Al-Najaf Mystery Reflects Iraqi Divisions
The official government version of what occurred in Al-Najaf was that a mysterious messianic group called the Army of Heaven was planning to attack Shi'ite pilgrims and prominent Shi'ite religious figures during the Ashura ceremonies. Authorities said they became aware of the plot through an informant just last week. The fighting, according to some Iraqi government sources, led to the deaths of 263 militants and the arrests of 502 others.
The Official Version
Iraqi officials said the group's leader, Dia Abd al-Zahra Kadim, proclaimed himself as Al-Mahdi, or the guided one. According to Shi'ite belief, the 12th imam, Muhammad al-Muhantazar, disappeared as a child and would reappear as a messianic figure, Al-Mahdi, at the end of the world to save mankind and usher in a perfect Islamic society.
Kadim and his followers were accused of planning to storm the city of Al-Najaf, seize the holy shrine of Imam Ali, declare that Al-Mahdi had returned, and assassinate senior Shi'ite clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Iraqi authorities rejected the group's claims and accused it of trying to incite unrest during Ashura, the holiest day of the Shi'ite calendar.
"The group raises false slogans, claims to be Shi'ite, and wants to rid the world of ulama [religious authorities]," Al-Najaf Deputy Governor Abd-al-Husayn Abtan told Al-Arabiyah satellite television on January 30. "In fact, it has nothing to do with religion, and its leader managed to attract a number of simple-minded people. Nevertheless, we have discovered that the organization's leaders are highly educated people and maintain links with foreign countries."
Furthermore, Abtan said that, judging by the group's fighting capabilities, its members seem to have received serious military training, an indication that it may have links with Al-Qaeda, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on January 29. He said that, like Al-Qaeda, the group included foreigners, adding that a Sudanese and a number of Afghans were arrested, while two Egyptians had escaped.
A Dissenting View
On January 30, an "Al-Zaman" report contradicted the official Iraqi government version and accused the Iraqi government of carrying out a massacre against innocent Shi'ite tribesmen.
According to the report, a procession of approximately 200 members of the Shi'ite Al-Hawatimah tribe was making its way to Karbala to participate in the Ashura festivities. The tribesmen carried signs and placards calling on Iran to stop interfering in Iraq's internal affairs. They were stopped at a checkpoint by Iraqi security forces, who subsequently killed the occupants of the lead car of the convoy.
A convoy belonging to the Al-Khaz'al tribe nearby came to the defense of the Al- Hawatimah and the fighting escalated. Iraqi forces soon felt they were outnumbered and called in for U.S. air support, claiming that they were being attacked by Al-Qaeda-linked forces. A member of the Al-Hawatimah tribe who fled the fighting told Al-Sharqiyah television on January 31 that the procession was armed only for protection.
The Al-Hawatimah and Al- Khaz'al tribes fiercely oppose the Shi'ite-led government's close ties to Iran, "The Independent" reported January 31. The tribes also oppose the two main parties comprising the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Al-Da'wah Party -- which control Al-Najaf and its security forces.
Divisions Among The Shi'a
A spokesman for the Army of Heaven, Abd al-Imam Jabbar, said the group was not involved in the battle in Al-Najaf at all and accused the government of carrying out "a propaganda campaign to discredit our group" in order to cover up the government's "crimes." "Al-Zaman" and "The Independent" also reported on January 31 that the Iraqi government had prevented journalists from talking to those wounded during the fighting.
In addition, the Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on its website on February 1 backing the claims of a massacre and called for international investigation.
"The government's side of the story that there is a group calling itself the Army of Heaven that pursues subversive goals is baseless, and the whole issue was merely an attack against Arab tribes that did not show allegiance to the current government, or to the forces and militias that stand behind it," the statement said.
While it is difficult to ascertain what actually occurred in Al-Najaf, the battle does seem to indicate that there are divisions within the Shi'ite community. Shi'ite leaders have taken pains to project an image of unity, and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani has repeatedly stressed the importance of Shi'ite unity above all else.
It may be in the best interests of the Shi'a-led government to promote the notion of an Al-Qaeda-linked Army of Heaven as the culprit in the Al-Najaf battle and a threat to Iraqi security. Doing so deflects attention from the fractious state of the Shi'ite community.
