May 05, 2004


Iraq, May 4 Representatives of Iraq's most influential Shiite leaders met here on Tuesday and demanded that Moktada al-Sadr, a rebel Shiite cleric, withdraw militia units from the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, stop turning the mosques there into weapons arsenals and return power to Iraqi police and civil defense units that operate under American control. . .

On Tuesday, the Shiite leaders, including a representative of a Shiite clerical group that has close ties to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, effectively did what the Americans have urged them to do since Mr. Sadr, a 31-year-old firebrand, began his attacks in April: they tied Iraq's future, and that of Shiites in particular, to a renunciation of violence and a return to negotiations.

But this is probably the most important bit:

Although Shiite leaders have made similar demands of Mr. Sadr before, it has never been in such strength. About 150 leaders attended the gathering, representing many of Shiism's most influential political, religious and professional groups. . . . Several Shiite leaders acknowledged that they had delayed issuing their statement until there were clear signs that public opinion among Shiites had moved strongly against Mr. Sadr. Reports in the past two weeks have spoken of a shadowy death squad calling itself the Thulfiqar Army shooting dead at least seven of Mr. Sadr's militiamen in Najaf, and several thousand people attended an anti-Sadr protest meeting outside the Imam Ali shrine in the city on Friday, according to several of the meeting's participants.

Mr. Mahdi, from the Sciri group, which is close to Ayatollah Sistani, was blunt about Mr. Sadr's decline in popularity. "He's 100 percent isolated across most of the southern provinces; he's even isolated in Najaf," he said.

This would seem to vindicate the U.S. strategy there, which many in the blogosphere have criticized as insufficiently militant. It now seems plausible that this will be settled without serious bloodshed -- and that if a violent solution is called for, it's more likely to satisfy than to inflame Iraqi public opinion. Does this suggest that the similar approach we're employing in Fallujah is also a good thing? I don't know (and some of the Shiite clerics in this story want us to be more militant there), but it certainly seems that there's a strategy here, one that stresses Iraqi self-governance as a key element. And that seems like a good thing to me.

This also suggests that those who thought Sadr represented a mass movement among Iraqis were seriously mistaken. The same is true, of course, with regard to the occupiers of Fallujah.

UPDATE: Nelson Ascher says that this development reflects favorably on Belmont Club's ongoing analyses of the situation, and offers lessons on how to read reports from a biased media.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Tom Maguire notes that the U.S. move to appoint a former Ba'athist in Fallujah is what brought the Shi'ites into line. Are we that smart? he asks. . . . ("All we were saying was, give peace a chance. And it looks like giving one of Saddam's henchmen a chance to deliver the peace was enough to bring these folks back to the table.") My goodness, I hope so.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Meanwhile, Belmont Club has more thoughts on Fallujah, and on what it calls the "more decisive battle" among administrators in the Green Zone, where he thinks they're doing a much worse job than the Marines. Excerpt:

One of the fascinating things about following events in Fallujah has been watching the USMC adapt to the circumstances as it found them, fulfilling its mission in often surprising ways. How strange that the imperative for survival should enforce a rate of evolution in military formations far faster than for diplomats frozen in their lofty towers. Clemenceau famously said that "war is too important to be left to the generals". Perhaps he should have added that occupation is too important to be left entirely to the diplomats.

Read the whole thing, which is very interesting.

MORE: Reader David Horwich emails:

The other lesson learned here is that the coalition can trust the Iraqis themselves to clean up their own messes, critical for a functioning democracy. More importantly, the Iraqis are showing some maturity in understanding that it isn't our job to put a working law and order system into's theirs.