Two Power Brokers Collide in Iraq

By JOHN F. BURNS

The New York Times

August 21, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq - In Iraq, of late, it has been a tale of two cities, and of two men of vaulting ambition, each seeking a path to power in the Iraq that will emerge, some day, from the turmoil that has followed the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

In Najaf, Moktada al-Sadr has shown how a portly cleric with a dedicated militia and an artful grasp of Shiite street politics can confront American power. In Baghdad, Ayad Allawi, also portly and Shiite, but secular and backed by American tanks, has used his place as Iraq's interim prime minister to warn Mr. Sadr that the time for his insurrection is running out. Adding to the drama, the two men have joined in conflict over Najaf's Imam Ali Mosque, the holiest shrine in the 1,300 years since the Shiite breakaway that followed the Prophet Muhammad's death.

As the week ended, the confrontation had neither exploded nor subsided. There were signs that Mr. Sadr was seeking a way to back out, sparing himself and his fighters annihilation, and saving what he had sought all along - an enhancement of his claim to have defended his fellow Shiites' faith and pride.

Dr. Allawi, committed to ousting Mr. Sadr and disarming his Mahdi Army but aware that storming the shrine would be a heinous blot on the reputation of any Shiite politician, seemed also to be reaching for a mediated solution, an outcome sure to be favored by Dr. Allawi's patrons in Washington, for whom a bloody showdown in Najaf was likely to be still more unpalatable.

Messy times favor messy solutions. Even Iraqis who sigh for the brute simplicities of life under Saddam Hussein, as many now do, have not forgotten what he did when he, too, was confronted by an armed occupation of the Imam Ali shrine, during the Shiite uprising that followed the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

Tyrannical as he was, Mr. Hussein understood that compromise served him better than soldiers blasting through the shrine's massive gates and walls. After firing rockets, he whispered that chemical weapons might be next, and the rebels fled the mosque. Later, many were carried off to be executed and buried in mass graves.

In his harsher moments, Dr. Allawi may wish that Mr. Sadr is killed in Najaf, as might American troops who have fought the Mahdi Army through the crypts and catafalques of the vast cemetery adjoining the shrine, and down the sinuous streets and alleyways of Najaf's old city; at least nine American marines and soldiers have died, along with at least 400 of Mr. Sadr's fighters, according to the official American count.

But assaulting the shrine, even with the lead taken by Iraqi troops, would be likely to cause an explosion among the Shiite majority. And Mr. Sadr, dead, would be at least as much of a problem for Mr. Allawi's government - and for the Americans - as he has been alive.

Martyrdom is central to Shiite beliefs, and Mr. Sadr's legions would in time be marshaled by another tribune of the streets. The pattern has been set by Mr. Sadr himself, who built his following on the 1998 assassination in Najaf - by agents of Mr. Hussein, most Iraqis believe - of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, Mr. Sadr's venerated father.

To the Shiite underclass that is his prime constituency, it has mattered little that the younger Mr. Sadr is a religious upstart, a junior cleric in his early 30's who has spared himself hard years of seminary study. Still less, it seems, do followers weigh his indictment as the mastermind of the murder of a rival cleric, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who flew home from exile in the days immediately after the American capture of Baghdad 16 months ago only to be stabbed and shot to death outside the Najaf shrine.

While Mr. Sadr has sought to construct his political future on the back of armed rebellion - in Najaf, in the populous Baghdad slum of Sadr City (named for his father) and in a constellation of towns and cities across southern Iraq, all the way to Basra - Dr. Allawi has placed his bets on the constitutional road to power.

Due process was not always his métier, as Iraqis who knew him as a young medical student on the Baghdad University campus in the 1970's recall. Then, these people say, Dr. Allawi, who qualified as a neurosurgeon, was a zealot for Mr. Hussein's ruling Baath Party, a man who carried a gun, threatened fellow students and was feared as a regime enforcer.

His reputation as a hard man was one reason, perhaps the main one, he became a protégé in exile of the Central Intelligence Agency, and then the favored American candidate for prime minister of the interim government appointed in the spring, shortly before Iraq regained sovereignty on June 28.

In office, he has reinforced his image as a man with an iron fist, visiting Baghdad cellblocks to view captured rebels accused of ambushes, bombings and kidnappings. He has urged policemen and prison guards, bluntly, to show no quarter. He has reintroduced the death penalty, which the Americans suspended last year, and made it applicable to almost any rebel action, even those that do not result in killing.

