Showdown in Najaf

By Mark Follman
Published August 16, 2004 3:45PM (EDT)

The Iraqi holy city of Najaf may be on the brink of a blood bath, but are Americans getting a clear picture of the escalating conflict there? Not if they're watching CNN Headline News, says Middle East expert Juan Cole. "The American public has no idea how bad it is in Iraq because it gets lots of contradictory reports and has no way of wading through or evaluating them," he writes, adding that the latest wave of destabilizing violence in Iraq is very much a homegrown problem there.

"CNN's headline news reported repeatedly on Sunday afternoon and evening that the Mahdi Army fighters holed up in the shrine of Ali were 'foreign fighters.' This allegation is Allawi's propaganda, and simply untrue. The Mahdi Army are Iraqi Shiite ghetto youth. They are not foreigners. There may be a sprinkling of Iranian volunteers among them, but the number is tiny."

Cole also notes conflicting reports on Sunday's gathering in Baghdad meant to elect a commission for organizing national elections.

"There is a night and day difference between how John Burns of the New York Times reports the national congress held Sunday and the version given us of that event by Rajiv Candrasekaran of the Washington Post. Burns's says that the convention was a mess, disrupted by repeated mortar fire and by angry delegates who stormed the stage to denounce the Allawi government and demand it cease military operations in Najaf 

"Candrasekaran presents an almost panglossian story of the triumph of democracy -- noisy, disruptive, but still triumphant. He reports that the delegates said they had secured from Allawi a promise to suspend military action until further negotiations could take place, and he seems even to believe that Allawi gave such an undertaking and would abide by it!"

Cole thinks Burns more likely got the picture right.

"I don't think the conference is any significant check on the executive, as Candrasekaran argues it is. Allawi will do as he pleases and ignore this weak Duma. The conference had to be held almost furtively for fear it would be blown up, and it almost was anyway. Many of Iraq's major cities are being bombed semi-regularly by the US Air Force -- Fallujah, Samarra, Kut, Najaf, etc.  On the evidence of Sunday, I'd advise [Americans] to keep their eyes on what John Burns says. He is a veteran war correspondent with his eyes open. If he thinks things in Iraq are bad, they likely are."

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Iraqis are pouring into Najaf from across the country to back Moqtada al-Sadr against U.S. forces.

"But it was about 2,000 impassioned Iraqi civilian 'volunteers' cheering Sadr in the marble-floored courtyard of the mosque who made the biggest show of force Monday. Traveling to Najaf from across Iraq, they are swelling the ranks of Sadr's supporters and could be another reason why U.S. troops may think twice before storming the shrine  'I will lie on the ground in front of the tanks, or I will kill the Americans to defend Sadr and Najaf,' said Fadil Hamed, 30, standing among a group of men who said they walked to Najaf from the southern city of Basra."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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