August 12, 2004

Sensitive War


Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry recently claimed he would fight "a more sensitive war on terror". In the abstract, that's a frightening prospect. Because in reality, President Bush is already taking too sensitive an approach. Right now in Iraq, we're allowing the cultural and religious aspects of the Imam Ali shrine to protect murderous cleric al-Sadr from our full powers. It's said we're doing so to avoid "alienating" the dominant, Iraqi Shiite population. But how much will we alienate the population from respecting us if we keep handling killers like al-Sadr with kid gloves?

It's possible that our "sensitive war" approach will change today now that the assault on al-Sadr has been launched. We would love to be wrong in this regard. But the articles below don't provide much hope.

Please, Mr. President: Treat the Imam Ali shrine for what it is -- a hostile enemy position -- and let the Marines do their job.

From The Washington Post yesterday: Showdown Looms in Najaf.

U.S. Marines and soldiers prepared on Wednesday for what was expected to be a decisive battle for the holiest city in Iraq, but as darkness fell the sense of imminence receded abruptly. An armored column idling at the main gate turned back, and commanders said preparations for the offensive were being extended.

The American-led force may have been awaiting final approval from Iraq's political leader for a combat operation [...]

But military planners were also vexed by intelligence reports that the militiamen, who have fought U.S. and Iraqi security forces here for a week, had rigged explosives in the shrine of Imam Ali, the most sacred site in the Shiite branch of Islam. The reports indicated that the insurgents, who have been using the shrine as a refuge and staging area, would wait until advancing U.S. forces drew near, then detonate the charges and blame the resulting destruction on the Americans.

Military officials said the reports had not been confirmed. "The fear is that the intelligence might not be right in fact, but in effect -- that he has something catastrophic planned for the mosque that he will blame on the U.S.," one commander said, referring to Moqtada Sadr, the radical cleric who leads the loosely formed Mahdi Army militia.

The sensitivity of any U.S. military action here was underscored by a warning from the supreme leader of neighboring Iran, who called American operations in Najaf "one of the darkest crimes of humanity."

And from CNN today: U.S. launches offensive in Najaf.

Calling the operation a critical test for the interim government, Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said fierce fighting is taking place around the sacred Imam Ali Mosque in the city center, with Iraqi forces taking the lead in that area.

"There is intensive fighting going on, surrounding holy places in Najaf. The Iraqi forces -- that is, the police and the national guard -- are heading this operation supported by multinational forces aircraft," Kadhim said. "They are under strict instruction that only Iraqi forces will enter the holy places."

"We want to disarm the militias inside [the mosque], who are preventing ordinary visitors from going to the holy places," he said. [...]

[CNN's Matthew] Chance reported that Mehdi Army members were firing mortars from the grounds of the mosque, hitting and heavily damaging a police station. [...]

Earlier in the week, U.S. forces fought insurgents in the sprawling Wadi al-Salam cemetery, near the sacred Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf.

Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi cleared the way for military operations at the previously restricted area where armed militants are holed up. U.S. forces have been careful when firing on militia positions in the cemetery and the mosque -- aware that they could alienate many if they stepped foot in the sacred compound.

One of the options being discussed: sending Iraqi forces rather than Americans into the compound in an effort to quell the crisis.

(More cartoons on this topic here and here.)

UPDATE: CNN reports: Forces raid al-Sadr home in Najaf.

U.S. Marines battling militants in Najaf conducted a raid on Muqtada al-Sadr's house Thursday, but the renegade cleric was not there, CNN has learned. Authorities believe he could be holed up in the Imam Ali Shrine compound with other militia fighters. The compound is surrounded by Iraqi forces, but there is no plan to storm the site. Great caution and care is being taken not to disturb that site, one of the holiest in Islam.[Emphasis added]

UPDATE II: Here comes the "alienation." AP reports: Iraqi Shiites Angry at Fighting in Najaf .

Iraqi Shiites expressed anger Thursday at a major U.S.-led assault on a rebel militia in the holy city of Najaf, warning the violence could spread to other parts of the country and damage the political process.

Fighters loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been holed up in and around the Imam Ali shrine, which holds the remains of Ali, the most exalted Shia saint and the son-in-law and cousin of Islam's prophet Muhammad. Damage to the shrine could anger Shiites and Muslims worldwide. [...]

In an effort to avoid a Shiite backlash, Iraqi and U.S. military officials said any assault near the militants' refuge in the shrine would be led by Iraqi forces. The shrine has suffered slight damage in previous clashes, and some Shiites were appalled the violence has brought foreign troops within sight of the holy place.[Emphasis added]

Did you get that? Muslims are "appalled" that foreign troops are simply "within sight" of the shrine? Talk about ultra-sensitive... If we allow that attitude to dictate our military tactics in Najaf, we're doomed. And notice the outcry from the mere fact that we're fighting in the holy city of Najaf -- it's not even about the shrine any more. Why? Because it's us, the infidels, whom they hate.

Blogger Timothy Perry summed up the issue nicely: "Our enemies will still hate us in the morning no matter what we do. Lives depend on our capture of Al-Sadr, we cannot stand by and let this drag on."

