The massacre that occurred in Najaf, Iraq, last Sunday by now has been wildly deconstructed over the Arab press. What emerges has virtually nothing to do with the official Baghdad and Washington spin of Iraqi troops killing 250-odd heavily armed apocalyptic cultists dubbed “Soldiers of Heaven”. They were said to be about to attack not only Shi’ite pilgrims but also the “Big Four” ayatollahs of Iraq – Ali al-Sistani, Bashir Najafi, Muhammad shaq Fayyad and Muhammad Said al-Hakim – who all sit in holy Najaf.
When the embattled Nuri al-Maliki government in Baghdad gloats in unison with the Pentagon and US President George W Bush about such a masterful display by the Iraqi army, supported by the lethal firepower of US tanks and F-16s, something is terribly off the mark. Especially as the “Iraqi army” in question is composed in its majority by the Badr Organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq’s (SCIRI’s) paramilitary wing, which is peppered with death squads.
Najaf Governor As’ad Abu Gilel, a high-ranking SCIRI politician himself, has told Najaf Radio FM that no fewer than “300 terrorists were killed, 650 detained and 121 wounded, while 11 Iraqi soldiers were killed and 27 wounded”. One thousand “terrorist” casualties suggest firepower comparable to the US raids in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in December 2001.
The official Baghdad spin maintains that the battle was provoked by an evil mastermind, Ayatollah Ahmad al-Hasani al-Sarkhi, also called al-Yamani, born in Diwaniya, a charlatan with a background in fine arts and the leader of the Mahdi Mahdawiya millenarian movement (a splinter Sadrist movement). It’s important to note that his offices in Najaf were closed 10 days before the massacre, and many of his aides arrested: this already suggests a government crackdown preceding the upcoming US surge/escalation.
The Najaf governor’s first intervention was to scream that Najaf was being attacked by al-Qaeda. Official spin painted the guerrillas as Sunni Arabs sprinkled with al-Qaeda-style Arab Afghans. Muaffaq al-Rubaii, Iraq’s national security adviser, was quick to announce that “hundreds of Arabs” – he mentioned Saudis, Yemenis, Egyptians and Afghans – had been killed. Then the Najaf governor said that “British and Arab passports” were found in the battlefield, proving interference by “a certain neighboring Arab country” (he didn’t specify which). And finally, he decided to change his story from al-Qaeda to the “Soldiers of Heaven”, fanatical Shi’ites who happened to be supported during the 1990s by none other than Saddam Hussein and were now being helped by evil Ba’athists.
In this sorry attempt by the Iraqi government to create a one-size-fits-all conspiracy (Saddamists, al-Qaeda and Iranian fanatics all in cahoots), the main problem is how to fit in current US anti-Iran hysteria. The Mahdawiya have never had anything to do with Iran. This is a nationalist Iraqi group: no wonder they are fiercely opposed to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is Iranian, born in Sistan-Balochistan province.
According to Abu al-Hasan, a Mahdawiya member close to Sarkhi, quoted by London-based Al-Hayat, the accusations of a planned ayatollah massacre in Najaf are nothing but lies. Hasan said what happened was that Iraqi police tried to arrest Sarkhi, his followers revolted, and that led to the massacre.
Religiously, it’s important to note that the Shi’ite clerical aristocracy in Najaf – of which Sistani is the epitome – does not like being challenged, be it by the Sadrists or, worse even, by a splinter group. In parallel, Arab Shi’ites all over southern Iraq prefer to trust an Arab marja (senior spiritual leader) in Najaf, and not a Persian (Sistani).
But according to Arab reports, the traveling Shi’ite pilgrims were not Mahdawiya, but were from the al-Hawatim tribe, which lives between Najaf and Diwaniyah. The chief of the tribe, Hajji Sa’ad Sa’ad Nayif al-Hatemi, was killed along with his wife and driver at the Zarga checkpoint near Najaf. So the tribe – fully armed of course, the only way to travel in “liberated” nighttime Iraq – revolted (that explains the weapons; the “Soldiers of Heaven”, depicted as a scruffy bunch, could never have been so well armed).