This would not be the first time Shi'a-on-Shi'a violence has taken place in Iraq. On October 19, 2006, clashes erupted between Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam al-Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades that left 25 dead and more than 160 injured in Al-Amarah. The fighting began after the Badr Brigades, the militia loyal to SCIRI, blamed the Imam al-Mahdi Army for the assassination of Qassim al-Tamini, a senior Iraqi intelligence officer and a member of the Badr Brigades.
Shi'a Or Sunni?
The suggestion that the Shi'ite community is distancing itself from the Army of Heaven was given greater credence when "The New York Times" reported on February 1 that Iraqi officials were calling into question the sectarian identity of the group's leader.
At a news conference on January 31, General Qais Hamzah al-Mamuri, chief of police for the Babil Governorate, said the leader of the group was not killed and identified him as Ahmad Ismail Katte, who also went by Ahmad bin al-Hasan al-Basri. Al-Mamuri said Katte was actually a Sunni militant who had taken control of the Army of Heaven by masquerading as a Shi'a. He claimed Katte was originally from the town of Al-Zubayr, a Sunni stronghold near Al-Basrah.
"He is a Wahabbi from a Sunni town," Hamzah said, a reference to the austere sect of Sunni Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia. "His family is Sunni, but they trained him to be Shi'a."
Iraqi officials also claimed that intelligence officers from the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had infiltrated the Army of Heaven. They stressed that Katte's hometown, Al-Zubayr, has long been considered a Ba'athist bastion.
While the Iraqi government's explanations continue to be confusing and convoluted, they are bent on portraying the Army of Heaven as a rogue force that has no links to the mainstream Shi'ite community. Accusing the group's leader of being a Sunni and linking him with the former regime is an ideal way to distance the Shi'ite organizations from the group and minimize hints that the Shi'ite community is rife with divisions.
'Hundreds' Of Militants Killed In Al-Najaf Battle
Iraqi sources report a big victory in the fighting near Al-Najaf. The losses of the Iraqi troops are reported to be minor -- three soldiers killed and 21 injured. U.S. officials say two of their troops died when a helicopter crashed, but did not confirm any of the Iraqi casualty figures.
The head of Al-Najaf governorate, Asaad Abu Gilel, told reporters that the group was well armed and equipped. "They even have antiaircraft missiles and were backed by some locals," he said.
A New Shi'ite Militia?
There is still uncertainty over the identity of the group of several hundred armed men.
Mustafa Alani, a regional expert at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, says one possibility is that the men belong to an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group. If so, they could have been in the vicinity of the Shi’ite holy city of Al-Najaf to launch attacks during celebrations of the Ashura festival.
Alani says another possibility is that the U.S. and Iraqi troops were fighting a new, messianic Shi’ite militia called the Army of Heaven:
"It is a new militia emerging from [other Shiite] militias," Alani says. "You have the Badr militia, you have the Al-Mahdi Army, and you have an [armed] group which belongs to the Al-Dawa party. Now, apparently, if this [theory] is true, we have another, fourth militia emerging now -- a [new] Shi’ite militia."
'Plans To Attack' Pilgrims
The group – which by some reports also attracts some Sunni members – aims to clear Iraq of temporal leaders in order to hasten the return of the Mahdi, a messianic figure in Islam.
Al-Najaf's governor said the group planned to attack pilgrims and assassinate Shi’ite clerics.
Authorities said the group's leader was among those killed in the fighting.
Some analysts question the high death tolls reported in the battles.
Alani says the figures may reflect a tendency by government officials to exaggerate victories.
"Since 2003 and until now, they [say] that possibly 10,000 [enemy fighters] were killed and I don't think this is the right figure," he says. "So, there is a tendency to exaggerate the number of casualties among the resistance and terrorists. It is a habit now."
There is no independent confirmation of the number of casualties in the fighting.
Domestic Security Forces Face Major Challenges
On January 28, Diyala Governate police chief Ghanim al-Qureyshi announced that 1,500 local police officers had been dismissed for fleeing when the city of Ba'qubah was attacked by Sunni insurgents last November. He added that Ba'qubah Mayor Khalid al-Sinjari had been dismissed amid suspicions that he had collaborated with Sunni insurgents.
Also, recent events in Karbala and Al-Najaf indicate that the Diyala incident could be symptomatic of a larger problem among the security forces of the post-Saddam Hussein era. A new report by two members of the Iraq Study Group, former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton and former Attorney General Edwin Meese, says the United States erred in the training of Iraqi security forces by assigning the wrong U.S. agencies to oversee the task, AP reported on January 31.