But while his is hardly the profile of a man with an instinctive feel for the give and take of democracy, Dr. Allawi is wedded to a political blueprint for Iraq that was drawn up under American guidance in the period of formal occupation. This required, first, the appointment of the provisional government Dr. Allawi now heads; second, the convening of a national conference to appoint a 100-member council to oversee the government, review its decrees and call its ministers to account until a National Assembly can be elected. The Assembly is to draw up a permanent constitution, ratify it and lead the country to a fully elected government by January 2006.

While events were moving to a climax in Najaf, the conference met in Baghdad, offering a glimpse of the kind of country this might be if democratic ideals prevail. The proceedings were chaotic, disrupted by tensions over the battles in Najaf, and were compromised by backroom deals that saw organized blocs, religious and secular, securing representation on the new council to the exclusion of smaller, independent groups.

Still, it was the most representative gathering held here for at least 40 years, its members elected in caucuses from every corner of the country. Its very clamor proved how eager Iraqis are, after decades of repression, to have a voice in the remaking of their country.

Just getting 1,100 delegates to Baghdad for the conference, and keeping them safe for the four days of the gathering, was a triumph of sorts for Dr. Allawi's government and its American patrons, considering the shooting gallery that much of the country - and Baghdad itself - have become in recent months. But throwing a cordon of concrete and steel around a conference hall is a far cry, logistically and politically, from the next steps in the constitutional blueprint, the three rounds of national elections scheduled for next year.

The first, by Jan. 31, will choose the assembly that will appoint a new transitional government, and draw up the new constitution. In all this, Dr. Allawi and Mr. Sadr, and the poles they represent in the march to a new Iraq, seem likely to find themselves opponents once again, whatever the outcome of the immediate confrontation in Najaf.

One American official took the optimistic view: that the debate in Baghdad and the battle in Najaf were two sides of the same coin, Iraqis struggling to make their weight felt. The task for those who want a democratic Iraq, he said, was to draw the men with guns - Mr. Sadr's and the insurgents who have turned the Sunni heartland into a war zone - into the political arena. He cited approvingly a conference delegate who had said that all Iraqis, insurgents included, were seeking the same end.

"We are all working to get the Americans to leave," the official quoted the delegate as saying. "Some of us are doing this quietly, and some are doing it violently. But we are all working to the same end."

It was this perception that seemed to have inspired the peace proposal put to Mr. Sadr's representatives by the political and religious figures who flew to Najaf on behalf of the conference. In return for disbanding the Mahdi Army and vacating the shrine, they offered an amnesty for his fighters, and an opening for Mr. Sadr to participate in the political process "in any way he may choose."

Dr. Allawi, too hard-headed to have thought it likely, put the same proposition in his ultimatum to Mr. Sadr, telling him that his choice was to be forced from the shrine in battle, or to disarm his militia and contest elections.

In the end, this seemed to have been more an American than an Iraqi idea. Indeed, most Iraqis seemed to think it chimerical that any of the men who have cast Iraq into the convulsions of war, in the name of Islam or of Saddam Hussein or of wounded Iraqi pride, could be persuaded, by force of argument or arms, to abandon their arms now and take to the hustings.

If there has been one message written in all that the insurgents have done, whether Sunnis or Shiites, these Iraqis say, it is a rejection of the very idea that Iraq's future can be chosen under an American military umbrella - more broadly, of the idea that America and its notions should have any place in reshaping Iraq at all.

When they were done with their spinning, senior Western officials who briefed reporters on the developments in Najaf seemed to agree. Najaf, one said bluntly, represented as crucial a juncture as America has faced in Iraq: one from which Iraq could proceed, with the emasculation of Mr. Sadr's rebellion, to a new period in which Iraqi politicians, not gunmen, could begin to set the country's agenda; or, conversely, if the government became resigned to leaving Mr. Sadr's militia still rooted in the city, to a further slide into chaos.

"If the government takes a hit in Najaf, it would encourage the various armed groups to stand up and say, 'O.K., Najaf belongs to us,' 'Falluja belongs to us,' 'Ramadi belongs to us,' 'Samarra belongs to us,' " the official said. In that case, he said, what would be left would not be a country with an accepted constitution and elections, but a "Lebanon-ization," a fracturing into separate, warlord-ruled fiefs, with the gun supplanting the rule of law.

Retreating into the orotund language favored by diplomats, he suggested that this was hardly what America intended when it came here promising Iraqis something far better than Saddam Hussein. "With different militias controlling different cities, that obviously doesn't promise the political stability Iraq needs," he said.