Ayatollah Sistani and The Battle of Najaf

To further complicate matters, the Mahdi Army had received reports that two militants had been arrested — despite the agreement's assurance they would not be pursued — and some began returning to the shrine for fear they too would be targeted. The Mahdi Army members believed the Iraqi forces were planning to ambush them while they were unarmed and defenseless. Mutual distrust threatened to ignite the already volatile situation.

Khafaf was dispatched to the shrine to personally speak with Sheikh Ahmed al-Shaibany, a senior Sadrist official, and prevent the deal from going sour at the eleventh hour. Khafaf guaranteed their safe passage and personally transported Shaibany and 20 other fighters in his own cars. He recalls the nail-biting ride as they passed the US army checkpoint at the end of the street. If just one bullet had been fired, Najaf would burn again.

During the ride out, one of the Sadrist officials told Khafaf they had intercepted phone calls the night before between Iraqi officials and himself. This would suggest that the “rag-tag” Mahdi Army in 2004 had sophisticated communications equipment when the “sovereign” government of Iraq had difficulty communicating within its ranks.

Following the negotiated cease-fire, the Americans insisted on conducting a military sweep of Najaf, alongside Iraqi forces, to clear the city of militia remnants. This would have been contrary to the agreement. Khafaf, incensed at the idea, bluntly told an Iraqi army general. “Tell them [the Americans] … if the Mahdi Army were fighting them a few hours ago, now we would be fighting them”.

The Americans reconsidered and only Iraqi forces were sent in. The peace in Najaf has held ever since.

Hayder al-Khoei is an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a London-based think tank on international affairs. He holds a masters degree in international studies and diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. On Twitter: @Hayder_alKhoei

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