July 20th, 2003


War in the city of peace.

Najaf, the spiritual center of Iraq, is the scene of a brewing conflict that could lead to an increased level of violence against coalition forces throughout Iraq.

I recently mentioned that Moqtada Sadr, a young, popular Shi'ite cleric, made a speech in Najaf, Iraq's spiritual center, denouncing the US-elected Iraqi Governing Council.

Well, after his speech, U.S. forces put an armed cordon around Sadr's house...

Sadr's supporters responded quickly with a protest of over 10,000 people in Najaf and over 3,000 through the streets of Baghdad. That's impressive, especially considering that the temperature was in excess of 110 F / 43 C. Footage from Najaf and from Baghdad are available through Reuters. (Windows only.)

U.S. forces have withdrawn the cordon around Moqtada Sadr's residence, but have been given an ultamatum by the protesters -- leave Najaf in three days or face an uprising.

Some of the Najaf protesters threw stones at U.S. troops, while others threatened that next time, they'd come back with guns... Sadr's aides struggled to reign in the violence of the protesters, while US soldiers fixed bayonets to repel them.

Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Conlin, the U.S. commander in Najaf, seems ready for a fight.

"Mr al-Sadr is a young, immature man, who is rapidly losing support in the city," Conlin said. "Sadr wants to import violence into this most peaceful city. But the people of Najaf do not want him." He went on to call Sadr's supporters "a bunch of riff-raff."

Ultimately, this dismissive behavior by the US towards Sadr's supporters bodes ill for the chance of peace in Iraq. What isn't being noted by the US is that Sadr's supporters are essentially pro-democracy. Sadr's speeches don't denounce the US presence if it contributes to Iraq's stability -- they denounce US involvement in Iraqi politics. Ultimately, Shi'ite religious leaders like Sadr want to see an Iraq with as much true democracy as possible, because it would give Shi'ites (and their religious leaders) greater influence and power in their country.

In practical terms, what we have is a war of ideas for the "hearts and minds". The concepts of religion, democracy, nationalism, and self-determination are facing off against secularism, republicanism, cultural pluralism, and authoritarianism... and, above all, capitalism.

Now, normally I would give capitalism a lot of sway -- you can always bribe the people of Iraq, after all. However, the US has shown a distinct unwillingness to do so where it really could lead to fewer casualties. The US goal seems to be to form a mainstream coalition while viciously marginalizing the poor, the religious, and the former ruling caste. However, so long as this happens, there will be no security, and indeed, no stable infrastructure on which to build a pro-American state. What isn't intentionally destroyed will be looted, in the same way that the poor in Mogadishu ripped down the telephone wires, selling the scrap copper on the black market.

What is needed immediately in Iraq to stave off outright rebellion is a massive jobs program, akin to FDR's "New Deal"... but that was never part of the plan. The infrastructure isn't in place for such a thing, and the cost would be heavy. However, the cost of not acting now might be a complete meltdown of stability in Iraq.

If you can't give the Iraqis reliable electricity and safe running water, then how do you expect to give them fast food and consumer electronics? Under the circumstances, capitalism is beginning to look a little overrated...