Bad day in Najaf

NAJAF — I don’t know what the news is from the rest of Iraq or even what’s going on with the governor of Najaf. I do know what’s happening with the police department, however. They’re raiding the Sea of Najaf hotel and rounding the 100 or so journalists at gunpoint and subjecting them to mass arrest.

NAJAF — I don’t know what the news is from the rest of Iraq or even what’s going on with the governor of Najaf. I do know what’s happening with the police department, however. They’re raiding the Sea of Najaf hotel and rounding the 100 or so journalists at gunpoint and subjecting them to mass arrest.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We started out to the shrine again today, using a different route. The front is constantly shifting and the fighting is very fierce between the Mahdi, the Americans and the New Iraqi Army. Several times my group — which included reporters and photographers from the New York Times, the Observer and CNN — had to turn back because of tanks and Bradleys firing on Mahdi positions. It seemed a little presumptuous to ask them to stop firing so a gaggle of journalists could cross the street.

We ended up going through the Sea of Najaf, the forest and village on the skirts of the old city. In typical Iraqi humor, it’s not a sea at all, but a hot, burning furnace of a destroyed village. It was a 2-hour walk through rubble and sniper positions, constantly being on the lookout. It was here that my trouble started.

We didn’t encounter any firing, but I fell victim — again — to heat exhaustion. It set in and I was able to hold it together until we got to the front gates of the Imam Ali Shrine, but from there, I just had to sit and rest.

Then the bombs started. Massive munitions were landing no more than 50 or 100m from us, and a photographer said a missile struck the barricade that protected the people running in and out of the shrine, setting the barrier on fire. I didn’t see it, but there was so many things exploding. We stayed with a group of Mahdi who gave me ice and water to cool me off while my translator did a few interviews for me. I felt like the biggest loser on the planet that I was so wiped just as we had gotten where we wanted to go.

We couldn’t get into the Shrine; the path was under too much fire. The entrance to the Shrine sits at the meeting point of two streets which end at the Shrines gate. We rested in a protected area on one street, and the other street contained Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s offices. As I sat, we heard incoming screaming in, but I was too exhausted to do much but cover my ears and lean closer to a wall. We kept having to fall back as the Americans bombed closer and closer to our position.

There is a small alleyway connecting the two streets. Feeling a little less wiped, I crossed over to the other street to catch up with the others. As I rounded the corner, I heard one of the other reporters say, “We can wheel him out of here in a trolley.”

“You’re not doing that,” I said as I approached them. “I’m walking out of here.”

CRACK CRACK! Scramble, dust in the eyes, yells of “sniper!” and we all scrambled for cover. My fixer and I dove into a open store front, pushed by three Mahdi guys who were nearby. My colleagues ran round the corner. We were pinned.

The Mahdi militants were as friendly as they could be under the circumstance and urgently pressed me to the ground, protecting me. One stuck his head out the door only to be answered with more sniper fire. He jerked back.

As I sat on the floor with the three armed me around me, I looked up at them. “So,” I said. “Shaku maku?” (Iraqi slang for “What’s happening?”) They started to crack up and then turned serious again and told me how they were fighting to protect the Shrine. At the moment, they were protecting me and I thanked them.

After a few minutes, we gingerly crept out and reunited wit the others. After the sniper fire, my adrenaline was pulsing and I wasn’t exhausted anymore. We decided it was time to head home.

However, we had to go back through the Sea of Najaf again. And I gave out again from the heat. Luckily, we found a taxi and were able to get back to the hotel where I re-hydrated, rested and felt a bit better.

Until tonight. 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.

A few of us put up a fight, demanding why they couldn’t just invite us down for a presser instead of kidnapping us. Oh, no, the commander said, that must have been a mistake. I just asked them to bring you to me… There was no order to brandish weapons, push journalists around and fire into the air. One cop, a lieutenant, just smiled at us when we pointed our fingers at him and said he was the one leading the raid, yelling and pointing his side arm at us.

These are Najaf’s finest. They’re like the old regime, only less disciplined. They’re terrifying and they’re the most dangerous element in this conflict. The Americans and the Mahdi Army have pretty set positions and you know they’re not targeting journalists. But the police here have been engaging in a systematic intimidation of us for three weeks now. The governor of Najaf has reportedly threatened to jail journalists who don’t write down exactly what he says when he says it in interviews.

