By Claude Salhani
Since the battle of Najaf suddenly erupted about two weeks ago, with fierce fighting raging between followers of Shi'ite maverick cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the U.S. military, the question often arose as to why this battle was taking place.
Just what is the firebrand Sheik al-Sadr trying to prove? It must seem genuinely insane to try to take on the full brunt of American military with its advanced technology, unlimited hardware and far superior firepower. Not to mention the recreated Iraqi army units fighting beside American forces.
So what exactly does Sheik al-Sadr expect to achieve other than the senseless killing, mostly of his young fanatical fighters, who are no match for the better-trained and -led American forces, and who are dying by the score?
To establish the "why" of the fighting in Najaf, one must first try first to ascertain the "who." Who stands to profit from the turmoil? Who could be pulling Sheik al-Sadr's strings and, of course, to what end?
The answer, no matter how you turn this thing around, dissect and analyze it, seems to point in one direction: Iran.
Sheik al-Sadr has traveled twice to Iran in recent months. He maintains close links with Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, a cleric in the city of Qom and a close confident of Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Analysts believe he receives support and most probably financing from Iran.
And just why would the Islamic republic want to direct Sheik al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army to foment strife in Iraq, stirring up trouble for U.S. forces? Sure, they are killing American soldiers, but for every American casualty, there are close to 50 Iraqis.
Also, as one analyst noted, you never want to ignite a fire in your neighbor's house for fear it might spread to yours unless there is a compelling reason.
The reason is the Iran's ayatollahs are sending Washington a message. The message is "make sure that you, Washington, will convince Israel to stay away from our nuclear sites and desires." Otherwise, the fighting currently under way in Najaf can easily expand to other localities and grow in intensity. Lives are, unfortunately, expendable in this part of the world.
Remember Iran's children brigade sent out in front of regular troops to clear minefields during the 8-year Iran-Iraq war. The children were armed with Islamic fervor and promises of a place in paradise. Close to a million people died in that conflict.
This is the kind of adversary the United States military is likely to face in an open confrontation with Iran, if it ever comes to that. And now, with 148,000 American troops serving in Iraq, the U.S. finds itself sharing a 1,215-mile border with the Islamic Republic of Iran a porous border across which thousands of Revolutionary Guards can easily infiltrate and instigate trouble.
There has been much talk lately over the probability of a replay of Israel's 1981 raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility. This time the target would, of course, be Iran's facility, probably the Bushehr plant. Ergo the not-so-veiled threats to the United States carried out by Sheik al-Sadr's boys in Iraq. "We can make trouble for you," the Iranians seem to say. And they can.
In 1979, shortly after the Islamic revolution overthrew the shah and installed a theocracy in place of the Peacock Throne, Iranian students stormed the "nest of spies," the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and held its diplomats and Marine guards hostage for 444 days. There was little, if anything, the U.S. was able to do.
One military rescue was attempted. It ended in disaster with the crash of two U.S. helicopters and the death of the rescuers.
Iranians are well aware of the dangers ahead as they cruise toward the the point where they will have acquired weapons-grade plutonium, enough to fabricate a nuclear bomb.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Commander Maj. Gen. Yehya Rahim Safawi warned Iran would strike at Israel, making it "painful" if Israel attempted to hit Iran's interests.
"The Islamic Republic will strike with force at the Zionist entity [Israel"> if it commits the stupidity of hitting the interests of the Iranian people," Gen. Safawi said, according to the Iranian News Agency, IRNA.
Gen. Safawi accused Israel and the United States of turning the Middle East into a "hot spot for disseminating and spreading evil, and strife and for oppressing Muslims."
"Israel and America are trying to implement their malignant plans under the pretext of curbing weapons of mass destruction and combating terrorism with the fake aim of spreading democracy in the Middle East," he said.
On his part, the deputy commander of the Republican Guard echoed similar warnings. "We will respond firmly and by all means to anyone who dares to attack any region of our country," Brig. Mohammed Zou al-Kader said.
"The psychological war waged against us is aimed at intimidating the officials and stopping Iran from keeping up efforts to acquire nuclear technology for use in peaceful purposes," Brig. Zou al-Kader said.
That is the explanation for the otherwise senseless battle of Najaf. It also explains why Sheik al-Sadr keeps rejecting peace overtures from interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to forsake violence and join in the political debate. And finally, if you think the price of oil is high now skirting $49 a barrel wait until it reaches $100, if the U.S and Iran engage militarily.
Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.