Rashomon in Najaf
I still haven’t found an official release on the military action that occurred in Najaf but, if you’re confused about what happened there, you’re not the only one.
Iraqi blogger Zeyad of Healing Iraq has collected more than a dozen different descriptions of what happened, ranging from an unprovoked attack on harmless pilgrims by Americans and members of the Iraqi military and police to a massive attack on an Al-Qaeda camp, some with lurid details. Zeyad characterizes the account I’ve been hearing lately, an engagement with a Shi’ite sub-sect, the Army of Heaven, as “the Sadrist account”. In his analysis of what happened (something did, apparently, happen) he characterizes the accounts that have been published in the Western press including the New York Times as “complete nonsense”.
Check out the linked posts for valuable backgrounders.
Update: Curiouser and curiouser. This morning the New York Times is reporting that American ground forces were involved in the action, not just providing air support:
BAGHDAD, Jan. 29 —Iraqi forces were surprised and nearly overwhelmed by the ferocity of an obscure renegade militia in a weekend battle near the holy city of Najaf and needed far more help from American forces than previously disclosed, American and Iraqi officials said Monday.
They said American ground troops — and not just air support as reported Sunday — were mobilized to help the Iraqi soldiers, who appeared to have dangerously underestimated the strength of the militia, which calls itself the Soldiers of Heaven and had amassed hundreds of heavily armed fighters.
Iraqi government officials said the group apparently was preparing to storm Najaf, a holy city dear to Shiite Islam, occupy the sacred Imam Ali mosque and assassinate the religious hierarchy there, including the revered leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, during a Shiite holiday when many pilgrims visit.
“This group had more capabilities than the government,” said Abdul Hussein Abtan, the deputy governor of Najaf Province, at a news conference.
That would seem to lend more credence to the reports yesterday that American tanks were involved in the action. But that, too, is very baffling.
If both a) American forces were mobilized to re-inforce the Iraqi military and b) American tanks were involved, you might see the source of my confusion.
Najaf is one of the provinces in which the Iraqi military has assumed responsility for security. I’m no expert in these matters but I would think that would mean that there weren’t armored units just standing around, in case. Bringing up an armored unit that wasn’t nearby sounds to me a little like growing a beard in a moment of passion. So I’m confused.
BTW, Juan Cole has pointed out that, if indeed the enemy force engaged was a Shi’ite splinter group, it’s likely they weren’t being supported by Iran:
The buzz in the Right blogosphere that the Mahdawiya is somehow linked to Iran is a profound falsehood. Sadrist splinter groups in Iraq generally are Iraqi nativist and deeply distrust Iran. These cultists wanted to kill Sistani (an Iranian).
That’s what the Iraqi bloggers have been saying, too.
Best guess after reading Zeyad, Cole and what passes for reporting in the Emm Ess Emm: this was a checkpoint encounter that went awry and escalated, with nobody quite knowing whom they were shooting until it was over, if they know yet. All the pilgrim groups are heavily armed because, hey, it’s Iraq. So if someone gets twitchy, things can get real bad.
While I can believe that the Najaf governorate would happily whack rival clerical groups on purpose, the complete inability of the Iraqi politicians to come up with a consistent claim about just whom they were fighting for so long leads me to believe that they were going on rumors themselves.