So we were returned to the hotel on bus. This was another warning to stop covering the Mahdi Army. To get out. My office manager in Baghdad is urging me to leave, but I really want to stay. I’m unsure what to do, and the cops’ unpredictability is unnerving.

(Sorry this is not better written; I’m still pretty exhausted and it’s late here.)

Inside the Imam Ali Shrine

A day in the Shrine

NAJAF, Iraq — There’s a storm brewing over the Imam Ali Shrine in the old city here, and it’s going to get ugly.

We made it into the shrine today after an early morning dash to the city of Najaf from Baghdad. I had to hunker down in the back while traveling through Mahmoudiya and Latifiya, because those are the two hot spots where most journalists seem to get themselves kidnapped. We made it through without incident, however, mainly because we were going about 180 km/hour and we were there before any of the kidnappers were awake. It was 6:30 a.m. when we blasted through the twin ’burgs.

We hit Najaf around 8:30 a.m. or so. After a quick check in at the Sea of Najaf hotel, which is about as crappy as it sounds, we surveyed the surroundings. The hotel was crawling with reporters. Some were old friends from Baghdad who had been on this story for a week longer. And tempers are short. If you’ve not been here for three weeks, the completely fried old hands just hiss at you.

We headed out. Najaf is divided into the old city and the new city. The old city is a roughly circular area surrounding the shrine while the new city sprawls out to the east and south. To the north is the Wadi al-Salaam, the Valley of Peace cemetery that some say is the largest in the world. It’s currently occupied by the U.S. Marines and other Army units. The Mahdi Army has been pretty roundly chased out of there.

A huge fire burns on the other side of the front in Najaf. (Christopher Allbritton ® 2004)Anyway, we had to cross Medina Street to get into the Old City. We approached from the south. The place is crawling with snipers from all sides — Americans, Mahdi and Iraqi Security Forces. We hugged the walls of the close-to-collapsing buildings and raised our hands to show we were unarmed as we crossed every intersection. H and I had hooked up with some Iraqi and Algerian photographers from AP, AFP and Reuters, and they seemed to know what they were doing — until the Reuters guy almost started crying in one intersection. It’s understandable. It’s an incredibly stressful thing to do, to walk out into the middle of a free-fire zone with a bullet-proof vest, “TV” or “Press” taped to it, and hands raised in the air. Throughout this two-hour ordeal, the sharp bang-bang of small arms fire and the colossal booms of Bradleys and M1-A1 tanks firing constantly surrounded us. Oh, and mortars being launched and landing about two blocks over. That was fun. At one point, a huge plume of black smoke rose up and a Bradley or an M1-A1 — I couldn’t tell from the distance — was returning fire. It was about 500m away from us, but the smoke was too thick for me to shoot through.

As we rounded a corner approaching Medina Street, which is the Red Line on the front, the sound of gunfire opened up around us. We scrambled to the lee of a building and squatted. As the exchange died down, incredibly, some guy came up and sold us all ice cream.

I asked him what he was doing.

“I’m supporting the Mahdi Army,” he grinned. “They like ice cream and I have a lot of customers.”

It was good ice cream, I’ll admit. So while bullets whizzed around and over us, we crouched by the side of a wall that radiated heat from the mid-morning sun and snacked on a rainbow swirl. Unreal.

Finally, the shooting eased up and we backed up to another block further away to try another run toward the front. Mid-block, several men sat on the sidewalk discussing the state of the war.

“I would not call this the worst,” mused Muhammad Jasim, who seemed to know the photographers. “All of the days in Iraq are worse than the others, but these are dark days.” He instructed his son to fetch us water, mattresses and pillows. We all stretched out on the sidewalk and napped. The incoming shells didn’t seem to be getting any closer and I found myself oddly unworried about this improbable turn of events.

Jasim doesn’t think Moqtada al-Sadr should be in the shrine. “If you attack the Americans,” he shrugged, “then they will attack you.” He seemed to think that Moqtada should go far away and fight the Americans somewhere else. “All that I hope is to see peace in the city and the shrine,” he said. As we spoke, men wandered up and soon enough it was a salon of sorts, with about a dozen Iraqi men, three photographers, assorted fixers and translators and me. We lounged on the sidewalk. I dozed. Finally, after a couple of hours we decided to make another run for it to cross the line.

