Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 18, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

HOLY CITIES....Juan Cole answers a burning question:

Readers sometimes complain to me that Muslims seem to have lots of holy cities and lots of mosques, so is Najaf really all that special? O.K., here are the holy cities in order of holiness: Mecca, Medinah, Jerusalem, Najaf, Karbala. Najaf and Karbala are especially holy to Shiites. There are other holy sites and cities, of course, but they are mostly sacred because of association with later saints. The five I just mentioned are sacred because of their direct association with the Prophet Muhammad, his son-in-law and vicar, Ali, and his grandson, Husain.

The Shrine of Ali is a tomb, and although it has a mosque attached to it, it is not just a mosque. It is a Shrine. Like the shrine of the Prophet Muhammad in Medinah or the shrine of Imam Husain in Karbala, it is a sacred resting place of holy remains. A lot of mosques could be damaged with impunity. These shrines cannot.

Actually, I've been sort of curious about that, so I'm glad he cleared that up.

As it happens, this was an aside in a post about how the current fighting in Najaf appears to have started accidentally. The New York Times reports that Marine officers turned a small firefight into a pitched battle without authorization from headquarters:

Eventually, fresh Army units arrived from Baghdad and took over Marine positions near the mosque, but by then the politics of war had taken over and the American force had lost the opportunity to storm Mr. Sadr's fighters around the mosque.

....As a reconstruction of the battle in Najaf shows, the sequence of events was strikingly reminiscent of the battle of Falluja in April. In both cases, newly arrived Marine units immediately confronted guerrillas in firefights that quickly escalated. And in both cases, the American military failed to achieve its strategic goals, pulling back after the political costs of the confrontation rose. Falluja is now essentially off-limits to American ground troops and has become a haven for Sunni Muslim insurgents and terrorists menacing Baghdad, American commanders say.

The Najaf battle has also raised fresh questions about an age-old rivalry within the American military between the no-holds-barred, press-ahead culture of the Marines and the slower, more reserved and often more politically cautious approach of the Army. Army-Marine tensions also have surfaced previously, notably when the Marines opened the Falluja offensive.

Needless to say, Prof. Cole is not very happy that "ignoramus Marines in Najaf" are making these decisions. On the other hand, if Paul Bremer hadn't shut down Sadr's newspaper back in March, maybe none of this would have happened in the first place.

Kevin Drum 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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