Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Najaf and U.S. history

Editorial, Lewiston Sun Journal, Aug. 23:

Victory may not be possible for the United States in Najaf.Certainly, the United States is vastly superior militarily to the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which has been occupying the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf's old city.Political, cultural and religious considerations are preventing a purely military victory, and there doesn't appear to be a good outcome.

If the United States destroys the Mahdi Army, the victory could turn al-Sadr into a martyr, uniting disparate factions throughout Iraq in opposition to the United States and the interim government it supports.

If the United States doesn't destroy the militants, the possibility for future clashes is high. This is the second time U.S. forces have faced off with al-Sadr's followers. The current confrontation began Aug. 5, and signs of a possible resolution are mixed even as the fighting has intensified.

There is a striking parallel to the siege of Najaf and a battle in America's own history. We are certain some readers will find the comparison distasteful, but we believe it points to the conundrum faced by the U.S. military.

In 1836, a small band of mostly volunteers held a mission in Texas against an assault by a large Mexican force. The names from that fight are legendary: Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis and the infamous Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.More than 160 years later, the battle still lives in American lore.We still remember the Alamo even though it was a complete defeat. Between 189 and 257 defenders were killed at a huge cost to the Mexican army. The slaughter became a rallying cry for Texans battling for their independence. Movies, songs and plays have retold the story countless times, recalling the bravery and sacrifice of the volunteers.

Al-Sadr and his militia hold the center of the old city of Najaf and the Imam Ali Shrine, which is one of the holiest sites in the Shia Islam. The majority of Iraqis are Shiite and any assault on the shrine likely would come with a stiff price.

To damage the mosque, to kill al-Sadr, to drive him from the holy place could well create a Shiite call for rebellion heard throughout Iraq.To leave al-Sadr in place would be no better. His willingness to use violence and his resistance to the interim government and to the United States make it impossible to integrate his most committed followers into a legitimate political process.

Ideally, Iraqis should lead the confrontation with al-Sadr or find a political solution that would end the standoff. So far, they have been unable or unwilling to do either.

As U.S. soldiers and Marines continue their struggle with al-Sadr, military and political leaders would be well-advised to hear the battle cry from 1836: "Remember the Alamo."


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