Now it got hairy.

Medina Street is wide open, with a low divider in the middle. We were sitting ducks. One of the photographers took off his white shirt and we waved that. We were clearly marked as journalists, but friends had been telling me that the Americans were shooting at everyone. And the Iraqi Security Forces were even worse. The upside is that the ISF are bad shots and the Americans are good enough to fire warning shots above people’s heads and not hit them. It’s still disconcerting to have a bullet snarl past your ear by a few inches I’d imagine. I say “I’d imagine” because no one shot at us. We still were completely freaked out by the idea of an instant death from an unknown enemy perched on a rooftop, but after a while, I started to breathe a little easier.

We crossed Medina Street. Another street, whose name I don’t know lay ahead, and it was guarded by tanks and other heavy armor. As we began to cross, I looked down to see a wire snaking across the alleyway we were preparing to dart from. It led into a pile of debris, and the casing of an unexploded shell was clearly visible. Great. We were standing on an IED. We decided it was time to move. This was when the Reuters photog started crying.

When we got to the other side of the street, we began to relax a little. Until we saw another IED in the ground at our feet. We hopped it and entered the maze of the Old City.

We were met by the children of the Mahdi Army. They couldn’t have been more than 18 or so. And they were so small and fragile compared to the American troops who hulked over everything in this country. They’re big guys. But the Mahdi boys were friendly and searched us almost apologetically. We showed them our pass to the Shrine and they immediately guided us through a warren of twisty, covered alleyways that was straight out of the 11th Century, which is about when the Shrine was built, I believe.

The Imam Ali Shrine (Christopher Allbritton ® 2004)As we approached the shrine, the gold dome gleamed in the mid-day sun. The twin minarets glittered. The whole thing is covered with gold, pure gold, and the tile work is exquisite. I’ve never seen anything more ornate and beautiful. We dashed inside, avoiding more unseen marksmen, and beheld the shrine itself.

Surrounded by high walls, the shrine is the resting place of Imam Ali, the third Imam and intensely holy to the world’s Shi’ites. This was their Vatican.

Inside, we were greeted warmly. The Mahdi know how to work the media, and they know the world press generally likes the scrappy underdog — especially if they don’t actively try to kill you like the Sunni insurgents do. And to give Moqtada credit, he does try to discourage kidnappings and he’s been helpful in getting two of my friends released. There were no weapons in sight, and I don’t think — anymore — that there are any in the shrine proper. But I did watch mortars being fired from just beneath and outside the eastern wall. The mortar teams were right up against the wall, allowing them quickly leave the mortar outside and dash inside to become unarmed pilgrims again.

And this is pissing off a lot of the people who live nearby. The Mahdi aren’t particularly accurate in their firings, and they’re dropping live rounds in a densely populated area. Houses and cars are being blown up. People are dying and the residents of Najaf are blaming Moqtada.

“There is no food, no water,” said Akil Ramahi, 32, in the streets before we entered the old city. “Death is better than this.”

“One man did all this,” he continued. “If Saddam had been here, he would have gotten rid of Moqtada al-Sadr in one day. I accuse Moqtada al-Sadr of destroying the market — ” he was referring to a bombed-out market — “Not the Americans.”

To be fair, more common was the “pox on both houses” sentiment, but interestingly, the Mahdis are about as popular as the Americans, which is to say not very popular at all. And one man had nothing good to say about the U.S. troops.

“Are the Americans here just to see how many Iraqis are dying?” asked Dakhel Sha’ban. “Or is there a point to this shooting?”

We spent the afternoon in the shrine, and a group of human shields — they said — told me that they were helped by Allah.

“The Army of the Imam Mahdi is getting its power from God,” said Ali Hussein, 41. “Our mortars are destroying things the American mortars are not.” Like tanks and helicopters, he said. “This is a heavenly power.”

The supporters in the shrines are devoted men, ready to die for Moqtada, they assured me. And they would die for the Shrine.

“One of the most important things in our lives, as Muslims, is our Shrines, which are more important than our families, our children,” said Sha’ban. “We will die for them.”

