Iraqi and American forces have begun a major offensive in the city of Najaf against militants in the Mahdi Army militia loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
At a military level, even though urban warfare can be bloody and dangerous for those seeking to oust fighters familiar with the territory, U.S. troops are almost certainly capable of carrying the day. Indeed, reports Thursday said U.S. Marines backed by tanks and aircraft had seized the heart of the city and blocked access to the Imam Ali Mosque.
As the great Prussian theorist of combat Karl von Clausewitz put it, however, “War is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means.” Even when it does not have an explicit or fully understood political purpose, in other words, war has a political outcome and political implications, which may be quite different from the outcome of a particular battle. With that in mind, let’s consider possible political implications of this battle.
Most Iraqi and American leaders do seem attuned to the significance of the Imam Ali Mosque, which makes Najaf a city holy to Shiite Muslims. It is close to the essence of Shiism to believe that Imam Ali was the legitimate successor to the Prophet Muhammad, in preference to other leaders recognized by Sunni Muslims. Ali died in Najaf and was buried there. The mosque is thus widely revered, as is the cemetery that surrounds it.
Iraqi and U.S. leaders have said only Iraqis and no Americans will be permitted to enter the mosque. If that promise is not kept, or if the mosque is damaged, the damage to relations with Shiite Muslims, who are about 60 percent of the Iraqi population, will be serious. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (now in London for medical treatment) has, in contrast to al-Sadr, been a generally constructive influence. Alienating him would be tragic.
Even if the mosque is undamaged and respected, however, the attack led by U.S. forces will anger many Muslims and inspire some of them to join militant or jihadist groups. It will take months and years to assess the extent of the damage to the U.S. cause.
As for Muqtada al-Sadr, he could “win” no matter the outcome. If he is killed he will be respected as a martyr and inspire more to join the cause. If he is not, he will brag that he has withstood the assaults of the infidel Americans.
It may well be that this attack, which comes after a two-month truce was broken and is supported by the provisional Iraqi government, is necessary for security purposes. But not all its political ramifications will beneficial.