The faith-based compromise that has brought an apparent end to three weeks of bitter fighting around the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf should also bring thunderous sighs of relief from the Bush White House and its chosen blunt instrument of governance in Iraq, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
They have escaped immediate disaster and achieved some temporary advances in practicing joint crisis management. That is not nothing -- especially coming as President Bush prepares to stride to the convention hall podium in New York this week to defend his policies.
But the tactical gains that Allawi registered in burnishing his strongman image on the backs of U.S. combat troops also carry strategic costs that can quickly undercut his government and U.S. national interests in Iraq. He has leaped from a burning deck into a troubled sea.
In the siege's final days, Allawi and the American commanders who said they were following his orders -- exactly where Allawi fits into the U.S. chain of command was not explained -- acted as if they were prepared to destroy Najaf's historical center to save it. That grim impression will stick as scenes of the destruction in Najaf's neighborhoods are played endlessly on Arab satellite television and embroidered by the networks' propagandists.
More crucially, the enormously destructive U.S.-conducted assault on a small rebel Shiite militia that had seized the shrine seemed disconnected from the need to deal with the continuing security challenges in Fallujah and other Sunni heartland towns, where die-hard Baathists and terrorists have dug in with Allawi's acquiescence.
Finally, the siege ends with another result that may well intensify separatist sentiment among the Shiite majority of southern Iraq: The author of the Najaf compromise -- and clear political winner of the Najaf battle -- is not Allawi. It is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
By striking an agreement with the rebel cleric Moqtada Sadr and then in effect imposing it on Allawi's government, Sistani enhanced his already considerable political authority at Baghdad's expense. Sistani acted in extremis and to preserve his role as custodian of the shrine. In doing so, he set himself far above Allawi as the arbiter and moral voice of Iraq's destiny.
The ayatollah also rescued Sadr, who does not emerge from this confrontation as a broken force. Sistani treated Sadr as a significant, if totally disruptive and disreputable, figure within the Shiite movement and showed faith in him by accepting his promises to behave.
Once again Sadr, whose national popularity soared as he defied the Americans, lives to regroup and fight again another day -- but in another place, I would guess. He can probably recruit replacements for the hundreds of thugs that U.S. forces killed while losing 11 Americans in combat.
Allawi's publicized role in telling U.S. commanders when to start and stop attacks has helped Bush deflect political responsibility for the risks that U.S. soldiers took. But it also has blurred who is responsible for what in nominally sovereign Iraq, which is supposed to be moving toward national elections in January. This leaves Iraqis -- and Americans -- confused about U.S. intentions, responsibilities and strategy.
For a quasi-occupying power, as the United States is in Iraq today, the worst of all worlds is to have put in place a local regime that the outside power must support at all costs but does not control.
There were flashes of that worst-case scenario in the assault, as the governor and police chief of Najaf kept pouring oil on the fire and drawing U.S. forces deeper into confrontation. Their repeated ugly threats and brief detention of Arab and Western journalists in Najaf also suggested the difficulties that Iraq will face in trying to hold free and democratic elections five months from now.
The timing of the assault -- apparently driven by the Najaf authorities more than anyone else -- totally eclipsed the national convention in Baghdad that was to choose a supervisory council as an important step toward the January elections. The 100 Iraqis named to the council include relatively few people from the main Shiite cities of southern Iraq and, in the view of a number of independent observers, are largely unrepresentative.
But it is significant that Sistani did not challenge or criticize the Baghdad government or U.S. actions in Najaf. He is not prepared to insult the future, or the president of the United States.
When Bush on Thursday night reels off the names of those who have helped this convention week be a self-declared success for him, he should remember to include a bearded 73-year-old Iranian-born ayatollah near the top of the list.