Friday, August 06, 2004

Current developments

Fierce clashes and air strikes continue in Najaf for the second day in a row while fighting spreads to several southern Iraqi cities reminding Iraqis of the events of last April. The worst situation appears to be that of Najaf and Sadr city in Baghdad, while the situation in Nasiriya, Ammara, and Basrah seems to be less serious but still threatening to explode.

The news from Ammara indicate that armed Sadr supporters are controlling the streets under the eyes and noses of Iraqi police and National Guards. The limited British force in town has not yet interfered. Yesterday, Sadr's main office here in Basrah was surrounded briefly by British forces but no fighting took place. Today, people are saying that Mahdi militiamen are preparing themselves to take to the streets.

Several aides and spokesmen of Muqtada Al-Sadr appeared today on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia blaming US forces and the 'so-called governor of Najaf' for the violence starting with the arrests of some Sadr supporters and the attack against Sadr's residence. When asked about the recent kidnapping of Iraqi policemen in Najaf last week by Mahdi militiamen, they hesitated then they dismissed the whole incident as a rumour. They all expressed the desire of the Sadr movement for negotiations and a truce which obviously reflects the hopeless position of Sadr. Muqtada conveyed two contradicitng messages, as usual, in his proxy friday speech delivered by one of his aides at the Kufa mosque; "the Iraqi prime minister says that America is a friend, and I say that America is our enemy", he also reiterated his call for negotiations and cease-fire.

The US move looks as if it was a planned one. The latest news from Najaf is that American tanks are closing in on the old city centre where the shrine of Imam Ali, Sadr's office and residence are located, as well as those of several senior Hawza clerics. Clashes are also reported from the Wadi Al-Salam graveyard in the north where Mahdi militiamen have taken refuge in the many basements there.

Over 300 militiamen are reported dead and a 1000 have been arrested according to the governor of Najaf. Overall, the situation looks bleak for Sadr, and one has to surmise if this would end in either his arrest or his death. I doubt that the Sadrist movement would be over with Muqtada's death, they would just have a third martyr from the Sadr family to add to their list.

One also can't help but wonder about the timing of Sistani's departure from Najaf to London for treatment. The man is known for his subtle messages, could this be a sign for his tacit approval to finish Sadr and his militia once and for all? The remaining Hawza clerics are highly unlikely to issue a collective statement in the absense of Sistani, even more so when they have been threatened and attacked by Sadr's supporters on many occasions. An aide of Sadr mentioned today on Al-Jazeera that Sistani was forced to leave Najaf and that the medical report of his ischemic heart condition was forged.