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Analysis

An Accord for Now, But Risks Ahead

By Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 28, 2004; Page A01

The Najaf deal may bring short-term peace to the ravaged holy city after three weeks of urban warfare, but the cease-fire terms could pose a long-term danger to U.S. troops and interests in Iraq, U.S. officials and Middle East experts said yesterday. The issues underlying the bloody showdown have not been resolved, they warned.

Rebel cleric Moqtada Sadr is free and capable of rallying his dispersed forces in other Shiite strongholds, many of which are already political cauldrons. The goal of dismantling all Iraq's illegal militias -- with Sadr's Mahdi Army as the test case -- remains elusive for a vulnerable new government struggling to assert centralized control. And the United States has been stuck with the bill for damage to Najaf as part of the deal, the officials and experts said.


U.S. Army soldiers await orders in an outpost in Najaf, Iraq, after militiamen loyal to cleric Moqtada Sadr who had been holed up in the city's Imam Ali shrine turned over the keys to the holy site. (Jim Macmillan -- AP)

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U.S. military strategy has also suffered a blow, particularly since Najaf is the third confrontation in five months in which Iraqi insurgents fought American troops until they began to take losses, then agreed to a cease-fire so their fighters could rest and regroup. The fear is that Iraqis now believe they can pick the time and place of their attacks and then beat a safe retreat.

"What we will see here is that the Mahdi Army will just rearm, recruit a new group of fighters and move to another city," said retired Marine Lt. Col. Rick Raftery, an intelligence officer who served in Iraq. "We'll be playing 'whack-a-mole' somewhere else shortly."

The United States yesterday lauded aspects of the deal, brokered by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most powerful cleric. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Sadr suffered a serious blow to his Mahdi Army. "Frankly, they took huge losses over the last several weeks, and I think their capability was diminished," he said yesterday in a radio interview on "The Tony Snow Show." "What's more important to take a look at now is how the new Iraqi interim government has started to show leadership and potential in working with the Ayatollah Sistani to resolve the situation in Najaf."

Two months after the U.S.-led occupation ended, the Bush administration is hoping that Iraq's Shiite majority will become disillusioned with Sadr's ruthless tactics, dissipating the momentum behind his crusade against both the United States and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

"His fighters might be wondering what they got out of three weeks of bloodshed," said a senior State Department official.

Yet Sadr, who seeks to create a religious regime in Baghdad, is also a proven political survivor who could fight again soon, U.S. officials and experts noted. "For Moqtada, it is a wash. He did not have Najaf until April anyway and can easily survive not having it. His movement in the slums of the southern cities is intact, even if its paramilitary has been weakened," Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan, said in an analysis on his Web site.

There is also no sign that the U.S.-backed government intends to act on an arrest warrant for murder issued last year against Sadr in the assassination of a moderate cleric. Powell noted that the indictment has not been lifted, but he added: "Right now, we're not pursuing that. Right now, we're pursuing stability in Najaf."

Conversely, the United States and its Iraqi allies did not win a great deal, either tactically or politically, even though Sadr returned control of the revered Najaf shrine, said some U.S. officials and several experts on Iraq.

"The U.S. has rolled the rock up the edge of a decisive military engagement, only to see it roll back down the mountain," Anthony H. Cordesman said in an analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Sadr will be perceived by many Iraqis as the victor and Sistani as the man who had to rush to deal with Sadr in the face of a weak Iraqi interim government whose leaders threatened and blustered and then could not act."

Allawi also lost some ground, experts noted. U.S. officials said Allawi would have preferred to go in and clean out Sadr's militia, which became difficult once Sistani returned from medical treatment in London to mediate an end to the crisis. Sistani may be the lone clear winner to emerge from the settlement, they added.

The particulars of the Najaf deal are especially troubling to U.S. military strategists. It calls for the U.S. military and anti-U.S. militias to stay out of the city. The provision will have a disproportionate impact on U.S. forces, which tend to move in large, visible units whereas militiamen can simply take a minibus in and out of the city.

The stop-and-start pattern of the fighting is beginning to irritate some soldiers. "I can tell you that I have witnessed the frustration" that the situation creates, said one Army officer who has operated near Najaf. "Military commanders still plan missions the way they always have, only to have those plans frustrated by local political decisions over which they often have little influence."

Not every officer interviewed was negative about the outcome in Najaf. One U.S. Army commander in Iraq argued that it was a successful solution for the United States compared with Fallujah. "In Fallujah we negotiated from a position of weakness," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he had not been cleared to be interviewed, "and there was no Iraqi government to make decisions."

By contrast, he said, the handling of Najaf was dictated by the Iraqi government, and the United States operated from a position of strength. "Clearly Sadr's army was beaten, his remnants had retreated to conduct a glorious last stand for martyrdom and were denied that opportunity," this officer said.

U.S. officials have long argued that the solution to the Sadr problem has to originate with Iraqis. Their calculation is that the U.S. position in Iraq would not be helped by having U.S. troops kill the rebel cleric. "At some point the Iraqis themselves will take Sadr out -- like the Colombians taking out drug lords with U.S. in the background," said a Pentagon official who would speak only anonymously because he is not supposed to have contact with the media.

Najaf is hardly the only problem area facing U.S. commanders in Iraq. Less noticed during the Najaf battles have been ongoing clashes in several areas closer to the capital. U.S. warplanes have repeatedly hit Fallujah, where the Marines pulled back after another brokered settlement in the spring. North of Baghdad, the Army has all but withdrawn from Samarra, another Sunni Triangle hot spot. Fighting also continues in Baqubah.

"Currently, the insurgents are in charge of both Fallujah and Samarra," said a senior Army commander in Iraq. "The status quo in Samarra is unacceptable, and the final outcome is still in question."

But, this officer noted, one of the signs for optimism amid the recent turmoil was that Sadr's recent confrontation with U.S. forces appeared to draw less support across Shiite areas of Iraq than during the April uprising, which led to widespread combat across a broad swath of south-central Iraq.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company