UPDATE III: Looks like we've chosen the "stand by and let this drag on" option. The New York Times reports: U.S. Switches Tactic in Najaf, Trying Isolation.

Only days after the new Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, flew into Najaf on an American military helicopter and announced that there would be "no negotiations or truce," he and the American officials in Baghdad who are his indispensable partners in power appear, for now, to have backed away from a showdown. Instead, they are pursuing a combination of negotiations and a tightening blockade around the mosque.[...]

The situation in Najaf was redolent of events in April , when American commanders, confronted then as now by an uprising stirred by Mr. Sadr, built up a powerful strike force around Najaf with a vow to uproot the cleric and his fighters from the Imam Ali mosque, then decided that the political costs of attacking or damaging the shrine compelled an accommodation.

Then, Mr. Sadr won agreement to a wide "exclusion zone" in the center of Najaf that left him free to build his militia force and advance himself as the authentic leader of Shiite resistance to American military occupation.

This time, senior American officials in Baghdad said, the aim will be to constrict Mr. Sadr and his black-uniformed followers much more tightly, moving in from the initial cordon, set about a mile from the mosque at the closest point on Thursday, to a blockade line closer in, with Iraqi police and national guardsmen moving farther forward.

The officials said the aim would be to halt the flow of men, weapons and ammunition, as well as food and other supplies, into the militia-controlled area around the mosque, and to prevent any fighters from leaving until they have surrendered their weapons. [Emphasis added]

UPDATE IV -- August 13: Remember a few days ago when officials announced that there would be "no negotiations or truce" with al-Sadr? AP now reports: U.S. forces suspend offensive in Najaf for talks.

"We are allowed to engage the enemy only in self defense and long enough to break contact," said Maj. Bob Pizzateli, executive officer for the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. "That was a blanket order for everybody."

He said the militia appeared to have stopped most attacks as well, and the city appeared quieter Friday, a day after the U.S. military announced it had begun a major offensive to rout the militants.

"Hopefully the talks will go well and everything will be resolved peacefully," Pizzateli said.[...]

"Multinational forces are operating under firm instructions not to pursue Muqtada and not to conduct operations within the exclusion zone surrounding the Imam Ali and Kufa Mosques," [Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, deputy director for operations for the coalition forces] said in a statement.

It appears that al-Sadr has won again. He regroups while are troops are paralyzed by politics. Want to lose the election, Mr. President? Keep up your "sensitive war." Maybe you should listen to your Vice President:

"A sensitive war will not destroy the evil men who killed 3,000 Americans and who seek the chemical, nuclear and biological weapons to kill hundreds of thousands more. The men who beheaded Daniel Pearl and Paul Johnson will not be impressed by our sensitivity."

I wonder if the men who have kidnapped a journalist and threated to kill him if we don't pull our troops out of Najaf will be impressed by our sensitivity.

UPDATE V: If al-Sadr remains alive and free, he has won -- regardless of the fact that he is wounded and has lost hundreds of men. And there are indications that Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad "no negotiations or truce" Allawi would except such an outcome. Consider this report from earlier this week:

After meeting with U.S. Marine commanders, Allawi vowed that there would be "no negotiation with any militia that bears arms against Iraq" and demanded gunmen leave the Shi'a shrine city. [...] But as he demanded that al-Sadr disarm his militia, Allawi left maneuvering room for the cleric himself. He repeated a longstanding invitation to al-Sadr to take part in elections due by the end of January. [Emphasis added]

It's been about politics from the beginning, instead of being about capturing or eliminating an Islamist terrorist supported by one of our worst enemies, Iran.

As Robert Tracinski at TIA Daily recently observed, Allawi has become our "de facto secretary of defense for Iraqi."

Belmont Club has more.

UPDATE VI: The latest. The good news: Kidnapped journalist released. The bad news:

A Sadr spokesman said the cleric would pull his forces out of Najaf if U.S. forces also withdrew and religious authorities agreed to administer the city's sacred Shi'ite sites. Sheikh Ali Smeisim also said Sadr was demanding the release of his captive guerrillas and an amnesty for his fighters, who should be allowed to participate in Iraq's political process.

"Sayyed Moqtada [al-Sadr] will not be touched if he leaves the shrine peacefully," Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib said.[Emphasis added]

UPDATE VII: Al-Sadr is now making demands. So much for the "decisive battle" -- we're basically back to where we started, only it's worse for us. After this and Falluajah, we've made it clear to the enemy how to defeat America in Iraq.

Robert Tracinski at TIA Daily had another good observation about what has become "The Never-Ending Battle for Najaf":

It has been said that a coward dies a thousand deaths, while the brave man dies but once. The same goes for a pragmatist, who suffers through a thousand political upheavals because he is afraid to take just one controversial action. We could have stormed the Imam Ali shrine in April, taken the political heat for it, and then moved on. Instead, we're enduring yet another cycle of attack, retreat, and bogus "truce."

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Posted by Forkum at August 12, 2004 07:57 AM