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The wisdom of laying siege to Najaf

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Before starting any discussion on Arabs and Middle Eastern Muslims, I keep in mind this Bedouin saying:

"My full brother and I against my half-brother, my brother and I against my father, my father's household against my uncle's household, our two households (my uncle's and mine) against the rest of the immediate kin, the immediate kin against non-immediate members of my clan, my clan against other clans, and, finally, my nation and I against the world."

The many-to-many relationships of interacting clans is much more useful to understanding this area than is the concept of a nation-state. Indeed, Saddam Hussein acted much like Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia in restraining this web of conflicting relations that US forces released at the fall of Saddam.

Juan Cole (Middle East history at the University of Michigan) writes with much nuance on the region. In a recent PBS Newshour interview with Ray Suarez, both Cole and Reuel Gerecht (ex CIA DO now at the American Enterprise Institute) weighed in on the merit of entering Najaf. Both academic and operative were firmly against it. I find it astonishing that we can be massing at the gates of what a US commander has called the 'Shite Vatican.' Yes, I appreciate the threat of force as a negotiating tactic but if our bluff were called we would face a fearsome endgame. Here is a snippet of that exchange:

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Cole, the commanding officer of those troops, U.S. troops outside Najaf, said today, 'look at this as the Shiite Vatican, a single shot in Najaf could outrage the Shia majority.' He seems to be well aware of the delicacy of his mission. Is that a good analogy? Is Najaf the Shiite Vatican?

JUAN COLE: It is an excellent analogy and it should be remembered that the implications of U.S. invasion of Najaf would go far beyond Iraq.

All the Shiites in the world, in Lebanon, in Iran, in Bahrain and Pakistan and Afghanistan would be outraged by such an action and there would be terrible repercussions possibly for the United States in moving in this way.

And the problem is the U.S. military authorities have said that they want to either capture or kill Muqtada al Sadr. I don't understand this aspiration. If they capture him, there will be demonstrations by all of his fanatical followers -- and they are not miniscule in number. Every day in many cities until he is released, there will be hostage taking in hopes of trading hostages for him. If he is killed, then they will go into a guerilla insurgency. There has to be a third way -- possibly finding a way to exile him to a neighboring country without harming him.

Having US forces (read Infidels) at the gates of the Shite Vatican at all, much less without a plan other than to lay siege, is numbing. It is difficult to operate solely on unclass information, but one wonders who is thinking of the immediate secondary effects much less the longer term effects. It reminds me of the change that I so often level at Israelis in their dealings with the Palestinians: They win every battle and lose every war.

Even as I write things are moving rapidly as the US has enlisted Iran to offer temporary sanctuary to al Sadr after he surrenders to the grand ayatollahs who will then negotiate with US authorities. Cole is surprised that the US would seek Iranian assistance, thinking it a "sign of real desperation on the part of the Bush administration to turn to the Axis of Evil for help."

Cole warns that once Iran is in Iraqi politics that it will not be easy to get it out.

Gordon Housworth



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