Attempts are being made to knock down all kinds of stories about the Najaf uprising. Bush expressed happiness that the Iraqi Army (actually the Badr Corps fundamentalist Shiite militia) acquitted itself well against the rebels. But in fact, the Iraqi security forces were surrounded, cut off and nearly destroyed by heavily armed cultists–and had urgently to call in US troops, tanks and close air support.
Bush told National Public Radio on Monday, “My first reaction on this report from the battlefield is that the Iraqis are beginning to show me something.”
So does the US military not tell Bush when their Iraqi allies get into deep trouble fighting a few hundred cultists and they have to go bail them out? Or was Bush briefed on the situation and he came out and told a bald faced lie to the public about what had happened?
Either thing at a time the country is at war is truly horrifying.
The radical Sunni Arab newspaper Mafkarat al-Islam and the moderate Arab nationalist newspaperal-Zaman weighed in with yet a fourth account of the fighting in Najaf on Sunday and Monday.
In this one, an innocent poor little tribal group from Diwaniyah, the Hawatimah, got up a night-time convoy to the holy city of Najaf on their way to Karbala for Ashura. They happened to have raised anti-Iranian slogans and placards. (At night or early dawn? How could they be seen?) The evil Najaf government authorities, themselves proto-Iranian, suddenly and for no reason launched a massive attack on the Hawatimah, massacring them, as they approached Najaf. In this narrative, the Diwaniyah tribal group had nothing to do with any millenarian cult (al-Mahdawiyah), and were just killed at the instigation of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Badr Corps (pro-Iranian political and paramilitary groupings who basically run Najaf) because they dared object to Iranian influence in Iraq. It is even being alleged in al-Zaman that the Hawatimah were only implementing Bush administration strictures against Iranian machinations in Iraq.
Note that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which controls Najaf, is Bush’s major ally in Iraq even though it is close to Iran. Those fighting the Najaf government and Iraqi army forces were anti-Iranian. Rightwing bloggers seem confused on these points.
It is, of course, possible that the Hawatimah got caught up in the fighting between the Mahdawiyah and the Badr Corps as they were proceeding toward Karbala. And the Najaf authorities did themselve no favors by trying to depict this Shiite group as al-Qaeda (a hyper-Sunni movement) or related to the old Baath Party.
But the story in Mafkarat al-Islam makes no sense at all. If the Hawatimah convoy was heading to Karbala, why would it need to go into downtown Najaf? And what was a big convoy of armed tribesmen doing heading for downtown Najaf at night? At night? With Iraq’s lack of security? The al-Zaman narrative even justifies them being heavily armed on the grounds that they were traveling at night. But doesn’t explain why they were operating under cover of darkness in the first place. The traveling at night thing seems suspicious to me.
In contrast, al-Hayat reports in Arabic that its stringers interviewed residents of Zarqa just north of Najaf who confirmed that the Mahdist sect leader, Diya’ Kazim Abd al-Zahra, who also went by Ahmad Hassaan al-Yamaani, of Diwaniyah, 38, had indeed bought orchards there and settled there with hundreds of followers. They kept bringing in truckfuls of sand. When asked why, they said that they wanted to build barriers to mark of “their property.”
Hmm. The Mahdist leader was from Diwaniyah. The Hawatimah were from Diwaniyah and were coming in a big armed convoy at night toward Najaf.
If we set aside the claims of this group of Hawatimah to be innocent victims and assume that they were Mahdists coming to help with a planned assault on Najaf (empty and unguarded while all the other Shiites converged on Karbala for Ashura), then it would explain a lot. Heavily armed tribesmen could easily have overwhelmed the Iraqi army, if they had RPGs and automatic weapons. They would have the element of surprise, esprit de corps, and probably some would have served in the old Baath army and might well have much more military experience than the green Iraqi army troops thrown against them. Tribesmen are formidable and often outfitted like private armies. And if they were coming to support the Mahdawiyah cultists in the orchards, that explains where the high-powered weapons came from. They so devastated the Iraqi forces that the US had to send troops, tanks and helicopters to rescue the latter.
If we posit an involvement of the Hawatimah from Diwaniyah in the Mahdist uprising at Najaf, it raises the question as to whether they were the “rogue elements” that launched an uprising in Diwaniyah itself in late August, 2006. At the time, this violence was blamed on the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, but spokesmen for Muqtada at the time complained that “rogue elements” not under his control were stirring up trouble there. The Mahdawiyah was founded in 1999 by Abdul Zahra, a young civil engineer from Diwaniyah who had been a follower of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (Muqtada’s father) but established a group that split off from the Sadrists.
Admittedly, a lot of what I have written is speculative, and I’m open to being corrected by better evidence. (That is the fate of all historians but especially those who try to catch history on the run.) But I think it is pretty easy to resolve the contradictions among the major accounts by assuming that this was a Mahdist uprising aimed at taking Najaf, centered on the coming of the Promised One, to which a group of Hawatimah clans were coming to lend aid. The Hawatimah story of their innocence, as reported in the Sunni press, seems to me to have a lot of holes in it.
Juan Cole is President of the Global Americana Institute and writes the blog “Informed Comment.” This was his blog entry for Jan. 31, 2007.