Monday, August 16, 2004

Najaf battle a crucial test for Allawi

Najaf battle a crucial test for Allawi |

Thursday, tanks sealed off all approaches to Najaf's Old City, while 2,000 US marines and 1,800 Iraqi forces closed in. US forces stormed Mr. Sadr's home, but he wasn't there. It's just a matter of time, US military officials say, before the radical cleric and his militia are expelled from one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, the Shrine of Imam Ali.
For Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, this is a crucial test of the strength of his government, barely a month and a half old, and a first chance to extend government authority over a key part of Iraq, most of which remains under the control of armed militias and insurgents.

"The attack in Najaf is a strategic one, with limited US costs, against Sadr's ragtag militia that doesn't enjoy local support," says Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "Sadr is a symptom of a security vacuum in Iraq. The US military does not have enough forces on the ground to take control of the country. Even if you defeat Sadr, that still leaves a majority of the population living under the control of militias and insurgents."

What's at stake is not just the control of Najaf, but perhaps Iraq's territorial integrity. Key territories in Iraq are controlled by armed groups opposed to central government control from Baghdad. Kurdish militias in the north are vying for control of the crucial oil field town of Kirkuk; Sunni insurgents, many of them loyal to Saddam Hussein, control much of the center and the Northwest, including the transit link to Jordan. And now, as Shiite militias in the south and Baghdad turn to armed confrontation,

Prime Minister Allawi, a Shiite, has chosen to exert power where it seems most likely the government will prevail. In Shiite Najaf, a religious tourist and university city where many residents support the interim government, defeating Sadr would be a small but significant step toward preserving the Iraqi nation-state.

In an Aug. 10 speech, Allawi promised Iraqis to "teach these criminal outlaws the lesson they deserve."
Scott Baldauf