One of the things I’m here for is a small story about the fabled treasures of Imam Ali surrounding his sarcophagus. So I convinced Sheikh Shebani, Moqtada’s man in the mosque, to let me enter and take a few pictures of the shrine and the treasures of Ali. So now you see a little of what’s at stake here. (The green light is how they display the sarcophagus and the treasures.) After seeing the treasures, I was taken on a tour of the damage done to the shrine. It was calm affair, and I felt a bit like an insurance appraiser.

In both cases, Sheikh Mustafa Muhammadi told me calmly and without rancor that no Muslim could tolerate it. He seemed to be tolerating it all right, however, and I thought he would be the firebrand! And this is something I’ve noticed around Baghdad: The long-feared outburst of Shi’a anger just isn’t happening. The cemetery has been bombed and occupied by infidels, the shrine has been damaged, and we keep hearing warnings of a looming Shi’a uprising. But shouldn’t there have been some demonstrations or expressions of concern? I hear rote expressions, said more with a feeling that it should be said rather than what they really feel. I don’t have any quotes or anything to back that up, and it’s really more the way they say it anyway. It’s just an impression I’ve been struck by.

Finally, at 4 p.m., we high-tailed it out of there. The bombardments were getting closer and the Mahdi were returning fire more robustly. As we threaded our way out again, with hands raised at every intersection, we ran into an Iraqi Army patrol. The lieutenant in charge said they were the Rapid Reaction Force, which has been one of the few units getting high marks from the American trainers. They’re good, and I wondered just what they were doing here, since Lt. Rafat Kadhim Massoun said they had come down from Baghdad just today. Are you going to storm the Shrine I asked him?

“We hope that tonight or tomorrow this will be finished because the time for them to quit is over,” he said. “The shrine will be attacked; the Marines are getting closer. In two or three days, this will be over.”

I’m waiting to see what happens next. He might have been just talking out of turn, but tonight might be interesting.

Off to Najaf, inshallah…

Going to try to head to Najaf tomorrow.

I’m trying to organize a trip to Najaf tomorrow, and hopefully to get into the shrine. A couple of friends of mine did it last week, but left after three days inside. They reported no weapons in the shrine proper, but instead they were stored around the shrine in the nearby buildings. However, other organizations, including the AP, have published pictures of Mahdi fighters manning machine guns that the cutline said was _in the shrine._ Also, an Iraqi reporter who helps TIME out has reported that people in Najaf are sick of the Mahdi firing mortars from either within the shrine compound or from its minarets. So, I don’t know what to make of that.
And let’s not even get into the whole confusion of Moqtada al-Sadr’s “will he or won’t he?” crabwalk on whether he’s vacating the shrine or not. There have been so many conflicting reports that I can’t begin to make sense of the state of play. Suffice it to say, confusion reigns at this point.
Thus, the expedition to Najaf. I’ll be taking a BGan satellite receiver and my laptop, so I should be able to file, if needed. But I may not be able to get into the shrine or even to Najaf; we’ve got to go through Kufa, where there have been reports of relatively heavy fighting.
So hopefully we’ll be able to see a little bit of what’s going on. Wish me luck.

Moqtada redux

Moqtada al-Sadr isn’t that popular, except where he exploits the fears and resentment of the poor, his vision of Iraq is not that popular, he’s been given numerous opportunities to take part in a political system that is, while flawed, the only game in town, and he refuses and takes over the holiest shrine in Islam. So what is to be done?

