CNN: al-Sadr forces take Najaf

CNN reports that the holy city of Najaf has fallen to Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces. (Sorry for the multiple updates today. Lot going on.)

From CNN:

Supporters of maverick Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr controlled government, religious and security buildings in the holy city of Najaf early Tuesday evening, according to a coalition source in southern Iraq.
The source said al-Sadr’s followers controlled the governor’s office, police stations and the Imam Ali mosque, one of Shia Muslim’s holiest shrines.
Iraqi police were negotiating to regain their stations, the source said.
The source also said al-Sadr was busing followers into Najaf from Sadr City in Baghdad and that many members of his outlawed militia, Mehdi’s Army, were from surrounding provinces.

But don’t worry, be happy:

Despite the rising death toll, Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, said “there is no question we have control over the country.”
“I know if you just report on those few places, it does look chaotic,” Bremer said on CNN’s “American Morning.” “But if you travel around the country, what you find is a bustling economy, people opening businesses right and left, unemployment has dropped.
“The story of the house that doesn’t burn down is not much of a story in the news,” he said. “The story of the house that does burn down is news.”

Lord. Hey, Mr. Bremer, you’ve been in-country for a while now, so you should know that when Baghdad, Fallujah, Basra, Amarah, Nasiriyah and now Najaf are seeing heavy fighting, you should know that _that’s most of the country._
(There has been underreported fighting and assassination attempts in Mosul, and Tikrit is probably locked down tight by the American military.)
Iraq is heavily urbanized, with the west and south of the country largely uninhabited. Almost 77 percent of the population lives in those cities. So when Bremer refers to those “few places” he’s actually talking about the majority of the Iraqi population (with the exception of the Kurdish area.)
But more important, where the hell is Sistani? He’s being awfully quiet after an earlier announcement calling for calm, but saying al-Sadr’s grievances were “legitimate.”
There is some suspicion that al-Sadr is working for the Iranians. His _marji’ya_ — religious advisors — are based in Qom, Iran, and I’ve heard from Iraqis that he’s getting instruction from them. Speculation is that he’s deliberately trying to open up a second front, as that would suit Tehran just fine. Having America bogged down just as Iran is making concessions — maybe — on nuclear programs could be the working plan. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence.
Or maybe al-Sadr is just greedy. Back in October, he tried a similar tactic in Karbala by taking eight hostages in the al-Mukhaiyam mosque. People in Karbala thought al-Sadr’s militants were really after the money in the mosques left by worshippers. At the time, he failed, but this time, he has control of Imam Ali’s mosque, one of the holiest shrines in Shi’a Islam — and one that is considerably richer. The amount of wealth in the mosque is unknown, but it would be considerable.
If he does attempt to take the mosque’s wealth, he will cause a split among the Iraqi Shi’a between his followers and Sistani’s. And if the Americans go into the mosque to get him, they will unite _all_ the world’s Shi’a against them.
One interesting aspect of all of this is al-Sadr’s tactics. If he leaves Najaf after a short period, he’s probably “taking coup.” Taking coup was a Native American tactic in warfare that involved touching the enemy with a blunt stick but not killing him. It was the equivalent of saying, “I could have snuffed you … But I didn’t.” Sadr may be doing the same thing by coming into a city, taking it over for a day or so and then leaving it. He gets all the PR benefits of taking over a city, but doesn’t actually have to expend resources on dealing with it. If he leaves Najaf like he did Kufa, this may be what he’s doing.
But regardless of his tactics, he is fated to be a prisoner or a martyr. Either way makes this is a no-win game now. Nothing I see coming looks good.

“Worse than a Crime”

More Americans and Iraqis dead as violence continues in Iraq. Meanwhile, the president refuses to back off June 30 because it’s the only thing the White House can control.

The situation in Iraq has deteriorated so far in the last two days that I frankly don’t know where to begin. But seven more troops have been killed since Monday morning:

American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 6, 2004 — Four Marines with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were killed April 5 as a result of enemy action while conducting security and stabilization operations in Iraq’s Anbar province, a Combined Joint Task Force 7 news release reported today.

No further information on this incident was available.

Three Task Force 1st Armored Division soldiers were killed during separate attacks April 5 and today in Baghdad’s Kadhimiya district, according to another release.

