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Two visions of Iraq struggle to take hold

Fighting in Najaf threatened to undermine a conference to choose a national assembly.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2004


With explosions outside rattling the windows, some 1,300 Iraqi delegates gathered Sunday in a Baghdad convention center for a three-day conference intended to resume the nation's fitful march toward a secular democracy. At the same time, some 85 miles to the south, Shiite militiamen in Najaf fought to defend cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who envisions a nation run similarly to the theocracy of neighboring Iran.

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Events this week put the two opposing visions of Iraq's future in sharp relief. But it's unlikely either will be able to lay claim to much progress as the fighting in Najaf resumes - threatening to overshadow the conference and ignite a wider Shiite insurgency in the country, say analysts.

In fact, the Baghdad meeting got off to a rocky start. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told the delegates that "your presence here today is the biggest challenge to the forces of darkness that want to tear this country apart. This is not the end of the road, it is the first step on the way to democracy." The goal is to choose a 100-member assembly, or national council, to oversee the interim executive branch until elections are held in January.

But few outside observers consider this a representative gathering of the Iraqi people. Key players such as Mr. Sadr and the Muslim Clerics Association, an influential grouping of Sunni religious leaders, have boycotted the conference.

Indeed, shortly after Mr. Allawi's opening remarks, Nadim al-Jadari, an official with the Shiite Political Council, threatened to leave the conference unless negotiations were restarted to end the fighting in Najaf.

In an attempt to assuage the complaints, the Associated Press reported that a working committee was formed to find a peaceful solution to the tension in Najaf.

The standoff in Najaf threatens not just the conference but the legitimacy of the Allawi government, say analysts. While most Iraqi Shiites aren't Sadr supporters, anger over the siege at the Shrine of Imam Ali threatens to drive most Iraqi Muslims away from supporting the interim government. Over the weekend, thousands of pro-Sadr demonstrators converged on Najaf and formed a ring around several hundred of Sadr's fighters, who are holed up in the shrine, one of the holiest sites for the world's 180 million Shiite Muslims.

"This is a failed strategy, and it has proved that it's not possible to have security in Iraq without participation of the majority of the populations, the Shias," says Ali Allawi, a political analyst in London.

The more the US has sought to "squeeze" Najaf (as US Secretary of State Colin Powell put it over the weekend), the more militant pressure has been released elsewhere. Sadr forces have clashed with Iraqi and US troops in such cities as Hilla, Kut, Basra, Amara, and others. The risk is that killing or capturing Sadr, and dismantling his Mahdi Army in Najaf, could lead to decentralized minirebellions throughout southern Iraq, in effect creating an ongoing insurgency similar to the atomized Sunni insurgency in central Iraq.

Indeed, the Sunni insurgency lent support to Sadr Sunday in the kind of rare Sunni-Shiite alliance witnessed when insurgents in Fallujah were under siege by US and Iraqi forces last April. During a cease-fire to allow peace talks and the removal of wounded in Najaf over the weekend, a convoy of 40 trucks from Fallujah arrived, bringing food, water, and medicines to the Mahdi Army fighters.

Ghalib Yusuf al-Eisawe, a Sunni preacher from the Al Bouraq Mosque in Fallujah, told reporters, "we brought aid for the people of Najaf, we came here to express real brotherhood for the people of Najaf, and to support the people here." He also mentioned that the Fallujah police department provided protection for the convoy down to Najaf.