TCS Daily


A Najaf Passion Play

By James Pinkerton - August 19, 2004 12:00 AM

How did Americans find themselves fighting in Najaf, killing Shia Muslims? How did we end up body-counting the people whom were supposed to be liberating? How did we end up writing a new chapter in the long saga of Shia martyrology, fueling a vengeance-faith that could haunt Americans a year from now-or a century from now? And after all that, how did we end up getting so tangled in the intra-religious politics of Iraq that we can't achieve the objectives set forth by US military commanders? How could it be that the American juggernaut must hang back, keeping away from the tomb of a man dead for more than 13 centuries?

The quick answer is that the people overseeing American policy in Iraq are not as smart as they think they are. They may have high IQs, they may have lots of advanced academic degrees, they may be aggressive in stating their case in inter-departmental meetings--but they are pitifully ignorant about the situation in Iraq. Yup, the celebrated neoconservatives, the brainiacs who dreamt up "Operation Iraqi Freedom," are now bringing forth a Clash of Civilizations that multi-cultural America--with its open borders, its dependence upon trade, its unwillingness to sustain heavy casualties-is ill-prepared to fight, let alone win. Fortunately, some indicators suggest that the eggheads who got us into this mess won't necessarily be trusted to clean it up.

But first, we might pause for a moment to think about what it's like today for the young combatants in and around the Shrine of the Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib. Much of the fighting is taking place in the adjacent Wadi al-Salaam cemetery, one of the world's largest burial grounds. All cultures, of course, maintain heavy taboos against the profanation of the dead; one traditional tomb-warning for Arabs reads shallat yamîn man mahâbu-"may the right hand of anyone who defaces it be paralyzed." Some future Stephen King, writing in Allah-knows-what language, is going to have a field day conjuring up creepy images and resonances from the current fighting, as man fights man, as tanks grind stones, as bombs blast bones.

But to Shi'i, this graveyard is the most sacred. They believe that if they are buried at Wadi al-Salaam, they can gain immediate entry into paradise, thanks to the intercession of their great spiritual leader, Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed. Interestingly, Shi'i also believe that no less a figure than Adam, the first man, is buried directly beneath Ali. So the area is "ground zero" for the Shia, variously estimated to number between 120 million and 165 million worldwide.


So is Najaf really the right spot to be fighting Moqtada al-Sadr and his Shia militia? To fight, and possibly kill-either on purpose, by accident, or as a consequence of his own self-martyrdom--this new hero of the Shia, admired by 68 percent of Iraqis, according to a poll taken last May by the US government?

Some people look at the situation in Iraq and profess to believe that things are going just fine. But they are looking through a retro-lens; when they see Iraq, they see a different war altogether. And it's hard to win a war in the present day if you're lost in the fog of the last fight.

Exhibit A: in this gallery of non-Clausewitzians is Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense. He is widely regarded as the leading strategist among the neoconservative clique that dominates Bush administration policymaking. Don't worry, this article is not going to be a rant about weapons of mass destruction, or lack thereof. Similarly, others can ponder the accuracy of Wolfowitz's predictions that we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq. Instead, we will focus on one specific argument he made, in which he drew a specious parallel from 60 years ago.

So what does Wolfowitz think about the current warring in Najaf? He thinks that it's like World War Two--that armed Shi'i are like armed Nazis. In testimony to Congress on August 10, he asserted that "radical Islamic extremists . . . remind you of the notorious Nazi groups like the SS that proudly wore the death's head as their symbol."

The notion that Muslims, both Saddamist seculars and Bin Ladenist believers, are like Nazis or fascists is popular in neocon circles, in part because it tends to throw opponents of neocon policies-including the war in Iraq-on the defensive. This polemical tactic, sometimes called "Reductio ad Hitlerum," may be effective in politics, as the argument can be squeezed into the pages of thin magazines, or even talk radio. But "effective" is not the same as "true," or even "useful." As George Orwell--who knew something about lies, big and small-once wrote, sometimes words fall upon facts like snow, blurring their outlines and covering up all the details. Today, as America attempts to make sense of Iraq, it doesn't help that the facts on the ground over there are buried under a blizzard of hackneyed clichés: Saddam-as-Hitler/Muslims-as-Nazis, etc.

Whatever one thinks of the Jaysh al-Mahdi, the Sadrist fighters in Najaf, they are nothing like the Nazi Schutzstaffel, or its battlefield wing, the Waffen SS. The SS was the product of the centralized, industrialized, and hierarchalized Nazi state. The SS was actively evil, but when Hitlerism collapsed, it did, too.

