On August 30, rebel Shiite leader Moqtada al Sadr instructed his Mahdi Army militia to suspend attacks on US-led occupation troops and their puppet Iraqi security forces. The decision followed a three-week US-led assault on the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, which abjectly failed to either capture or kill al Sadr.
"This decision shows that the Sadr movement wants peace and participation in the country's political process, and within the next two days the Sadr movement will explain its political vision on this participation", Sadr aide Sheikh Naim al Qaabi told reporters in Baghdad, adding: "The Sadr movement is the largest in Iraq because it has wide popular support and we are sure it will play an important part in the country's political life."
This is precisely the reason why the US military has sought to eliminate Sadr and suppress his movement since late March, when the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority banned Sadr's weekly paper and CPA spokesperson General Mark Kimmit announced that the US military would "capture or kill" Sadr.
Speaking to Reuters on August 31, Sadr aide Ali al Yassiri said that Sadr's movement would seek to field candidates in parliamentary elections scheduled for January on a platform calling for ending the US occupation of Iraq. "The direction is to work politically on the pull-out of US occupation forces as soon as possible", Yassiri said.
After a month-long offensive against the Madhi Army stronghold of Sadr City, Baghdad's huge Shiite slum neighbourhood, US commanders entered into a temporary truce with Mahdi Army commanders on August 29. Negotiations for a permanent cease-fire reportedly began that same day between Sadr's representatives and officials from Washington's puppet Interim Government of Iraq (IGI).
However, the August 31 New York Times reported that IGI Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had called off the talks that day because the proposed cease-fire agreement would have denied US troops entry to Sadr City. IGI sources also told the NYT that Allawi had "disappointment with the Najaf agreement" as it "left the Mahdi Army intact and made al Sadr stronger than ever".
"In addition, an Iraqi source said, Allawi had come under pressure from Shiite political parties, which fear that the entry of al Sadr into the political mainstream could diminish their own success at the polls. Those groups would prefer that al Sadr be eliminated.
"The groups include the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which has close ties to [Grand Ayatollah] Ali al Sistani, as well as Dawa, a prominent religious movement."
Blow to US strategy
Assessing the results of the battle for Najaf, Washington Post staff writers Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks observed in an August 28 article that Washington's "goal of dismantling all Iraq's illegal militias — with Sadr's Mahdi Army as the test case — remains elusive... And the United States has been stuck with the bill for damage to Najaf as part of the deal."
According to the August 30 Christian Science Monitor,"interviews in Baghdad suggest that Sadr is walking away from the standoff [in Najaf] with a widening base and supporters who are more militant than before".
In an article specially written for the Beirut Daily Star, former Pentagon intelligence analyst Jeffrey White wrote on September 2: "Sadr's organisation and militia have not been driven from Baghdad's Sadr City (where a disarmament deal appeared to fall apart on Tuesday) or other key cities in southern Iraq...
"While some will probably try to portray the outcome as a success for Allawi, this seems contrary to what actually happened... Allawi, Iraq's 'strongman', appeared indecisive when confronted with his first real test.
"This image of impotence was reinforced by the failure of the new Iraqi security forces to play any significant role in the fighting."
While most of the world's media has been focused over the past month on the battle in Najaf, Iraqi rebels have dealt new blows to the US-led occupation forces in other parts of the country.
The August 27 London Daily Telegraph reported that since "the start of the uprising in the holy city of Najaf earlier this month there has been a 'lockdown' at the Office of the British Embassy in Basra, an extension of the Baghdad embassy, as militiamen loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr have taken control of large areas of the city". The only way in or out of the British diplomatic office in Basra, Iraq's second largest city with 2 million inhabitants, has been by helicopter.
On August 31, the London daily reported that "the British army has stopped patrolling the streets of Basra... With troops now moving only in armoured vehicles on patrols not more than 100 yards from base, forces loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada al Sadr have stepped into the vacuum, roaming the streets with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s."
US loses control in Anbar
Meanwhile, Iraqi resistance fighters now control much of Anbar province, to the west of Baghdad, including the provincial capital of Ramadi, inhabited by 500,000, mostly Sunni, Muslims. The August 29 New York Times reported that US troops in the province are "confined mainly to heavily protected forts on the desert's edge...
"American efforts to build a government structure around former Baath Party stalwarts — officials of Saddam Hussein's army, police force and bureaucracy who were willing to work with the United States — have collapsed. Instead, the former Hussein loyalists, under threat of beheadings, kidnappings and humiliation, have mostly resigned or defected" to the resistance movement.
The NYT reported that since the beginning of August, "three former Hussein loyalists appointed to important posts in Fallujah and Ramadi have been eliminated by the militants and their Baathist allies...
"American commanders confess they have no answers in Anbar, and say their strategy is to curb the militants' ability to project their violence farther afield, especially in Baghdad, only 35 miles [55 kilometres] east of Fallujah."
In February, troops from the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division were driven out of Fallujah by its armed residents. On April 4, the US marines launched an offensive to reassert US control over the 250,000-strong city.
After a three-week siege in which the marines killed at least 700 Fallujah residents with a combination of air strikes, artillery shelling and sniper fire, US commanders were forced by massive protests in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities to end their offensive.
Marine commanders formally handed over security in the insurgent city to what they called the "Fallujah Brigade" — an armed force commanded by former Iraqi Army officers and made up of soldiers recruited from Fallujah's resistance fighters.
Fallujah plot collapses
On August 14, United Press International reported that US commanders had drawn up "plans to dissolve the Fallujah Brigade and the city police on August 21, paving the way for an all-out offensive if ordered. Marine officials announced the plan later that day to local Iraqi security force officials.
"The move came six days after a series of kidnappings and the murder of a respected Iraqi National Guard battalion commander, Lt. Col. Sulaiman Hamad Ftikan, a crime officials described as the last straw in the tense standoff with the city. Both the Fallujah Brigade and the city police are believed to have participated in the kidnapping and murder."
However, the US marines' plan to launch an offensive against Fallujah, in alliance with the Iraqi National Guard, collapsed on August 13 when Fallujah ING commander Suleiman Marawi was detained and executed by resistance fighters.
The August 29 New York Times reported that in the videotape of Marawi's execution, "he is seen in his camouflaged national guard uniform, with an Iraqi flag at his shoulder, confessing to his leadership of a plot to stage an uprising in the city on August 20 that was to have been coordinated with an American offensive. For that purpose, he says, he recruited defectors among the militants' ranks and met frequently with marine commanders outside the city to settle details of the attack."
From Green Left Weekly, September 8, 2004.
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