Wrong People, Wrong Approach
According to the report, Washington gave the task of reshaping the Iraqi police force to the State Department and to private contractors who "did not have the expertise or the manpower to get the job done."
Even after the Defense Department took over this training in 2004 and invested more resources, it was clear that the U.S. military did "not have the right experience or personnel to provide the unique training that the Iraqi Police Service needs."
In addition, the new report stresses that Iraq lacks competent street-level, law enforcement personnel and a functioning judicial system free of corruption. It urges that the restructuring of the largely nonfunctioning Iraqi judicial system should be in the hands of the Justice Department, while U.S. law enforcement officials should be in charge of transforming the Iraqi police.
"Long-term security depends as much on the Iraqi police and judicial system as the Iraqi Army," the report says. "Unless we help create a capable, trained professional police force, and functioning criminal justice system, ordinary Iraqis will not live in peace, and will not have confidence in their new government."
On January 31, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) Stuart Bowen released a quarterly report that found that rampant corruption and mismanagement of tens of millions of dollars in aid have severely hampered Iraq's reconstruction efforts, including the training of Iraq's security forces.
Among the issues the 579-page report highlighted were the ongoing renovation of the $72 million Baghdad Police College, which was cited in the previous quarterly SIGIR report as being plagued with construction problems, including plumbing so inadequate that sewage on the second and third floors spills over into the rest of the building.
Even after the SIGIR brought the problem to the attention of the U.S. government, problems persisted, further delaying turning the facility over to the Iraqi government.
"The Baghdad Police College construction and renovation results were not consistent with the original contract objectives," the report said. "The project was poorly designed and constructed, and the contractor and United States Army Corps of Engineers did not effectively manage the project."
Missing Weapons, Equipment
In addition, the report indicated that "$36.4 million in weapons and equipment [intended for police use and training] could not be accounted for, including armored vehicles, body armor, and communications equipment."
On January 20, armed gunmen attacked a Provincial Joint Coordination Center in the southern city of Karbala, resulting in the abductions and deaths of five U.S. soldiers. As details of the attack surfaced, U.S. officials reported that the attackers wore uniforms resembling those worn by U.S. forces and drove in vehicles commonly used by U.S. contractors.
An unnamed Iraqi official told "The New York Times" on January 31 that the attackers had also carried forged U.S. identity cards, U.S.-style M-4 rifles, and stun grenades of a kind used only by U.S. forces in Iraq.
The sophistication and coordination of the attack was unprecedented. The perpetrators passed through several layers of security before entering the military facility. Although, U.S. officials have alleged that Iranians or Iranian-trained operatives carried out the attack, the incident seemed to point to the continuing infiltration of Iraq's security forces by rogue elements.
In the past, accusations of infiltration were leveled at the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi Interior Ministry, which controls the Iraqi police. Both U.S. and Sunni-Arab officials have long accused the ministry and its security forces of being infiltrated by Shi'ite-militia elements that use the cover to carry out sectarian attacks against the Sunni-Arab population.
If the accusations that Iranians had a direct hand in carrying out the Karbala attack prove accurate, then Iran's influence within Iraq's security forces could well be much deeper than previously thought. Where Iran was formerly believed to be aiding some Shi'ite militias, it may actually be manipulating them to wage a proxy battle against the United States.
The Case Of Al-Najaf
The operation by Iraqi forces against the Army of Heaven outside the holy city of Al-Najaf on January 28, although ultimately successful, also raised serious questions about Iraq's security forces.
The mere fact that this well-equipped and, by some accounts, well-trained force was able to organize itself without attracting the attention of the Iraqi military indicates weak intelligence-gathering capabilities.
More importantly, reports on the ground indicated that Iraqi forces were nearly overwhelmed by the Army of Heaven and prevailed only with the help of U.S. air support. During a news conference after the battle ended, Al-Najaf Deputy Governor Abd al-Husayn Abtan tellingly said: "This group had more capabilities than the government."
With Iraqi and U.S. forces on the verge of launching a major military operation to secure Baghdad, the near-disastrous confrontation in Al-Najaf can hardly be seen as an optimistic indication that the Iraqi forces are adequately prepared.