Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Iraq 4 - Portugal 2; Sadr 1 - United States 0"

By Rannie Amiri

The hearts of millions of Iraqis the world over were in two entirely different places Thursday night. One was Pampeloponnisiako Stadium in Patras, Greece and the other was Najaf al-Ashraf in Iraq. A more schizophrenic state-of-mind would have been hard to come by that day.

Jubilation coupled with joyful disbelief greeted Iraqis following the spectacular 4-2 upset victory of their soccer team over heavily favored Portugal in the first round of Olympic play (which made their own-goal quite less embarrassing). While much commentary involved reminding people of the sadistic punishments Udai Hussain once meted out on Iraqi athletes, the Iraqi fans were just happy to finally have something for which to cheer rather than protest. And nothing evokes national pride and celebration more than the triumph of one's underdog soccer team.

In another dimension, yet probably within earshot of many watching the match, was the siege of Najaf launched by American marines and a contingent of Iraqi "forces." Their objective was to oust the embattled Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army from the Imam Ali Mosque/Shrine and the adjacent massive Wadi as-Salaam cemetery. Nearly all of the so-called military/terrorism/Middle East experts seen on the cable news shows were claiming Sadr was firing on American troops from the mosque itself. They spoke with an air of self-assurance no less, as if the significance of the Imam Ali Mosque, the beliefs of Muqtada al-Sadr, and the complex history and plight of Iraq's Shi'a were always known to them (despite still mispronouncing the name of the country).

A quiet, polite, soft-spoken Iraqi cleric fluent in English representing the Sadr camp was interviewed on CNN. The validity of his claim that no one was firing from the mosque notwithstanding, the manner in which he was interviewed and rudely interrupted was most insulting and degrading. One had the feeling that the hosts of these shows wanted to ask their "experts" what would be wrong with just dropping a bomb on the shrine compound and be done with the whole affair?

Various clashes occurred in multiple cities in the south including Basra, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah and Amarah, but there were no credible reports on the loss of life which occurred during the siege of Najaf. In a mighty show of force, U.S. marines were shown ransacking Sadr's empty home, making it much easier to film I suppose. There were accounts that Sadr himself was injured in the overnight fighting, suffering shrapnel wounds to his chest and leg. Iraqi government officials, no where near the fighting, somehow felt confident enough to deny these claims.

Remarkably by morning, all was quiet in Najaf. At the time of this writing, a temporary truce between the parties was in place and talks underway between Sadr aides and the government.

So, in summary for August 12:

The military offensive stopped, the Imam Ali shrine was not raided, Sadr survived and his popularity enhanced among some Iraqis, less so among others. The Iraqi Olympic Soccer team earned a great victory over Portugal, the United States reinforced its image as an occupying power with Allawi as its puppet, and the Mahdi Army lived to fight another day. It may have been Muqtada al-Sadr who earned a Purple Heart, but it was Najaf that bled.

[Rannie Amiri is an independent observer, commentator, and exponent of issues dealing with the Arab and Islamic worlds.]
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Printed in on Friday,August 13,2004


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