The first soldier died of wounds received during an attack that took place at about 11 a.m. April 5. The soldier was traveling with a southbound convoy when it was attacked with small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

A second soldier died at about 9:30 p.m. April 5 when an RPG struck his vehicle during a firefight in the same area. An RPG attack at 12:30 a.m. today killed a third soldier, who was in a Bradley fighting vehicle.
The names of the Marines and soldiers are being withheld until their families are notified.

I’m on deadline again and can’t really give a complete rundown of the news, but check out Juan Cole, Billmon and Josh Marshall for some excellent roundups.

But If I can take a moment to be frank: I cannot begin to explain how angry I am at how Iraq has been handled. Arrogance, heads-in-the-sandness and a complete lack of understanding of the culture, people and history of the country has been the hallmark of Washington’s policy toward Iraq. The original plan called for 30,000 troops in August as happy natives bought Coca-Cola and waved little American flags. Such arrogance. Now the Pentagon is mulling extra troops. “There’s no history of ethnic violence in Iraq,” we were told by Iraqi exiles and Paul Wolfowitz. Well, maybe that’s because the Iraqis have been ruled by an iron fist for a long, long time. Tom Friedman once noted that by removing Saddam, we would find out if Iraq was the way it was because of Saddam or if Saddam was the way he was because of Iraq. I think we can now say it’s the latter. Saddam was brutal and — yes — evil, but when pro-American Iraqi bloggers say Iraqis “deserve” Saddam, that’s a sign that the ballgame is almost over.

I have to admit that until now I have never longed for the days of Saddam, but now I’m not so sure. If we need a person like Saddam to keep those rabid dogs at bay then be it. Put Saddam back in power and after he fills a couple hundred more mass graves with those criminals they can start wailing and crying again for liberation. What a laugh we will have then. Then they can shove their filthy Hawza and marji’iya up somewhere else. I am so dissapointed in Iraqis and I hate myself for thinking this way. We are not worth your trouble, take back your billions of dollars and give us Saddam again. We truly ‘deserve’ leaders like Saddam.

Iraqis were glad to be rid of Saddam, make no mistake. But they had and still have a very complicated stew of feelings as to the way it happened. But if even that glimmer of goodwill and gratitude is fading, what else is there? If they’re no longer even glad for that, then why the hell is the United States there?

And why this desperate clinging to June 30? It smacks of a security blanket, of a childish administration so at a loss as to what to do that the only thing left is to cling to the one thing it has control over: the date when sovereignty will be returned. But returned to … who? The IGC is reviled on the street. The interim constitution is rejected by most Shi’a. The Kurds just want to retreat to their mountains and the Sunnis are scared to death of everyone.

And it’s not like the U.S. is going anywhere. Large bases in al-Taji and elsewhere indicate that the U.S. is planning on a long stay. The Pentagon will still have control over the $18 billion “gift” to Iraq from the people of the United States — except the Iraqis don’t actually get the money or or have a say in how it’s spent. The country’s armed forces will still answer to the U.S. military. A reporter buddy who was in Iraq in December and January said — and I agree — that the CPA has spent a lot of time convincing a lot of Iraqis — educated and uneducated alike — that on July 1, the Americans will be gone. When Iraqis wake up and the Americans are still there, that will be a rude awakening for everybody.

The White House is “playing poker and has been bluffing for a long time with a pair of twos,” my reporter friend said.

And speaking of Americans, millions are so angry at the waste of lives, money, prestige. So very angry at the incompetence on the part of America’s leaders in the foreign policy sphere. How can anyone look at facts — real facts — and not see that what passes for “moral clarity” and “steely resolve” and “resolute leadership” is actually stubbornness, incuriosity and dangerous isolation from contrary views. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Mr. President. Your act doesn’t fool me. Your self-puffery doesn’t hide your lack of imagination and your disastrous policy choices made because you’re easily swayed by powerful viziers. Your lack of engagement has killed 624 Americans as of this writing, 59 British troops and 44 other members of your coalition. God knows how many Iraqis have died. Your generals don’t bother to keep track.

You should never be forgiven for these death — you should be held accountable. Come November, I hope that you will be, because your Iraq policy and, frankly, your entire administration is what Talleyrand said of Napoleon’s 1804 execution of the Duc d’Enghien: “It is worse than a crime; it is a mistake.”