After the compromise at Najaf – what future for the Iraqi resistance movement?

After three weeks of fighting the moderate Shia Islamic leader, Ali al-Sistani, has intervened and brokered a compromise in Najaf. However, no long term solution can be provided by such manoeuvres. Today they may "pacify" Najaf, but the fighting will erupt again in the future. Only if the working class gives a lead to the resistance can a final solution be found. By Fred Weston (August 27, 2004)

Yesterday the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani managed to broker a deal which may put an end to the conflict that has been going on in Najaf for over three weeks. Al-Sistani suddenly rushed back to Iraq on Wednesday after having spent the last three weeks in London for medical treatment and had remained there throughout the present crisis, remaining silent throughout. As a result his popularity was beginning to decline and Muqtada al-Sadr leading the fighting in Najaf was growing more popular as each day passed.

The situation was becoming critical. The longer the conflict in Najaf went on the more the Allawi interim government was becoming discredited. And it was either a case of leaving control of Najaf to al-Sadr or sending in the troops to crush the rebellion. The US forces seemed determined to crush al-Sadr’s militia, but at the same time, throughout the crisis, they had been terrified of causing damage to the shrine as this would have sparked off even greater resentment among all Muslims.

But on Tuesday of this week this is precisely what happened. A US aircraft launched one of the fiercest assaults on the Shia militants holed up in the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. According to some reports shrapnel from the attack hit the shrine's golden dome, one of its minarets and the compound's outer wall. Now there is a gaping hole in the dome. The Americans tried to claim that the damage was done by the Shia militia inside the mosque. This is a crude attempt on the part of the US military to divert attention away from themselves and to avoid further anger on the part of the Iraqi masses. The masses do not believe this crude lie and they see the attack as desecration of one of the holiest Islamic sites. It will only serve to enrage further the local population and strengthen their determination to oust the occupying forces.

The Americans had stated that their plan was to remove the militiamen supporting the Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr from the rest of Najaf and then leave the actual taking of the mosque to Iraqi forces. This would have been easier said than done. In a similar situation last April many of the Iraqi police deserted rather than fight their own countrymen. Some even went over to Sadr’s “Mahdi Army”. Similar scenes were witnessed during this crisis. Officials in the Ministry of Defence recently announced that 100 Iraqi soldiers and national guards had refused to fight the Mahdi Army. A whole battalion in Najaf abandoned their weapons and refused to fight.

This shows that the Americans can only really count on their own forces. Although they have tried to build some kind of Iraqi police force, they cannot count on this to do any serious fighting against Iraqi insurgents. They are not willing to fight against their own countrymen. This highlights what we have already explained before: there is no such thing as Iraqi sovereignty. The state in the last analysis is armed bodies of men, as old Engels explained long ago. In Iraq the armed bodies of men are American!

It is farcical to think that it was the Iraqi government that ordered the Americans to attack the militiamen holed up in the shrine in Najaf. It would be truer to say that the Americans ordered the government to order them to go in. That way it looked very nice for international public opinion. The Americans could hide behind the fig leaf of “serving the Iraqi government”, rather than presenting themselves as openly imperialist oppressors. However, not even a child of six would believe such propaganda.

The problem is that such a scenario would have set the whole of Iraq on fire. Instead of pacifying and stabilising the country it would have made things even worse for the Allawi government and US imperialism. They thus turned to al-Sistani for help.

Already, before his return, al-Sistani was clearly collaborating with the interim government and their imperialist backers. His staying away from Iraq for so long, while the fighting in Najaf and other towns was going on, was seen as a way of giving the Allawi government and the US a free hand in dealing with the insurgents in the Imam Ali mosque. But brute force alone could not solve the crisis. Al-Sistani had to come back in person.