It’s time to set something straight that I should have done a while back. In a “previous post”: that pissed a lot of people off, I said, “Mobs are terrifying, but they’re relatively easy to deal with if you’re willing to kill a lot of people and say the hell with world opinion.” I would have _thought_ most people would have realized that I was _not_ advocating killing a bunch of people; I was saying armed mobs like Sadr’s are fiendishly difficult to deal with — unless you’re willing to say to hell with what other people think.
America and Allawi have shown that, by and large, they don’t care what other people think. But I didn’t choose words carefully in the next sentence: “The latter is unlikely to be a problem for Allawi and the Americans, however; world opinion is basically against Moqtada.” I should have instead said “world opinion is not for Moqtada.” That’s a different idea that I wrote and that was my mistake.
What I meant is this: Liberal democracies, mostly what we call “The West,” are usually pretty uncomfortable with things like mass killings and razing holy places. That’s a good way to get people riled up and why dealing with mobs in a jack-booted way is tricky and difficult. But what works in the U.S. and Allawi’s favor is the general unsavoriness of the Mehdi Army. As Juan Cole says, “Arab newspapers don’t usually say so, but the other side of the story is that Muqtada’s militiamen are narrow-minded, thug-like puritans who impose their power on civilians by coercion.” He’s absolutely right. As one fighter is quoted by a Salon story, “We will do anything to stop the Americans. They have sex and drinking and other things, and we don’t want this.”
Now, I’m _not_ going to make the argument that they should be killed because they don’t like Britney Spears. I am also not going to say that they don’t have a right to life or to their beliefs. I am going to ask the question why the Western world should be wringing its hands about dealing decisively with a heavily armed group of these guys, who are also the chief suspects behind a wave of liquor store and CD shop bombings in Baghdad and other cities. In any other situation, they would be considered criminal thugs and most people would begging the National Guard to come in and restore order. But in the case of Moqtada, you’d think I’d maligned La Resistance of World War II. How _dare_ I call the brave mujahdeen assholes and thugs?
Which brings me back to my point. Where is the outrage and the sympathy for Moqtada? I mean, I understand the desire to avoid killing people in mass quantities; it’s really for the best that that doesn’t happen. I am against mass killings, period. But where are the crowds and the marches for U.S. out of Najaf or for Moqtada’s brave resistance such as those that preceded the war in the West? Where are the denunciations in the U.N. from people with credibility on human rights and violence like Germany or Canada? I’m not hearing them. Or at least, I’m not hearing of reports of them.
And here in Iraq, I’d guess that most people would “sympathize” with al-Sadr standing up to the hated Americans. But do they support al-Sadr himself? Overwhelmingly, *no.* In a survey (.doc file) done in June by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, an Iraqi think tank run by Dr. Sadoun al-Dulame, he found that the person Iraqis would most vote for in a presidential race was … Ibrahim al-Jafari, the head of the Islamic Dawa Party (A Shi’a group.) The next most popular was “don’t know.” The Shi’a leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, received 2.1 percent of the vote. What did Moqtada get? 1.1 percent. Hell, _Saddam Hussein_ outpolled al-Sadr, with 1.7 percent of respondents choosing him as their favorite presidential candidate.
Would more people vote for al-Sadr now? Very possibly. Would it be more than 2-3 percent? I seriously doubt it. Will it change in the future? Undoubtedly, but to what degree I have no idea.
Al-Sadr’s movement garners sympathy because he’s pointing his finger at the biggest devil of them all in Iraq — the United States. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into support for the man himself. His cause — driving out the U.S. — may be popular, but the man and his policies, such as they are, are widely disparaged. Putting down an armed (and mostly unpopular) rebellion isn’t putting the brakes on democracy, it’s removing a barrier to it.
What the Iraqis do after that is their business, hopefully. I’ve been at the national conference for the past two days, and it’s a mess, but I hope not an entirely hopeless one. The big parties — the PUK, KDP, Islamic Dawa Party, SCIRI and Iraqi National Accord have set up the selection process so that it — surprise! — favors themselves. And the two biggest parties, Dawa and SCIRI are making a real power play to dominate the coming council. The reaction among the 1,300 delegates to the Islamic putsch? Dismay and alarm. Most Iraqis from all walks of life really don’t want to live under an Islamic state envisioned by the Islamists, among which Moqtada would proudly place himself.)
Anyway, the people who do argue most strenuously are the “hard-core anti-imperialists,” as I rather sloppily termed them. My apologies. These are — generally — the folks who opposed the war, as I did, but who think that pulling out completely is the answer, as I do not. I don’t think they’re really arguing in favor of Moqtada so much as against the U.S. Someone in one of the comments said they favored “self-determination.” Based on anecdotal evidence — and the poll results above — self-determination would involve _someone_ riding Moqtada’s ass out of Najaf on a rail and disarming his militia. It would also involve getting the U.S. out of Iraq and not damaging the shrine.
