August 26th, 2004


Iraqi police endangering peace process in Najaf

Chris Albritton reports from Najaf about more strongarm tactics from the local police to harass reporters:

"I was on the roof trying to get my BGan to connect when Najaf’s finest burst onto the roof with a Kalashnikov and order me and the other journalists down to the lobby. The cops had raided the hotel and forced all the journalists out onto the street. We were terrified. The cops yelled at us and pointed their weapons toward us. Several large trucks were waiting and knew we would be loaded onto them. Then they started shooting.

“Yella, yella” they ordered us. BANG BANG! They fired their weapons just over our heads forcing us to crouch. The foreign journalists and the Arab media were separated into separate trucks and we were all brought to the police station at gunpoint. On the way, they continued to scream at us and point their weapons in our faces. I tried to put my money in my bag, but a young police officer thrust his Kalashnikov at me and rifled through my bag.

Finally, we made it to the police station. My friend Phillip urged me to ride it out, be calm, smile a little. Then we were herded into the police chief’s office for the most bizarre press conference of my life.

The Shrine would be stormed tonight, he said, and we would be allowed to get on a bus and go visit it tomorrow to see the damage the Mahdi Army had done to it. The Sistani protesters in Kufa were really Mahdi guys and they had to be killed. Oh, and thank you for coming."

The Guardian has a story on this here. The San Jose Mercury is also coverring this story. (Registration may be required... if so, use ..)

I wonder whether these police are some of the same assholes who fired on Sistani's followers today and attacked people while they were praying at Kufa's mosque. I would ordinarily think that Sadr's folks may have done it by mistake, but many of Sadr's followers were praying in that mosque too, and the mosque in question is one in which Sadr routinely gave the prayers at prior to the conflict.

Sure, the Iraqi police in Najaf have had it rough, and have been mercilessly attacked by Sadr's followers, but they also need to realize that they don't really control Najaf, any more than the Swiss Guard controls the Vatican. Ultimate control of Najaf resides in the prominent religious leaders of Iraq, and the most prominent of them all is Sistani. It's a very dangerous and stupid thing for the Iraqi police and national guard to alienate Sistani *AND* the press at the same time, because the conclusion that Sistani is likely to draw is the same that Sadr drew a long time ago -- that security for Najaf should be handled entirely by the clergy.

Sistani seemingly slept through the whole invasion and occupation of Iraq up to this point, avoiding becoming both a religious and secular leader. The U.S. appointed interim Iraqi government, however, seems to be giving him no choice other than to get more involved in secular affairs. If they are wise they will let Sistani sort things out and let sleeping dogs lie.

...and meanwhile, Iraq's oil infrastructure has been attacked again.

And as yet another example of why peace in Najaf is more important than whether Sadr gets brought to justice or not, a story out of Turkey reports that 250 Iranians recently volunteered for suicide operations in Iraq, citing US involvement in the Najaf crisis as the main reason. While the Iranian government doesn't appear to be supporting these efforts, they can't really put a stop to them either, even if they tried.

One of the expressed intents of the war in Iraq was to help democratize its neighbors. All the evidence suggests, however, that the opposite is happening.

Jubilant Iraqi marchers take back Najaf.

Sistani's marchers flooded the streets of Najaf today -- despite efforts by the Iraqi police and national guard to keep them out -- and made their way into the Imam Ali Shrine, where they were greeted as liberators by the besieged supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr.

Soon afterwards, Sistani's representatives announced a peace agreement with Sadr's forces.

The five points appear to be:
  • Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free cities

  • All armed forces to withdraw from Najaf ( Sadr's withdrawl in exchange for amnesty?)

  • Iraqi local police take charge of security

  • The government to compensate the victims whose businesses and homes were damaged in the fighting

  • A census to be taken to prepare for elections expected in the country by January.

It appears that the agreement Sistani and Sadr made may also be contingent on previous statements by Allawi promising amnesty and safe passage if Sadr and his followers left the shrine and disarmed. In this case, the devil may be in the details. It's not just the terms of the peace treaty, but how they're carried out.

"We hope to hear from the Iraqi government a certain declaration, and this is part of the solution to the crisis. The atmosphere is positive ... and the crisis is about to be resolved." -- a spokesman for Sistani.

What we seem to have on the table then is an agreement similar to the one that Sadr approved a week ago, but that the Iraqi government refused to accept.

The Iraqi government stubbornly refused last week's peace treaty, and as a result hundreds were killed and wounded and the historic center of Najaf was turned into a bombed-out war zone. I don't think the Allawi government will dare to be as stubborn this time around, however. It's one thing for Allawi to flout democracy by ignoring the Iraqi National Conference, which he seems to view as a meaningless Duma, and another thing entirely to for him to ignore Iraq's most powerful spiritual leader.

In other words, Allawi will strengthen the theocracy, not the democracy... oh, and he'll be discrediting his own government by accepting financial responsibility for the damages and victims. Something tells me that US taxpayers will pick up the tab, however.

As one of those who made the march on the shrine said:
"God is great. This is democracy, this is the new Iraq, this is the greatest defeat we could have inflicted on the Americans. It's the most beautiful day in my life."

He then hurried inside the mausoleum to pray.

*Update* - Aha! Confirmed! Amnesty was/is part of the deal -- really two deals rolled into one -- and since Sadr faces possible murder charges, he probably wants it in writing... and may want some assurances from Sistani that he'll hold Allawi to his word.

"Bassam said that while the language of the agreement was being drawn up, disarmament of al-Sadr's militia and withdrawal by coalition forces were among the conditions.

Al-Sistani wants Najaf to be a ``demilitarized zone'' and is urging al-Sadr and his militiamen to disarm and take advantage of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's offer of amnesty, said Bassam."

The last week's killing has been all about Sadr wanting a pardon on a murder rap and Allawi not wanting to give him one. Bad call for Allawi, who walks away weaker and with a lot of blood on his hands. I wouldn't have expected anything less from Sadr though, who suffers yet another tactical defeat and yet another strategic victory. He who fights and runs away...

Also, I updated the terms of the agreement once I had confirmation on exactly what they were. Most interestingly, it includes demands for a census followed by elections in January. This is something that Sistani fought for previously, but which was refused by the US, and it will completely change the way a democratically elected government in Iraq looks. It also guarantees an election which many people speculated would be delayed yet again.