The importance of the Imam Ali shrine

The Imam Ali mosque is the holiest in Shia Islam, and whoever controls it also controls Iraq’s Shia population. During the absence of al-Sistani, al-Sadr’s popularity had grown. Al-Sadr was seen as having stood his ground and resisted the imperialists, while al-Sistani was seen as having abandoned Najaf. He therefore hurried back to try and regain control of the situation, and maintain his authority. The fact that on Wednesday the Allawi government issued a statement full of praise for al-Sistani, shows what they were expecting from him.

Contrary to what many may think, the Islamic clergy could not be too happy with the situation as it was developing. This clergy is part of the privileged elite, even though some of them had bad relations with the Saddam Hussein regime. They want a movement that they can control, not a movement that comes from below and starts to dictate to the clergy what it should be doing.

Al-Sistani, in spite of his collaboration with imperialism, has for some time been Iraq’s most popular figure. He is at the top of the hierarchy of Ayatollahs in Iraq, the highest religious authority, and therefore still has a big influence over the Shia population. He is also considered a moderate, and with his large influence over the Shias is seen as a key element in the process of pacification of the country. This means that in spite of any rhetoric, he is de facto collaborating with the government and therefore with the Americans. This explains why the more radical sounding al-Sadr has started to grow in popularity.

What we are witnessing is a struggle within the Shia clergy for control. This conflict is a real one that involves mass forces. Yesterday al-Sistani led hundreds of thousands of his followers to the holy city of Najaf and to the Imam Ali mosque. It was a show of strength intended as a means of getting al-Sadr to call off his militia. Al-Sistani has now managed to patch together this compromise. This seems to have put an end to the present fighting in Najaf, although fighting in other towns, such as Kufa still seems to be continuing.

One of the key conditions the government was demanding, that the Mahdi Army disarms, has also been accepted by al-Sadr. Al-Sadr has agreed to evacuate the mosque and in exchange for this will be given some political role. But the militia, the Mahdi Army, is refusing to disband. Thus although the present crisis in Najaf may have been defused for now, the underlying problem will not go away.

The recent escalation of the armed conflict between resistance fighters in Iraq and the occupying forces that started at the beginning of August and the scale of the violence highlights the enormous difficulties that US imperialism is facing in its attempt to “pacify” and establish some form of rule over the country.

Let us recall that the fighting was not isolated to Najaf. During the month of August there has been intense fighting in the district of Sadr City in Baghdad, as well as in Basra in the south, Nassiriya, and Samarra to the north of Baghdad, and other towns. The fighting has involved both Sunni and Shia communities. Thus it was not in any way a conflict between Iraqis; it was and remains a struggle against the imperialist aggressor.

The extent of the fighting is shown by the fact that hundreds of militiamen and civilians have been killed. This is not surprising considering that the US forces have used F16 bombers, AC130s and Apache helicopters to bomb and shoot the far less equipped and less trained militiamen. Militarily it is a fight between David and Goliath. But in spite of their overwhelming firepower the US army, and its allies, were facing an extremely difficult position. This is explained by the fact that they are trying to hold down a whole people that does not want them there.

A whole people, once mobilised cannot be held down by brute force alone. That is why they have had to retreat from an open armed conflict to take the mosque and instead have had to use the services of the moderate wing of the Islamic clergy. This is not a good position to be in. So long as this wing has sway over the majority then an unstable equilibrium can be maintained. But the masses will support al-Sistani only so long as they believe he has the best solutions to the present crisis. But by collaborating with the government and imperialism there will be no long lasting solution to the problems the Iraqi people are facing, and therefore the situation will not hold for ever. The masses will move again.

The stand off of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in and around the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, will remain as a symbol. It had become a focal point for all the fighters across Iraq. For three weeks they held back the US troops. Now al-Sadr has accepted the deal brokered by al-Sistani. He can claim to have fought the imperialists, but that in the face of the greater authority of Islam he could not continue. He can say he could not fight his Muslim brothers. In that sense al-Sadr, although forced to compromise, comes out of this stronger. He has put down a marker for the future.