As I said, if Moqtada and his followers get slaughtered, I’m confident most of the world will make the standard disapproving noises, but not too much of a fuss. If the shrine is undamaged (or maybe only a little bit), it’s a big win for Allawi. If, however, the Imam Ali shrine is damaged or worse, that’s an entirely different story. And a much scarier one. That _would_ inflame middle class and poor alike, uniting behind a hatred for the U.S. that could translate from resentful grumbling into real action. That’s why al-Sadr is weak without the shrine and powerful inside it. And that’s why this is tricky.
Al-Sadr isn’t that popular, except where he exploits the fears and resentment of the poor, his vision of Iraq is not that popular, he’s been given numerous opportunities to take part in a political system that is, while flawed, the only game in town, and he refuses and takes over the holiest shrine in Islam. An Iraqi reporter in Najaf is telling me the people of Najaf are fed up with him and want him out because the Mehdi’s are terrorizing them and shooting mortars from the top of the mosque. Tell me again why he shouldn’t be dealt with strongly and forcefully if he continues to refuse all overtures of giving him a slice of the political pie? What is the alternative? Just pulling up stakes and leaving?
That’s not such a good idea either.
Saying the war should have never happened and feeling virtuous because you were right it is all well and good, but it’s not really a road map to what to do regarding Iraq. Because, Iraq is the U.S.’s problem — and it’s a big one. It is _the_ foreign policy challenge for the U.S. — and the rest of the world — for the foreseeable future. If this was Vietnam you could, from a realpolitik point of view, let it muddle along under a regime of benign neglect. But not here. It’s chaos sitting on the second-largest oil reserves in the world. And they don’t even have to be tapped for it to affect you personally.
Yes, you personally. Let’s say Moqtada survives and his movement succeeds in discrediting the Allawi government to such an extent that he resigns or, in desperation, asks the United States to leave and invites Moqtada into some form of power-sharing arrangement. He’s a fundamentalist Shi’a who wants to impose an Islamic state on a population that would overwhelmingly oppose it, as I’ve mentioned. Or hell, let’s say he dies and his martyrdom leads to a popular revolution — again, something I think is improbable, but bear with me for the sake of argument. Call this new Islamic Republic of Iraq Iran-lite.
What would happen next? Well, for one, the best and the brightest of Iraq’s intellectuals and middle class would flee. So you’re making an already poor population poorer. Good for Moqtada, the poor are his base, appealing as he does to a kind of Islamic populism. What happens when you make a country impoverished? Right, you create a breeding ground for _jihadist_ terrorism. It’s already happening among the Sunni extremists of the Anbar province. A very few foreign figures such as Zarqawi are inspiring native-born Iraqi _jihadis._ Fallujah is crawling with them.
Next, the Kurds would probably fight a civil war to get out of such a state. That’s one of the reasons they’re so adamant about the veto clause in the TAL — and why the Shia groups were so adamant to have it in. An independent Kurdistan would almost surely ignite a regional war involving Turkey and Iran. It would also deny the unified Islamic Republic of Iraq a lot of oil revenues from the Kirkuk region. The Mullahs of Baghdad would not let region go peacefully.
So now you have a fundamentalist state that may not be officially terroristic, but has created the conditions for terrorism to grow, and there’s a regional war being fought right on top of much of the world’s oil supply. Can you say $60 a barrel? Maybe higher? $100?
Now, bemoan American dependence on Middle East oil all you want — I certainly do — but for the medium term, we need it. As does Europe and Japan — even more than the United States does. Oil prices at $45 a barrel are already producing a drag on the United States economy; even higher rates would send the world economy into a tail spin. And what happens when China can’t afford Middle East oil? Well, those Spratley Islands look mighty inviting.
So now the U.S. is faced with _two_ blatantly hostile regimes straddling the Gulf and the subversive Saudi regime, all controlling 20-25 percent of the world’s oil supply. Your heating bills will go through the roof, for one. Likewise, your electricity bill. Forget about driving that car everywhere, and hell, you probably won’t have a job to drive to, since the energy costs are causing companies to cut costs everywhere. Transportation costs are higher, so the goods you need to buy and the food you eat will cost a lot more — which is problem since you lost your job. Etc., etc. You get the point.
So there is a domino theory at work here, as I think I’ve pointed out — just not the one the neocons envisioned. I’m not saying it’s right to ignore the masses or urban poor, only that it happens. I’m not saying it’s right to kill a lot of people whether they’re poor or rich, but sometimes it’s necessary. It’s tragic that the poor are too often the victims, however.
I’m saying that defeating al-Sadr’s aims to impose an Islamic state either through diplomacy or through military action, which would be highly distasteful and probably a pyrrhic victory, is really the only option left to Allawi and the Americans. And the fact that that’s not really a choice at all is a tragedy too.

