The situation in Najaf is evolving and devolving faster and more frequently than a wire reporter’s updates. One moment, the battle between joint American-Iraqi forces and radical Shiite leader Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi army appear to be coming to a close. Less than 30 minutes later, broken agreements and a renewal of sharp rhetoric spike the fighting. It’s been this way for months.
Last week, reports suggesting that al Sadr would be willing to surrender the keys to the Imam Ali Mosque to aging Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani led hopeful Iraqis to believe that an end to the fighting in Najaf was only hours away. Hopes have since been dashed as members of the Mahdi army still control the mosque and portions of the vast, adjacent cemetery. (Within the mosque is the ancient tomb of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib, a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.)
The possibility that al Sadr might have been yielding to U.S. and Iraqi military pressure was an obvious attempt to buy more time. It wasn’t his first such ploy, and he knows his days are numbered.
In the end, sacrificing the lives of his Mahdi militiamen will not win Najaf, and al Sadr must also know this. But for a man who has won little respect among Shiite clerics, the battle for Najaf–including the mosque and the cemetery–is a means of garnering an enormous amount of international media attention, and establishing him as something of a cult figure among some Shiites as the man who stood up to America.
Still, months of battling U.S. Army and Marine forces have taken its toll on the Mahdi army. Most of al Sadr’s front-line combatants are now dead. His current crop of fighters are mostly disenfranchised, newly recruited youths who are certainly capable of firing off a few rounds or launching a rocket-propelled grenade, but they often break and run when U.S. Marines and Army cavalry troopers move against them.
The past 24 hours have seen U.S. warplanes and helicopter gunships pounding Mahdi positions. Fighting continues on the ground in various sectors of the city, and the consensus among U.S. military personnel is that the insurgency is weakening. The latter is due in large measure to an increase in solid intelligence, a more formidable Iraqi national military force, and positive developing relationships between U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians. Not good for al Sadr.
“Two nights ago on a patrol from midnight to 3 A.M., we actually saw Iraqis sitting out on rugs watching and listening to the Coalition aircraft doing their work in the cemetery,” 1st Lt. Jeremy T. Sellars–a platoon commander with Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment–told National Review Online on Saturday. “Despite the obvious level of destruction they were inflicting, I watched Iraqis cheer every time the aircraft fired.”
In the rural communities just beyond Najaf, the farming families are comforted by the presence of Americans. “The farmers are some of the most supportive of our patrols,” said Sellars. “In these areas you can see women who respond to waves, babies and small children being held up to see the Americans. So in the sense of the local populace, I would say they look forward to the end of this conflict, but they understand why it is happening so close to their homes.”
First Lt. John B. Johnston of the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division has experienced similar interaction with Iraqi civilians. In a Saturday conversation with NRO, he recalled a recent patrol in which his platoon was followed by droves of children. “There were about a hundred of them,” he said. “They were chanting ‘USA’ and shouting great things about President Bush. These kids are the future of Iraq, and they clearly want us there.”
Marine 1st Lt. Stephen F. Shaw, a platoon commander with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines who recently saw action in Fallujah, agrees. “The receptiveness toward us is good and improving,” he told NRO, Saturday. “The people are quite friendly.”
He added, the “friendliness” witnessed by Americans in Iraq is rarely understood back home. “There is a lot editorial license being taken in terms of the media choosing what to report. I feel like a lot of the positive things we’ve been doing have been glossed over for more dramatic actions elsewhere. Car bombs are a lot more fun to report than our painting schools or whatever. But the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. If you want compare the bad days to the good days, I’d have to say 90 percent to the good.”
Though some would argue otherwise, time–and the fact that positive news stories will eventually see ink–is in many ways on the side of the Americans in Iraq and the new Iraqi interim government. Not so for al Sadr.
“It appears to me that in April and May we killed the best and brightest [of the Mahdi army],” 1st Lt. Brian Suits of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division in Najaf, said during a radio interview with talk-radio host Kirby Wilbur on Seattle’s KVI radio, last Thursday. “What al Sadr is doing now is sending in the guys who are left behind to make a statement. He’s running out of guys. The guys he has are frankly running out of motivation. There are ill-prepared and ill-trained. They are beginning to question their authority. I think they’re saying ‘wait a minute, you told us that God was going to guide our bullets, but we haven’t killed one American soldier in our area and we are dying left and right here.’”
Suits added, “This is not a Shia uprising. It’s just the people we are fighting happen to be Shia. But 99 percent of this country think this guy needs to get out of the holiest place in Shia Islam and fight his war somewhere else.”
According to Suits, the vast majority of the Arabic-language news outlets in Iraq, “except Al Jazeera,” are making the point that al Sadr is hiding behind the American respect for Shia Islam. Iraqis, now granted never-before-realized freedoms, are refusing to buy into the propaganda of the past.
“They’re seeing one reality with their own eyes, then they turn to Al Jazeera and see something far different,” said Suits, adding that Iraqis also know that many of the remaining Mahdi militiamen are “thugs, thieves, and drug addicts.”
Asked if Iraqi national military forces and police are measuring up to their U.S. and British allies on the battlefield, Suits said, “I’ve been in combat with these guys over the last couple of days, and I was as wary as anyone else. I saw their performance in the first Gulf War, but they have since coalesced into an effective force. I’m not lying. I’m not propagandizing. I’m not delivering a message someone else said. I have confidence in them being on my left or my right. They will go forward. They will close with the enemy. They will fix him. And they will kill him. They do not retreat. They do not cower. They support each other. They drag their wounded out of the line of fire. And I have confidence that these guys will be able to defend their country because they are doing it now.”
Nevertheless, Najaf and other contested areas of Iraq are still fraught with danger for American G.I.s as much of the strength of the insurgency stems from the ongoing infusion of foreign fighters. For instance according to Shaw, the 1st Marine Division around Fallujah was able to evacuate between 80 and 85 percent of that city’s civilian population, yet the numbers of insurgents grew.
“Despite our evacuation efforts and the numbers of enemy fighters we actually killed, our intelligence estimates said that the insurgent population doubled in Fallujah. So, it was almost as if people were coming to fight like it was the big showdown at the OK Corral. The enemy’s buddies were sneaking into town from Syria or who knows where.”
He added, “What the Marines are running into in Najaf is in many ways what my platoon has been dealing with in Fallujah. The same people who fire at you from a mosque, can throw their weapons in a trash bin and instantly become civilians. Counterinsurgency missions like this are the most challenging types of operations, because the population becomes part of the terrain, and we have to deal with that. We have to respect that.”
Sellers in Najaf agreed, adding, “We’ll just keep looking for bad guys and try to teach the good guys what to do to better themselves. Don’t make it too complicated and things will get done.”
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.