The Western Allies who occupied Germany after VE-Victory in Europe-Day, May 8, 1945, suffered precisely zero fatalities in the course of their peacekeeping duties. If that doesn't square with some distant memory you might have about the aftermath of the US entry in Baghdad in April 2003, that's because you might be carrying a false-meme planted by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice at the time. For whatever reason, purposeful or accidental, Rice tried to minimize and contextualize then-erupting anti-Americanism by planting an incorrect historical precedent in the minds of Americans; she claimed that diehard-Nazi "Werewolves" kept the bloodshed going for years after Germany's surrender. This tale of Germany in the '40s might have succeeded in making Americans feel better about taking losses in Iraq in the '00s, but it was just that: a tale. Which is to say, not true.

Iraq has proven to be the opposite of Germany. The Germans fought hard for their Fuhrer, but when they gave up, they gave up totally. By contrast, the Iraqis barely fought at all for Saddam Hussein. But after he was removed from power, as Iraq then fractured into its core components--Kurd, Sunni, Shia-that's when residents of the tortured pseudo-country found ethno-religious causes worth fighting for. That's when American blood began to flow.

Our casualties reflect this before-after dichotomy. In the fighting prior to VI-"Victory in Iraq"-Day, May 1, 2003, when the "Mission Accomplished" banner was hung up on the USS Abraham Lincoln, total US fatalities in Iraq were 139. Since then, through August 17, they have totaled 806. And it's increasingly apparent that those killing Americans in Iraq-be they Shia, Sunni, foreign Islamists, whatever-are anything but leftover Saddamists.

This turn of events, the total repudiation of the Germany = Iraq equation, should be humiliating to the neocons, and cause them to rethink their whole worldview. But of course, dogmatists get where they get by being dogmatic-their preferred term is "moral clarity"-not by reassessing their cherished dogmas in the light of evidence. Wolfowitz, for example, invoking yet another World War Two-era phrase, insists that Iraq is the "central front"-shades of General Patton vs. the Wehrmacht--in the war on terror.

But the rest of us, wondering what went wrong in Iraq, might wish to spend less time thinking about Germany--and more time thinking about Iraq. Specifically, about the Shia we are most visibly fighting.

The Western rap on Muslims is that they are all martyr-happy, but the Shia subset of Islam makes the majority Sunni look positively risk-averse. The split between the Shi'i and the Sunni occurred in the 7th century CE, over the caliphate-succession of Islam. One might compare this to a hypothetical case in Christianity. In the place of the aforementioned death of Ali-slain by fellow Muslims, the future Sunni, in 661-we might imagine that St. Paul had murdered St. Peter, thus upsetting the apostolic succession of the Roman Catholic Church. If such a killing had occurred, a divide might have opened between those loyal to Peter and those loyal to Paul. And so to this day, the "Peterists" would feud with the "Paulists." But of course, since Peter was the victim, those who would revere him would naturally have a strong theological trope toward martyrdom.

The victim-minded nature of the Shia has been obvious to Westerners willing to pay attention. In 1872, Matthew Arnold, the great Victorian poet- "Dover Beach" --and man of letters, wrote a monograph, "A Persian Passion Play, in which he highlighted the essentials of Shi'ism.

In Arnold's view, the Shia's bloody re-enactment of the murder Ali--and his son, Hussein, 19 years later-was a pageant of martyr-theatrics strongly reminiscent of the passion plays staged at the same time in Europe. And since in Arnold's day, the geographic border between the Shia in present-day Iraq and the Shia in present-day Iran was not so distinct-and since, in any case, the majority of Shia in the region have always been Persian-it made sense to entitle the piece, "A Persian Passion Play."

Arnold's "Passion" analogy may seem strange to contemporary Westerners, who have grown up in a time when the vivid and violent passion plays of yore have morphed into tepidly user-friendly Easter shows. The Mel Gibson movie "The Passion of the Christ" may evoked strong feelings among Christians, but unlike past passion shows, it resulted in no massacres. That's one more difference between the West and the Middle East that Americans were mostly clueless about on their way to Baghdad; in that part of the world, religious differences are still a valid cause for killing. In other words, there's not much of a jump from "the religious phrenzy of sorrow and indignation" described by Arnold in 19th-century "Irak" to what's visible in 21st-century Iraq.

Enter Moqtada al-Sadr, the 30-something firebrand whom Wolfowitz describes as a latter-day Nazi. Far from Germany, al-Sadr's ancestors have long been leading clerics; they figured prominently in the Shia rebellion against British colonial rule in 1920. Since then, several have achieved the highest honor in Shi'ism-violent martyrdom. In 1980, Saddam Hussein killed Moqtada al-Sadr's uncle; in 1999, Saddam killed his father. And now, America, depending on which day it is, is trying to kill the younger man. Given the passion-ridden history of his creed, and the tumultuous history of his family, should we think that "martyrdom" is something that Moqtada isn't ready for?

