Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Najaf settling of accounts, or a glorious battle ?

If you have to use these classifications, then Azzaman is not a Shiite paper, it is a Sunni paper, with no particular vested interest in intra-Shiite politics. This morning Azzaman prints an account of the recent Najaf events that suggests a pattern of misinformation emanating from Najaf, and embellished by others.

(1) Who were the "Army of Heaven". Azzaman describes the group in question as an unknown group, followers of Ahmad al-Hasan, who called himself "al-Yemeni" and "Ali bin Ali bin Abi Talib", the latter name connecting him to the fourth of the rightly-guided Caliphs, and his followers thought of him as the Twelfth Imam or Mahdi. The newspaper says this group had established a colony on rural properties that the leader had purchased in the Najaf area, and this colony was surrounded by sand berms. His followers lived there with their wives and children, and the population was perhaps around 600. All of this Azzaman reports based on local witnesses.

(2) Local politics. The district of Al-Zarka, where this colony was located, was not submissive to the influence of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), or of the Dawa Party either, and for that reason a view of them was taken [by the Najaf authorities] that looked askance at them because of a suspicion of closeness to the Shiite authority Hassan al-Sarkhi of Baghdad. This is from a local source, who added: "The question was a question of loyalty".

Let's pause right there. Al-Sarkhi and his group are one of the three branches of those who pledge loyalty to Moqtada's father (the other two are Moqtada's group itself, and the Fadhila-party group whose spiritual leader is Mohammad al-Yaqubi). Al-Sarkhi's group is the only one of the three that is outside the political process, and of the three it is the most inimical to the Najaf authorities. And the group in question had established itself in a neighborhood that stood outside the Shiia (SCIRI-Dawa) political establishment. So to the Najaf authorities and their allies in local government, Al-Sarkhi would be the logical PR target when bad things happen, particularly in that neighborhood. This would account for the early news reports that this was Al-Sarkhi's group, and also for the completely unsubstantiated reports about significant "foreign-fighter" involvement, Baathist support, and so on. Juan Cole went further and actually conflated the two people (Al-Sarkhi and Ahmad al-Hasan) into the same person, by combining their names into a fictitious "Ayatollah Ahmad al-Hasani al-Sarkhi, called al-Yamani", and then our Shiia expert goes on to amplify the mistake by saying: "It seems most likely that the Mahdawiya is the sect of Sheikh Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi and that al-Basri was the founder of the sect". All of this misinformation was presumably part of the Shiia establishment's having taken this opportunity to bad-mouth their enemy Al-Sarkhi, even though he was completely unconnected with this.

(3) The Najaf governor's story (which has become embellished in the NYT story): Azzaman reports: "Local people in Al-Zarka expressed skepticism, in conversations with Azzaman, about the story put out by the governor of Najaf Saad abu-Kalal [about an attack or planned attacks by this group]. They said the fight occurred because of behavior by the police in preventing the people from entering a particular place in the procession. And Wail Abdulhadi, a Najaf person, said this was "clearly a fight between different schools of thought respecting Shiite ijtihad [interpretation of holy scriptures], and you can see the effects of that here on the ground".

So there you have it, for the moment anyway. Was this was a Najaf settling of accounts involving the bombing of a colony of 600 people including women and children located on politically unfriendly territory, hoping only to participate in the Ashura processions? Or was it, as the NYT says, a defence by US and Iraqi forces against a well-armed military establishment? The early misidentification of this group with that of Najaf's public enemy # 1 al-Sarkhi and the Baath connections and so on, suggests a pattern: Misinformation from Najaf and the government, with amplification by Cole, the NYT and others. Then there is the fact that the NYT studiously avoided talking to any local people at for its report this morning, limiting itself to Iraqi and US authorities, and one unnamed individual who is clearly part of the Najaf establishment.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a dreadful feeling, Badger, that US airpower and ground troops have been used by the Badr militia (in Najaf, aka the Iraqi Army) to destroy their own enemies.

9:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no understanding of what is going on as the entire pattern of the divisions or sects within Islam is beyond me. However, it looks like you have been doing some real digging, Badger, something the NYT and Cole seem unwilling to do. It is appreciated.

I hope this merely means that NYT and Cole are just lazy and are not deliberately helping to spread misinformation.

Believe me, the jury is still out in the case of the NYT. My suspicions are high. This is far from the first time the Times has acted as the primary conduit for government disinformation in our country.

11:10 AM  
Blogger badger said...

Judith, I have exactly the same feeling

Rosemary, Don't you think it is a consistent pattern that those who are damaged by Cole's "lapses" are those who, at any given time, are the enemies of the SCIRI/Dawa Najaf establishment, and of the government they control ?

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