Cartoon that appeared in the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in Iraq. - From right to 1) an American bomb is dropped. 2) it makes a trench in the ground. 3) A militiaman uses the trench to launch attacks on the Americans.

The nature of Muqtada al-Sadr

Whatever the outcome today in Najaf, the fact remains that the people of Iraq desire self-rule. They want the imperialists out. The tragedy of the situation is that the Iraqi labour movement – due to the limitations mainly of the leadership of the two largest Communist Parties, the Communist Party of Iraq and the Communist Workers’ Party of Iraq – is not leading the resistance movement. For a more detailed analysis of this question we would refer our readers to our previous article, What role for the Iraqi working class in the resistance movement?But the Iraqi people, the poorest layers of society especially, cannot wait for the leaders of the left to assume their rightful role and therefore they turn to the only other seriously organised force, the Islamic clergy.

However, herein lies a contradiction between the aspirations of the poor masses and the reactionary nature of the Islamic clergy, even its more radical wing. Muqtada al-Sadr is one of the more radical of such leaders. His base of support comes from the poorest layers of society, the “have-nots” as some bourgeois commentators like to call them. In Iraq these “have-nots” are counted in their millions. The Baghdad slum of Sadr City is an example of the kind of power base Sadr has. So too is the town of Kufa, near Najaf.

Al-Sadr on more than one occasion – even before the intervention of al-Sistani - has shown himself willing to transform his Mahdi Army into a political movement, a political party, and take part in the attempt to stabilise the country. This in fact is one of the demands that the government has posed, together with its call for the Mahdi Army to be disarmed. But Sadr has always insisted that he would be prepared to go down this road as long as the other political forces also demand that the US-led forces be removed from Iraqi soil.

Here too we see the dilemma of the present Allawi government. It could do with support from leaders such as al-Sadr. He has a base within some of the most downtrodden layers of society, something that the government definitely lacks. But he has this base so long as he is seen to be opposing the occupation of Iraq. If he were to openly go over to the government he would begin to lose that support. The circle cannot be squared!

It is ironic that Sadr's movement initially did not start as an armed group. It was formed as a kind of political-social welfare body. It started as a network to help the poor and was structured around the Shiite mosques in the poor areas of Baghdad and other cities. At the same time, however, it campaigned consistently against the presence of foreign troops in Iraq. It published a weekly journal but this was banned on March 28. Only then did this movement take up the armed struggle. The Americans did this in spite of the fact that the paper only had a limited circulation of some 20,000 copies.

The Americans were not prepared to tolerate any form of opposition to their occupation of Iraq. Even up until a few days ago, as the “government” was attempting some form of compromise in Najaf, the Americans indicated that they were not interested. They wanted to crush al-Sadr’s movement. The problem for the Americans was that the movement in Najaf was not – and is not – controlled solely by one man. Al-Sadr both leads and is led at the same time. A quote from the British journal, The Economist (August 14, 2004) gives us an idea of the relationship between al-Sadr and his followers:

“At first, the government prodded Mr Sadr to distance himself from the uprising. ‘We don't think the people who are committing the crimes in Najaf and elsewhere are [Mr Sadr's] people,’ said the prime minister on August 7th, before visiting Najaf. He may have been encouraged by signs that Mr Sadr was growing impatient with his followers' radicalism. When congregants interrupted a recent Friday sermon with chants denouncing the government, he called them ‘ignoramuses’. But within days, the young firebrand was blazing away again. On August 10th, he vowed to fight until the ‘last drop of my blood’. The next day, he urged his followers to carry on even after his death.”

Again a few days later, on August 18, al-Sadr seemed to have accepted the conditions that had been laid down by representatives of the National Conference (a body that had gathered over one thousand delegates to set up an interim parliament). The problem was that these conditions involved the complete surrender of the insurgents. They involved an end to the rebellion, the evacuation of the Imam Ali mosque and, most importantly, the disbandment of the Mahdi Army militia. In return they were being offered the prospect of becoming purely a political movement. It is clear that what has been achieved now is an attempt to win al-Sadr to a position of cooperation with the new government. The problem is that that would mean very little for the impoverished masses. That may explain why the fighting on the ground continued for a further ten days, and has still not completely died down. In June another ceasefire was declared by al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, but two months later it had collapsed again, and the fighting resumed.

