Why Najaf matters in post-war Iraq

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By Michael Rubin
Friday, August 27, 2010

The last U.S. brigade combat team departed Iraq on Aug. 18. While President Obama says 50,000 U.S. troops will remain there through December 2011 to train the Iraqi army, in reality the U.S. units are focused more on packing up tons of equipment. This is so, as one colonel explained to me this month, "we can shut the lights out and close the door behind us."

The State Department is now the lead agency shaping the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations. "We are fully prepared to assume our responsibilities," spokesman P.J. Crowley declared on Aug. 19. Beyond operating the largest U.S. embassy in the world, in Baghdad, U.S. diplomats will also open consulates in Iraqi Kurdistan and Basra. Missing in the post-occupation plan, however, is any permanent U.S. representation in Najaf, perhaps the most important city in the new Iraq.

Najaf is home to two holy shrines and is the center of Shiite jurisprudence, not just in Iraq but for all Muslims. Only 10 percent of the world's Muslims are Shiite, but that fraction represents more than 100 million people. Between the Mediterranean Sea and Iran, the proportion of Shiites in the Muslim population rises to 50 percent; in Iraq, because of the flight of many Sunnis after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the proportion approaches 70 percent.

Not all Shiites are the same. In Najaf, Quietist strains of Shiism dominate and advocate greater separation of mosque and state. From the Iranian city of Qom, ayatollahs promote a vision of Shiism more in line with the Islamic republic's revolutionary ideology. Freed from Saddam Hussein's yoke, religious life in Najaf is thriving. Security is no longer the problem it was in 2004. And the economy is booming. After oil, religious tourism centered in Najaf is Iraq's most important industry and brings in more hard currency than agriculture.

A new international airport ferries pilgrims -- mostly Iranian -- into Najaf. There is no better place outside Iran for diplomats to interact with ordinary Iranians across socioeconomic divides because everyone, rich or poor, wants to make a trip once prohibited by war and politics. New hotels open constantly. Diners compete for seats in the city's new restaurants. Alas, Iranian money underwrites most of the construction. Juxtaposing Najaf's construction boom with the lack of construction cranes over Baghdad's skyline says as much about Iraq's future as it does about the failure of both U.S. assistance and Iraq's central government.

As both an American official in 2004 -- when I served as a political adviser in the coalition provisional government-- and an American visitor in 2010, I was welcomed in the Shrine of Imam Ali, Najaf's holiest. In January, I visited one grand ayatollah and the offices of two others. Each said he welcomed dialogue with Americans. Indeed, Adnan Zurfi, the elected governor of Najaf, spent his exile years in Dearborn, Mich.

Nevertheless, Shiites remain uncertain about American intentions. During a February 1991 campaign stop, President George H.W. Bush famously called on "the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside." The Shiites listened and rose up, but Bush had second thoughts and remained aloof as Hussein's tanks and helicopter gunships crushed the revolt. Thousands of Shiites were cast into mass graves. Perception means more than reality. In every Shiite seminary, clergy and students asked specifically why they should ever again trust the United States after the 1991 abandonment. They accuse the White House, the State Department and the Defense Department of persistent bias.

This narrative, encouraged by Iran, is not fair to the thousands of Americans who sacrificed life and limb to give Najaf freedom in 2003 and again the following year, when U.S. troops helped rid the city of Iranian-backed militias. But the freedom enjoyed in Najaf will not matter if the United States has no diplomats permanently in Shiite Islam's Vatican City, ready to make Washington's case; America's enemies will define our legacy.

In his address to Muslims from Cairo last summer, Obama declared that he seeks "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect," and that the United States "will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron." To more than half of Iraq's population, and 90 percent of Iran's population, the president's words will remain empty unless we sustain a continued outreach to the Shiite world.

The writer is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.


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