed is to maneuver us into damaging or destroying the mosque. Sadr and his men are perfectly willing to destroy the holy site themselves in some way that makes us appear responsible. Al Jazeera will be there to stage-manage and broadcast the finale.
If the Imam Ali shrine is destroyed in a Coalition operation, the Iranians will use that fact to divide and discredit the Allawi government. They will try to raise all of Shia Islam against the American occupiers in Iraq and American interests everywhere. The Shia are the second-largest Islamic sect, with about 700 million adherents in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and parts of North Africa. It is quiet conceivable that the destruction of the Imam Ali mosque would trigger the clash of civilizations that Iran and Osama bin Laden have been working desperately to create. It could be a significantly destabilizing force in nations such as India and Pakistan where our influence and fragile alliances could easily wither and die. Too much hangs in the balance in Najaf. But the fight has to be made because Iran, and its Sadr proxy, are the two most significant obstacles to freedom in Iraq.
It is tempting, and wrong, to believe this fight is not worth the risk. Young Americans will die there in as important as any other fight has been for Iraqi freedom. Sadr’s force is fighting for political advantage. It would be an easy fight for us to win if we weren’t concerned with the repercussions from destroying the Imam Ali shrine or the number of civilians who might be killed. If we had somehow negotiated the cooperation of Ali al-Sistani in the year and a half since the Saddam regime fell, the fight wouldn’t even be necessary. If we had been able to bring other Islamic forces in to join the Coalition forces, this fight could have been theirs if it had to be fought at all. But we didn’t, and that risk and the cost is now ours.
The Najaf fight won’t end today, tomorrow, or perhaps even next week. The Iraqi forces fighting with us against Sadr’s men may not be sufficiently strong or dedicated to end the matter for days or weeks. Allawi, facing very strong opposition in his own government, may change his mind and demand we stop short of the necessary conclusion. But even if we win this fight without destroying Shia Islam’s holiest site, even if the Iraqis manage to kill Sadr and defeat his force decisively, the Iranian interference in Iraq won’t end. Until it does, there will be no peace in Iraq. The central point of the Iraqi insurgency is now–as it has been for more than a year–Tehran.
–NRO contributor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the U.N. and Old Europe are Worse than You Think.