More on Moqtada

Accompanied by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. Bryan Brown, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, Wolfowitz observed that preventing terrorism “means more than killing or capturing terrorists.”… Today’s radical Islamic terrorists, Wolfowitz pointed out, “remind you of the notorious Nazi groups like the SS that proudly wore the death’s head as their symbol.”… Like the long-gone Nazis, Wolfowitz noted today’s Islamic radicals also rely on terror and “their ability to kill innocent people” to attain and retain power.

I’ve been a bit busy here in Baghdad, what with running around trying to get a handle on the Sunni insurgency while also dealing with demands for stories on al-Sadr. Also, for the last three days I’ve been holding down the fort for the TIME bureau while a new bureau chief comes in, so I’ve not been getting out as much as I’d like during that time.
But it’s hard to escape the story of the moment, which is the looming showdown with Moqtada al-Sadr. I go back and forth on how serious the al-Sadr inflammation really is. On the one hand, if Moqtada al-Sadr is killed there will be a bloodbath. If the shrine of Imam Ali is stormed, Shi’as all over the world will take to the streets. And yet, I suspect any violence from that would be short-lived. There is no real No. 2 guy in the Sadr movement; he’s the remaining scion of the al-Sadr family. And that’s the basis of his power, in a nutshell. Yes, he would be a martyr, but people follow him because he’s got a heavy family name and is the son of a genuine patriot who stood up to Saddam Hussein and paid for it with his life. In the event of his death, his followers would be up for grabs to the likes of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and other smaller, religious parties. His movement would fragment.
[UPDATE 12-AUG 0907 +0400 GMT: Allawi’s office issued a press statement this morning denying his government had given approval to American forces to storm the holy shrines in Najaf. This contradicts earlier press reports from the New York Times and the Washington Post, which quote a “military spokesman” and even Allawi spokesman Georges Sada as confirming approval had been given.]
But what about the passion of the Sadr City street? Moqtada has been able to rouse the passions of a lot of angry young men who are furious at being — in this order — poor, ignored, occupied and lacking electricity, but it’s not clear he can lead them anywhere but into an abyss. His fighters can take to the street, but the amount of damage they’re doing to the MNF and the Iraqi government is quite minor, actually. Militarily, they’re a pain in the ass more than a threat to the government. They do seem to have a talent for getting government employees to stay home, however; the Mehdi Army — in a delicious bit of political theatre — faxed a press release to Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s office warning of an indefinite 1 p.m. curfew and telling all state workers to stay home or be shelled. A lot of them did today.
Anyway, back to the “street.” An insight I’ve gained since I’ve been here is this: No one cares what the street thinks. Well, no one in power, I mean. For all the talk of the Arab street, there has never been a popular revolution in an Arab country based on the passion of the masses. They’re easily manipulated and utterly disorganized. The one exception would be Iran — which is not an Arab country. Why were the Persians different? I’m not sure yet, but I suspect it has something to do with a depth of political culture and a thriving middle class that joined with the masses to oust the Shah in 1979. With no petit bourgeoisie to lend political oomph to the street demonstrations, Iran would be … well, a lot like Iraq is today: a thin, rich strata separated by the poor, angry but inchoate and disorganized masses by a few hardy middle-class souls who really just want to get the hell out of the country.
Mobs are terrifying, but they’re relatively easy to deal with if you’re willing to kill a lot of people and say the hell with world opinion. The latter is unlikely to be a problem for Allawi and the Americans, however; world opinion is basically against Moqtada. Oh, sure, you’ll always have hard-core anti-imperialists who support anyone who stands up to the United States’ presence in Iraq. They will make their calls for real democracy in Iraq without understanding that Moqtada and his followers don’t want democracy; they want an Islamic state with Moqtada at the head. And that’s something that vast majority of Iraqis emphatically don’t want. If he and his radical followers get slaughtered, I think the world will believe they brought it on themselves. The West’s brow will remain largely unfurrowed and its conscience untroubled.
Al-Sadr may yet produce his own private Götterdammerung, but whether it remains a ripple or turns into a tsunami remains to be seen.