Another tribe, al-Khazaali – who actually live in Zarga – tried to stop the fight and got entangled in the whole mess, just as the checkpoint police screamed to their commanders in Baghdad over the phone that they were being attacked by “al-Qaeda”. The US cavalry arrived like clockwork, raising the appropriate hell.
So the pilgrims may have been killed by US air fire. But that does not explain the officially sanctioned released photos. Eerily, there are no signs of blood, bullet wounds or burning in these bodies.
Scream ‘al-Qaeda!’ and run for cover
Both the Hawatim and Khazaali tribes are fiercely Iraqi Arab nationalist. They are fiercely against both the SCIRI and Da’wa – that is, the governments of Najaf and Baghdad, which for them are puppets of Iran. The Mahdawiya for its part was based in Zarga. They could have easily been set up as the fall guys in the massacre. Nothing could be more convenient than blaming it all on a fanatical, anti-government Shi’ite cult. But a consensus emerging among southern Iraqi tribes is that the massacre was a Baghdad-concocted operation designed to torpedo an increasingly popular, non-sectarian Sunni and Shi’ite Iraqi nationalist alliance (anti-US and anti-Iran).
The modus operandi was clear: Shi’ites supported by Iran (the current Iraqi government) screaming “al-Qaeda!” and used the Pentagon to kill Arab nationalist Shi’ites. In this scenario, everything in Iraq that is not SCIRI or Da’wa is bundled into the “terrorist” bag. This pattern is bound to be replicated before, during and after the US surge.
The strategy of the Maliki government perfectly fits Bush’s directive to kill Iranian “agents” in Iraq. Further massacres of Iranian pilgrims going to Najaf will be a logical consequence. If Maliki is taking Bush for a ride, Bush is taking US and global public opinion for a ride.
Politically, the complex, explosive Iraqi Shi’ite situation is now polarized beyond redemption. On one side there is a de facto alliance of the “Iranians” – Maliki, the SCIRI’s Abdul Haziz al-Hakim and Sistani. On the other side there are the powerful Arab Shi’ite tribes scattered around central and southern Iraq. The key question: Where does Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stand in all this?
Muqtada wanted to be the “middle way”. But the Sadrists are now back in government after a brief boycott. His main rally call – US occupation over and out, now – has been overshadowed by multiple attacks by his Mehdi Army against Sunni Arabs. This could be fatal for Muqtada. In central and southern Iraq, Iraqi nationalism – and Muqtada is a fierce nationalist – is much more powerful than any Sunni/Shi’ite divide.
What is certain is that the Maliki-Hakim alliance will continue to deploy its US-trained Iraqi army and police in further massacres, advised by the dreaded Scorpion commando squad, which is funded by US dollars, and responding to the head of Iraqi intelligence. In this sense, the Najaf massacre is also a classic case of the “Salvador option” in its Iraqified version: or how the lessons of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s are useful for the “New Middle East”.
Furthermore, the massacre also signals that the Pentagon is now linked to killing Arab Shi’ite tribes. If this is true, it is a big mistake. Sistani does not control them anymore. This means more and more revengeful, nationalist Arab Shi’ites will be amplifying another anti-US/Baghdad guerrilla front.
Take the example of the Beni Tamim, a mixed Sunni and Shi’ite tribe. Their sheikh, 70-year-old Hamid al-Suhail, was killed one month ago in Baghdad by a death squad. Revenge is inevitable. Anti-US and anti-Baghdad guerrillas in southern Iraq have been spreading like wildfire since November.
The model is to be found in modern history: the Shi’ite resistance that from the 1920s to the 1930s fought and kicked out the British. Southern Shi’ite tribal chiefs are going for a united, Sunni and Shi’ite muqawama (resistance). The Bush administration is reaping the kind of Iraqi chaos it craves: yet one more civil war – of (Arab) Shi’ites against (“Persian”) Shi’ites.