This shows that the existence of the Mahdi Army is not the creation of one man. It is an objective necessity of the poor masses that make it up. Their daily living conditions are unbearable. The Mahdi Army instead of being weakened by the US onslaught was being strengthened. There is in fact no lack of volunteers for the Mahdi Army. The huge numbers of unemployed workers and youth of Iraq provide the new recruits for the resistance.

Shias and Sunnis coming together

Another effect of the stand off in Najaf was to bring together the Shia and the Sunni resistance groups. The heavy handedness of the US military, instead of weakening the resistance, has been strengthening it by the day. It has also been bringing together the disparate resistance groups. The banning of al-Sadr’s newspaper is one example of this stupid heavy-handedness. The problem is that this behaviour is not the product of mere stupidity on the part of the Americans, although this can play a role. The contradictions between the desires and wishes of the Iraqi masses and the plans of US imperialism are too big to allow for any serious long lasting compromise. The masses want self-rule as a means of getting jobs, decent wages, housing, clean water and so on. The US imperialists – and their local lackeys – want control of the oil industry, big profits for their own companies operating in Iraq, and military bases as a means of defending their overall interests throughout the region.

Another example of the spreading of the resistance movement comes from the city of Samarra. There the Islamic clergy earlier this month asked young people to join the Hadi Army (this is in reference to Imam Ali al-Hadi, who is buried in Samarra). This army was to be attached to the Mahdi Army in Najaf. Thus the insistence on the part of the Allawi government and the US forces to solve the crisis by purely military means was pushing many Iraqis to join the resistance, and it was bringing together what were previously divided fighting groups. Also, the Fallujah experience had not escaped the attention of the people in Najaf. The failure to take control of Fallujah back in April strengthened the resolve of the Iraqi people in other towns.

We have several other examples of the coming together of the Sunni and Shia resistance movements. As one former Iraqi security officer, a Sunni, involved in the defence of Sadr City in Baghdad, pointed out, "There is no difference between Sunni or Shia. We don't defend just Sadr City, we defend all Iraq." Other reports reveal that Sunni fighters from Fallujah, who seem to have greater experience and military expertise than those in Najaf, have been providing the Shia fighters with training. Sunni communities have also been providing the Shias with supplies of food and medicine. One convoy of trucks moving from Fallujah to Najaf was seen with banners declaring “Aid from Fallujah to the mujahideen brothers in Najaf”.

This is all very paradoxical for the Americans. In the early days of the occupation the picture they were trying to present to us was one of a Shia population glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein and prepared to collaborate with the occupying forces. The Shias were an oppressed section of the population that had suffered under Saddam Hussein, and being 60% of the overall population, it would seem that this would be a good base for the Americans to lean on. Instead, we have seen some of the most severe resistance coming precisely from this section of the population.

It is not difficult to see why this is so. The Iraqi Shias need jobs, housing, clean water, electricity, food. Without any of this all talk of “freedom” means very little. Their situation is one of being forced to live in poverty, in even worse conditions than before the fall of Saddam Hussein, while at the same time a foreign army of occupation is de facto running their country and guaranteeing the continuation of these conditions. Therefore Iraqis, Shias and Sunnis, are uniting in a common struggle, a struggle of national liberation.

The weakness of the Allawi government

Against this growing resistance and coming together of the different armed groups we have in stark contrast the position of the Allawi government. This so-called Iraqi government has no power. Without the US troops it would fall tomorrow morning.

