April 27, 2004


Waiting for Change in Najaf, Preparing to Force It in Falluja: Differences between the two cities help explain why the U.S. military appears to be taking a softer line in Najaf than in Falluja. (THOM SHANKER, 4/27/04, NY Times)

When American commanders on the outskirts of Najaf and Falluja peer into the two troubled Iraqi cities, they see very different problems. Each place has its own culture, each harbors a different enemy, and each offers its own potential allies to help calm a volatile situation.

Those differences help explain why the American military appears to be taking a softer line in Najaf than in Falluja, where the threat of an outright assault is never more than a day or two away.

Najaf is home to the Shrine of Ali, one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Shiite Muslims. Moktada al-Sadr, the leader of the rebellious Mahdi Army militia, remains entrenched there. But American military officials have stopped proclaiming that they will capture or kill him, despite the fact that his fighters continue to confront occupying forces there and in a slum of Baghdad.

Senior Pentagon and military officials said Monday that they had no intention of sending American forces into the center of Najaf, near the holy sites. Even though officials said Mr. Sadr's militia must immediately stop stockpiling weapons in shrines and mosques there, they seem to have accepted that any attack could inspire riotous demonstrations throughout the Shiite world.

That stance contrasts starkly to the one adopted by American commanders at Falluja, a bastion of Sunni support for Saddam Hussein west of Baghdad where marines are poised for an offensive against entrenched urban guerrillas should no political solution be reached. There, the marines on Monday blasted away the minaret of a mosque being used as a sniper nest by insurgents. [...]

Pentagon officials, of course, say that no options can be ruled out should the situation in Najaf flare out of control at Mr. Sadr's bidding. But the strategy to isolate and marginalize the cleric is specifically intended to sap his strength.

"Sadr gains his power by confronting the United States," one senior Pentagon official said Monday. "We do not intend to let him grow in power. We will deny him the opportunity to confront us."

While American forces are isolating Mr. Sadr in Najaf, they are looking to mainstream Shiite clerics and political parties to marginalize him. These local leaders have their own reasons to eliminate Mr. Sadr as a rival for the majority Shiite vote in the new Iraqi government, although they must be careful not to appear to be working on behalf of the widely unpopular American occupation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2004 8:17 AM

Put 3 or 4 ounces of C-4 in his copy of the Quran.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 27, 2004 10:15 AM

FoxNews today called Najaf the "so-called" holy city of.

Posted by: Sandy P. at April 27, 2004 10:44 AM

Almost every city in the Islamic world is a Holy City.

The explanation that makes the most sense is that getting your hometown declared a Holy City of Islam was the medieval Arab version of civic boosterism. Kind of like the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota.

Posted by: Ken at April 27, 2004 12:25 PM

Which might explain some of the wars-- "My city is holier than your city, you infidel!" And is there an organization that puts out an annual list that gives this years holiest cites so we can find out if our favorite towns have moved in the rankings?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 27, 2004 1:07 PM

Speaking of getting a song stuck in our heads -- Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 27, 2004 2:07 PM

Wachoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?

Posted by: oj at April 27, 2004 2:13 PM