Sistani is ill

Sistani is ill, the south is in flames — again — and Baghdad is on edge. It’s been a bad week in Iraq.

While the Shi’a south seems to be on the verge of conflagration, Baghdad and elsewhere is rife with rumors that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is dying of a heart problem. He has been flown to Beirut and will continue on to London for treatment. From his office in Los Angeles:

Due to many calls, inquiring about the health of our grand scholar, Ayatollah Seyyid Seestani [sic], please be informed that he is sick with a heart problem and is under the supervision of several medical specialists. We hope that they send us a report about his well being as soon as possible.
As we thank all of those who are asking about his health, we urge all the Mo’mens to raise their hands in supplication to the Almighty Allah swt to bestow upon him health and shade him with total protection as soon as possible.
It should also be known that the Ummah of Islam, particularly the Shi’a, are in dire need for his presence in this sensitive era, the time that requires brave stands and honorable decrees.
Peace and blessings be upon you all.

Predictably, a representative for Sistani in Baghdad, Sheikh Jalaladin al-Sagheer, claimed to know nothing about anything, but would get back to me.
Despite al-Sagheer’s studied cluelessness, Sistani’s flight out of the country indicates his health condition is indeed very serious, because he hasn’t left his home in Najaf in years. His reclusiveness is, in part, a source of his authority, lending him an oracular air.
This news of his health problems first broke yesterday, but the continued fighting in Najaf, where the ayatollah lives, has made getting medical attention to him difficult. He’s in critical condition, my Shi’a friends say, possibly on his death bed. Dijla Radio, a local station here, is reporting that he’s suffered a severe heart attack. But so far, no one in Baghdad really seems to know the full situation. All anyone is sure of is that if Sistani dies, the fighting in the south could get a lot worse as Moqtada al-Sadr and other leaders in the Shi’a community jockey for power.
Juan Cole, who knows a lot more about this than I do, says this:

It is not clear that the other three grand ayatollahs have Sistani’s high opinion of parliamentary democracy rooted in popular sovereignty. He would probably be succeeded by Muhammad Said al-Hakim, an Iraqi and distant cousin of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI certainly does not have a long-term commitment to democracy, though Muhammad Said al-Hakim has never identified with that party himself. The other two possible successors are Bashir Najafi, a Pakistani, and Muhammad Fayad, an Afghan. Bashir Najafi is more vehemently anti-American than Sistani. Another contender is Sayyid Kadhim al-Haeri, sometimes called the “fifth grand ayatollah”, who is still in exile in Qom. He is a follower of Iran’s Khomeini and a radical reactionary on social issues. He had been Muqtada al-Sadr’s mentor but has broken with him.

While Moqtada’s Mahdi Army can be fairly well relied upon to attack Coalition forces, al-Hakim’s Badr Brigade (the military arm of SCIRI) might be persuaded to help settle the inter-Shi’a rivalries by taking on Moqtada’s boys. The Badr Brigade is the largest militia in Iraq after the Kurdish pesh merga, numbering around 10,000 men.
Meanwhile, I’m hearing reports from my fixers of fighting in Basra, Amarra, Najaf, Karbala, Nasariyah, Sadr City and the al-Shu’lah and al-Sha’ab ‘hoods in Baghdad.
A., my old friend, tells me four British troops have been killed in Basra and that Amarra is completely controlled by the Mahdi Army. He went to Karbala yesterday to visit friends of his and saw three mosques filled with “thousands” of weapons, including Katyusha rockets, Strella SAMs and more Kalashnikovs than he could count. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has apparently used the two-month cease fire to regroup, train and purchase more weapons from Iran, and it’s likely that a lot more mosques than those three in Karbala have been turned into arms depots.
Things in Iraq have taken a radically bad turn, in my opinion, and the postponement of the national conference seems a bit of a storm in a teacup in comparison. The Americans and the Iraqi Interim government have bigger problems — e.g., another two-front insurgency — than whether a veneer of legitimacy will be slathered on by the seating of an Interim National Council.