On August 15, while all the fighting was going on, 1300 delegates gathered for the so-called National Congress. This is a body that is supposed to set up a 100-member interim “parliament”. This is an unelected body, where 19 of the 100 seats would be reserved for the former Governing Council members, i.e. handpicked stooges of imperialism. The other 81 would go to whichever coalition of parties wins a series of run-off votes. In reality this would mean giving control to those parties that have proved themselves to be ready to collaborate with US imperialism, the same parties that were involved in the Governing Council. This interim parliament would formally have the power to overrule the government. All this is part of an attempt to stop power slipping out of the hands of imperialism’s local stooges.

The government has in reality given up any serious attempt to control the local areas directly. Real power is not in the hands of the government. There are two powers. One is made up of the armies of occupation; the other is made up of the local militias, mainly under the control of either Sunni or Shia clergy. In many areas the newly formed “Iraqi police” can only operate if they collaborate with the militias. The truth is – and this has been demonstrated many times – the police actually sympathise for the resistance fighters.

The Iraqi prime minister, Allawi, ever since he came into office has been having difficulties in getting many Sunni towns, such as Fallujah, to recognise the authority of his government. Back in April, before “handing over power”, the US forces tried to bring under control the Sunni town of Fallujah. The resistance was so ferocious that it led to a bloodbath. The result was the same as now. It united the various resistance groups in Iraq against the occupying forces. So much so that the Americans were forced to withdraw without having achieved their aims.

The situation in Najaf today has many similarities with that of Fallujah. The Americans were facing a dilemma. If they did not crush al-Sadr’s forces then, as in Fallujah, they would have given a clear indication of their own weakness and this would have encouraged more resistance. If they had decided to go in and crush them, then this would also have provoked a huge backlash.

This dilemma explains why in the end they called on the services of al-Sistani! But as we said, they can achieve temporary, unstable compromises, but they cannot resolve the basic underlying contradictions. Conflicts such as those we have witnessed in Najaf this month, and in Fallujah earlier this year, are bound to erupt again.

The masses that are still prepared to listen to al-Sistani will be expecting some concrete results from the compromise. But these will not come.

Thus whatever the imperialists do, their actions will lead only to one thing: a stiffening and a spreading of the Iraqi resistance over a period. The Brookings Institution, based in Washington, recently calculated that over the last several months the number of Iraqi resistance fighters has increased from around 5,000 to 20,000. That figure is destined to keep on growing.


Another cartoon from Asharq al-Awsat. Uncle Sam is in a cage called "Iraq". In his hand he holds a sign that says "We are working on liberating you”

Potential for a revolutionary movement

The situation that is developing in Iraq is potentially a revolutionary one. Wages are very low, inflation is high, there are large numbers of unemployed and the general infrastructure has been severely damaged. We reported on developments within the Iraqi labour movement earlier this week. (See again What role for the Iraqi working class in the resistance movement?).

However, the protest movement is not isolated merely to the question of jobs and wages. There are constant power cuts. There is no guaranteed water supply in many areas. At the beginning of August, before the present conflict erupted in Najaf, the local population seized the power station in protest against the repeated power cuts. The police announced a curfew from 11pm to 6am in response to this. Muqtada al-Sadr took up the question in his sermon, announcing that if things continued to be bad then the Hawza, the religious authority, would take over some of the government service offices.


Cartoon from the Al-Sabah al-Jadeed newspaper. A man and his son are digging for water. The son shouts up to his father, "Father, I found petroleum!". His father replies "Leave it. We want water". This highlights the lack of good water supply. Water is actually more expensive than petroleum, but much more necessary to survive.

Thus we can see how the Islamic clergy is filling a vacuum. It is taking up the genuine concerns of the masses, such as water and electricity, and giving at least some voice to the ordinary working people of Iraq. This also explains their enormous ability to mobilise the masses. On August 13th in Sadr City, the huge slum on the outskirts of Baghdad, militiamen of the Mahdi Army went out onto the streets with cars and loudspeakers, calling on the people to congregate outside the government building in Baghdad. Within just a few minutes a sea of men, women and children started to move towards the centre of Baghdad. According to eyewitness reports the demonstration stretched back two kilometres. And again, we see the behaviour of the Iraqi police. Some of them joined the demonstration, while others held up pictures of Muqtada al-Sadr to the applause of the demonstrators passing by. In the town of Amara at the beginning of August, the people there organised a demonstration, organised by the supporters of al-Sadr, calling for the local council to resign.

