Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Press roundup: What exactly happened in Najaf?

It seems clear that, apart from the closing of the al-Hawza newspaper 10 days ago, Sunday's clashes were sparked by the arrest of a top al Sadr aide for alleged involvement in the assassination of a rival ayatollah last year. Now it appears that Kufa, a mere 8 kilometers from Najaf and now under the control of al Sadr's Mahdi Army, is "the first Iraqi city to spin entirely out of occupation control." Also, reports the Times today, US forces "appeared to have settled on a high-risk strategy, adopting a tougher stance instead of seeking, as they often have in the past, to avoid confrontation that might fan antagonism for the Americans."

But what really happened outside the Spanish garrison -- where a dozen Salvadoran troops were wounded and one killed, among other casualties -- is still far less clear. A review of different accounts yields wildly divergent reports.

Here, for example, is the official story from the U.S. Central Command:

U.S. Central Command Background Briefing
Presenter: Senior CENTCOM Official
Monday, April 5, 2004 2:01 p.m. EDT

"...This started in An Najaf with a large demonstration that got out of control. We don't think it was initially intended, at least by the demonstrators, to get out of control, but somewhere amidst the crowds that were out there, some snipers started firing at coalition members and it did get out of control.

Ultimately they went to our Joint Coordination Center that was established to work coordination between the police and the Civil Defense Corps and the coalition in preparation for the Arba'in activities that will be going on over the next week, and they also attacked a compound that housed the folks from the Spanish brigade there.

The El Salvador quick response team or force counterattacked, and we did lose one El Salvadoran during that effort. But they relieved the pressure on those facilities and ultimately -- I won't say brought calm, but ended the attacks there...."

This account makes it sound as though Salvadoran troops weren't attacked initially, but rather that they came to the defense of others who were. That could square with an NPR report that "witnesses reportedly said Spanish and Iraqi troops opened fire on the crowd after protesters threw stones at them" -- but "Spanish" here could mean "Spanish-speaking," which could include Salvadorans. Kind of hard to know since we don't know who "reportedly" said this.

Of course, how much should we believe the Central Command? They also report that the Mahdi Army has only about 3000 members. But a New York Times story yesterday says that it is "estimated to number in the tens of thousands, [and] also formed their own religious courts and prisons."

The Los Angeles Times attributed the reason for eventual calm not to Salvadoran bravery but to airpower: "the demonstration at the Spanish-run base in Najaf, about 80 miles south of Baghdad, ended only after coalition fighter jets and helicopters buzzed low over the crowds."

The Washington Post first reported Sunday night that "Sadr's supporters were marching on a Spanish-led garrison when the fighting broke out. A spokesman for the Spanish headquarters in nearby Diwaniyah, Commander Carlos Herradon, told the AP that the protesters opened fire first. But protesters who gathered at a Kufa mosque after the fighting subsided said they had returned fire after occupation soldiers took up firing positions on the roof of a nearby hospital and began shooting into the crowd." However, the next paragraph of the Post piece includes a long quote from a member of the Mahdi Army with essentially the same perspective.

Monday's edition carried a somewhat different version, including the sensational line that "witnesses said they saw militiamen capture a Salvadoran soldier and execute him by forcing a live grenade into his mouth." No one else reported this, as far as I can find. Specifically, the report said:

A lengthy firefight erupted in the city between Salvadoran troops and a crowd of thousands of Sadr followers. The clash occurred less than a mile from the mosque where two days earlier, Sadr, who has been at odds with occupation authorities for months, for the first time urged his followers to strike occupation forces "where you meet them."

Sadr issued new instructions after the firefight in Kufa, which continued for hours and eventually drew in Apache attack helicopters and U.S. warplanes. The statement advised followers to give up on demonstrations and "resort to other things." The Arabic instruction that followed could be interpreted as "intimidate your enemies" or "terrorize your enemies."

A Sadr spokesman said about 30 demonstrators were killed in Kufa. The Reuters news agency quoted a health official, however, as saying the death toll was 20. Protesters said the day began with a peaceful demonstration against the arrest of a Sadr aide on Saturday on charges of conspiring in the year-old killing of a senior Shiite cleric friendly to the United States.

So, are we talking about simple, peaceful "demonstrators" here, or organized and armed members of the Mahdi Army. If it's the latter, why give their version so much credibility and label them mere "demonstrators"?

In what almost appears to be written by an entirely different reporter, the same Post article goes on with further details. Now the peaceful demonstrators become "armed marchers" and "militiamen" replete with small arms, RPGs and mortars:

"The Kufa demonstration began with armed marchers taking over the city's courthouse and traffic police headquarters. Several thousand chanting marchers then proceeded toward the city's occupation military base.

Journalists at the scene said Salvadoran troops manning the post first fired noise charges to disperse the crowd, then followed with live fire. A senior U.S. officer in Baghdad denied that occupation forces fired first.

The militiamen fired small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. At one point, several dozen swarmed toward a military vehicle caught outside the base, capturing and killing the Salvadoran soldier after warning bystanders to stand aside. Two other badly beaten Spanish-speaking soldiers were seen being taken into Sadr's headquarters at the Kufa mosque, and though the military adjusted its initial report of fatalities from four to two in the hours after the conflict, Sadr officials denied holding any prisoners."

NPR's Phillip Reeves gave a report last night that dispelled any notions that these were simply peaceful demonstrators. Reeves spoke with a doctor, who said "the Al Sadr teaching hospital was trapped in the midst of a long firefight. On the one side, in the military base, Spanish and Salvadoran soldiers, and Iraqi guards, were firing; on the other, young men wearing the black uniform of the Al Mehdi Army. 'They were using Kalashnikovs and hand grenades, and by the way, when they first came, they took the weapons of the hospital guards.'"

On the other hand, Middle East expert Juan Cole suggested that Salvadoran inexpertise at "crowd control" might have been the problem, citing the Salvadoran military's "poor human rights record." Given the lack of any fighting in El Salvador over the past twelve years, and the youth of the troops sent to Iraq -- by the way, there was a sum total of three violations by the army denounced to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman last year-- this seems to me to be both uninformed and biased speculation. Cole backed away somewhat from this speculation, however, after I emailed him some comments.

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