Some Americans might answer in two words: "Who cares?" That is, if we kill Moqtada, at least we won't have to worry about him anymore. But we might remember that the stated reason for our being in Iraq-other than, of course, the WMD-threat-was not to take out Moqtada; we were there, we said, to help Iraqis, 60 percent of them Shi'i. And we are also there, presumably, to make sure that a pro-American government wins a democratic election. Would it really help our political cause to slay a man admired by two-thirds of Iraqis?


We might consider this August 14 Associated Press article, headlined, "Driven by religious zeal, desperation, Mahdi Army fighters bedevil coalition troops." Here's one man's reason for fighting:

Ayad Ali, a militiaman in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, claimed his brother was run over by a U.S. tank. "I would fight the Americans until the last drop of my blood," he said, echoing a sermon al-Sadr has delivered in a funeral shroud, symbolizing his readiness to die in battle.

Would there be more such Alis, or fewer, if Moqtada were dead? Especially if his killing involved the damaging, or demolishing, of the Najaf shrine?

To be sure, Saddam managed to put down the Shia when they rose up in 1991. But in doing so, he killed an estimated 300,000. Are we ready to inflict that sort of carnage? If we did, how would the world think of us, and remember us? More to the point, how would the remaining 100+ million Shia regard us? And the billion or so Sunni Muslims in addition to them? And to think: all of this would be taking place after we declared "mission accomplished."

In fact, America seems to be backing away from all-out-conflict with the Shia; the strategic costs of tactical victory are judged to be too high, not only in Iraq, but around the world. Earlier this week, Juan Cole, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Michigan, put the fighting in context:

The scenes of battle in Najaf have become a huge public relations disaster for the United States. Even skirmishes in the vicinity of the shrine last spring made the U.S. Army look like a blasphemer to many Shiites, and not just in Iraq. Shiites held angry demonstrations in Lebanon, Bahrain, Pakistan and India. By May, the favorability rating in Iraq polls for the U.S. military was only about 10 percent, down enormously from the previous year.

Poor Wolfowitz. Once again, he has been flummoxed by the difference between the geopolitics of six decades ago and those of today. Back then, we could wage total warfare against the Nazis, demanding unconditional surrender from Germany, and few complained, not least because Hitler had first declared war on the US. But today, whereas Wolfowitz might be happy to think of al-Sadr as Hitler, the Bush administration overall has taken a more nuanced view, more inclined to seek some sort of negotiated settlement in Najaf.

But such a politics-minded approach to fighting brings new problems. Indeed, such politicization brings up memories of Vietnam, where non-military considerations crippled the military's effectiveness. Here, for example, is how one war-reporter detailed the on-again-off-again situation in Najaf:

Officers also said they were concerned that the delay would mean more casualties, and they expressed frustration with the closely circumscribed rules of engagement involving combat near the sacred site. At one point in the afternoon, troops in the cemetery north of the shrine dodged more than 15 mortar shells fired from 150 yards outside the shrine, but could not return fire.

"We're taught: You receive fire, you go forward, destroy it," said Maj. Bob Pizzitola, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment. "But we understand the bigger picture. If we were to do that, we'd have a bigger fight on our hands throughout Iraq.

"We understand we can't do it, but it's frustrating, like being the designated driver."

One can only imagine what the neoconservatives, and the Republican right as a whole, would be saying if Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton had imposed such restrictive "rules of engagement" on American warriors At least eight Americans have been killed in the Najaf since August 5. Yet as of this writing, it's impossible to know whether they will ever achieve the objective first articulated by American commanders back in April: the elimination of al-Sadr as an independent force.

Instead, Americans have found themselves in a lose-lose situation. Kill al-Sadr, create a martyr, and lose what little remains of Iraqi hearts and minds. Or else, don't kill al-Sadr, and see credibility of the whole US military mission undermined--in Iraq, and maybe around the world.

I don't know how to get the US out of this box. But I do know this much: the neocons, who got us into this mess on the basis of false evidence and false analogies, are not the ones to get us out of the box, either.

Meanwhile, the body-count rises-slowly on our side, rapidly on their side. Which is to say, the big monotheisms across the civilizational chasm, Islam and Christianity, are both making new martyrs in Iraq today And perhaps one day soon, the political physics of blood-sacrifice will meet up with the actual physics of mass destruction. And the result of that conjoining will be a megamartyrdom, somewhere, that will evoke passions for the rest of human history. That's a scenario straight out of "Dover Beach, in which Matthew Arnold sighed, "And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/Where ignorant armies clash by night."

Dealing with these threats-in a way that doesn't make them worse-is the great challenge of our time. It's possible to imagine solutions, but such solutions are impossible if our leaders are lost in their minds, chasing after the ghosts of long-ago Nazis.


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