All this shows that there is widespread discontent among the population and that there is huge potential for the development of a mass movement both against the government and the foreign armies of occupation.

Duty of the Labour Movement

At the moment, due to any other credible alternative, the genuine grievances of the masses are being voiced by the Islamic clergy. But as we have seen, this clergy cannot be counted on to lead a genuine liberation movement. While they make radical sounding speeches they also negotiate with the government and their imperialist backers. It is clear that al-Sistani has played an important role for the Americans and the Allawi government in getting the situation back under control. However, even al-Sadr blows hot and cold. He has to make more radical statements because he is directly under the pressure of the poorer layers of society, but he too is prepared to betray the movement.

With such a leadership, the resistance movement has no clear guidance or strategy. It erupts here and there under the pressure of the masses. For now a significant layer of the population only gives passive support to this resistance. In fact the more serious strategists of US imperialism are worried about how this resistance movement could develop.

Back in April Professor Ahmed Hashim - of the strategic research department of the US Naval War College speaking to the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, had the following to say:

“The violence in Iraq is not conducted by a small band of individuals, nor is it yet a full-fledged nationalist insurgency that incorporates the entire country. Most insurgencies have never witnessed a majority of the people effectively under arms. Populations either passively support an insurgency in the sense that they do not betray it to the opposing side; or they actively support it by providing intelligence, food, supplies and recruits. But the Iraqi insurgency is not yet a full-fledged self-sustaining insurgency. Our task is to ensure that it does not become one.”

As time goes on and the economic and social conditions worsen, and as no solution seems to be forthcoming from this government, more people will start to take part actively in the struggle. As we have seen, the number of fighters has been growing. This process will continue. But under the present reactionary Islamic leadership it will be a long drawn out process. There will be new uprisings and further rotten compromises. This will involve a lot of suffering for the Iraqi people.

The national liberation of Iraq could be achieved so much more quickly if it were under the leadership of the working class. If the leaders of the Iraqi labour movement were revolutionary Marxists they would be behaving differently. They would work towards calling a general strike of all the workers of Iraq, appealing also to the small shopkeepers and traders to support them. They would be actively participating in the resistance movement, giving it a class content. An all out general strike combined with an armed uprising throughout the whole of Iraq would mark the end of the foreign occupation.

This would be combined with an appeal to the workers of the surrounding countries. In Iran, already there is the beginning of a movement of the workers and youth against the rotten Islamic regime. Similar developments are beginning to emerge elsewhere in the region. An uprising and general strike, led by the workers of Iraq, would have an immediate appeal to all the workers of the Middle East and beyond. It would also have an impact on the soldiers who have been sent to Iraq to do the dirty work of imperialism. If it were the trade unions leading such a movement, combined with a class appeal to the British, American, Italian… workers in uniform, then the morale of these foreign armies would finally collapse. This process is already there, but it would be given a huge impetus if such a working class based resistance were to emerge.

The task therefore is to open up a discussion within the ranks of the Iraqi trade unions, and within the left parties, in particular the Communist Party of Iraq and the Communist Workers’ Party of Iraq, around these questions. It is unfortunate that the leaders of these parties limit their perspective to that of achieving some kind of bourgeois democracy in Iraq. They see this as the next stage. They have no real perspective of the struggle for socialism. This means that they are prepared to collaborate with the interim government, and therefore also with imperialism. The ranks of these parties must demand of their leaders a change of course.

By giving the resistance a socialist and working class perspective, the Iraqi Communists could play a crucial role in accelerating the whole process. From the barbarism created by the imperialist war against Iraq could come a focal point of class struggle for the workers of the whole region and of the world.