Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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September 2, 2003

The Najaf Bombing: Iran’s Clerics Prosper; Threat of Iraqi Civil War Becomes Real

Analysis. With input from GIS Sources in Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere. Despite widespread propaganda claims, there was, by late September 1, 2003, no clear indication as to who ordered and orchestrated the August 29, 2003, bombing in the Iraqi Shi’a holy city of Najaf, in which moderate Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim was killed. However, it was clear that the most significant beneficiary of the killing was the clerical leadership in Iran, which, as a result of the bombing, saw the threat removed that the seat of Shi’a legitimacy might move from the Iranian holy city of Qom to Najaf.

At the same time, the immediate aftermath of the bombing — which was exceptionally professional and well-orchestrated — saw Iran and the radical Islamists seize the propaganda initiative, leaving the occupying US leadership at a disadvantage. US attempts to blame the bombing solely on Ba’athist remnants of the Saddam Hussein Administration backfired, and were, in fact, seen as less than credible. As a result, the mobilization of both Shi’a and Sunni forces which began to follow the bombing, and which were likely to escalate at least until the September 2, 2003, funeral of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, gave the first signs that sufficient momentum might now be gathering by which Iraq could enter a full civil war situation.

The rising strength of the moderate and religiously legitimate Shi’a leaders in Iraq was substantially curtailed by the bombing, which saw at least 80 other people killed. There was no other moderate Shi’a leader of sufficient stature to immediately fill the breach inside Iraq, increasing the possibility that agitation among the Shi’a population would move in a direction favored by Tehran (although this would be resisted by those senior Shi’a leaders remaining in Iraq). The momentum in the regional media, and in large elements of the Shi’a as well as Sunni population, seemed to favor the view that the bombing was the result either of US deliberate action or of its inaction in preventing it.

Significantly, although Ayatollah Hakim was the leader of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, it was clear in Tehran that he had assumed a position of greater legitimacy among the Shi’as outside Iran than the Iranian clerics — widely referred-to as “margarine ayatollahs” (ie: not the real thing) — could command. But despite the fact that the Iranian mullahs gained most from Ayatollah Hakim’s death, it was also evident that the ousted Ba’athists and many elements of the radical Sunni Islamists — including those nominally faithful to the Osama bin Laden al-Qaida network — also gained from the event. 

If nothing else, the incident made management of Iraq more difficult for the US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. It also eased US pressures on the Iranian and Syrian leaderships, ensuring that they had more pressing concerns. This in turn eased, also, the pressure on the Palestinian radical movements and the Palestinian-related activities occurring in the Lebanon and through Syria.

The fact that security forces in Iraq found other explosives — in two cars — on August 31, 2003, outside the Masjed al-Kufah mosque in the city of Kufah, some 180km south of Baghdad, and the fact that Shi’a clerics were calling on loudspeakers for people to “open their eyes” because “Saddam Hussein’s followers and al-Qaida will try today or tomorrow [ie: August 31, or September 1, 2003] to make large explosions” in Kufah indicated that the campaign of violence was escalating. However, the allegation by Iraqi Shi’as that al-Qaida and Saddam were responsible was not necessarily to be taken at face value.

Significantly, the Iranian clerics continued their support for both pro-Saddam Ba’athists and al-Qaida, and definitive intelligence indicated that, even as late as September 1, 2003, al-Qaida number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remained in Iran and on very good terms with the clerics there. It was by no means clear that al-Qaida, the Ba’athists and the Iranians could be entirely separated in the current upsurge in violence. Despite distinctly differeing objectives in certain areas, the Iranians, Syrians, Palestinians, al-Qaida-related Islamists (embracing a variety of causes from Chechnya to Palestine) all have an identity of interest in removing the US and the international forces from Iraq. Some (possibly tacitly supported by Saudi Arabian leaders) had an interest in “sending a message” to the Jordanian Hashemite leadership not to support the re-imposition of a Hashemite crown on Iraq; hence the bombing outside the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad on August 7, 2003. Equally, the August 19, 2003, bombing of the United Nations offices in Baghdad was designed to discourage international participation in Iraqi peacekeeping.

Significantly, the US military planned to delay transferring command authority in Najaf to Coalition Polish forces, because of the August 29, 2003, bombing.

Iraqi police had said on September 1, 2003, that at least two Saudis (described as Wahabbis) and up to five Iraqis (some described as linked to the former Saddam Administration, from Basra) were among 19 people detained in connection with the August 29, 2003, bombing in Najaf, and, allegedly, some Palestinians were among those arrested. However, it was, given the situation as at late September 1, 2003, too early to draw any definitive conclusions from arrest patterns.

Significantly, after weeks of intense debate and possibly because of the climate created in the aftermath of the bombing on August 29, 2003, the US-appointed governing council named a cabinet, where Shi’as would control 13 of the 25 posts (including Oil, Interior and Trade); five went to Sunnis, five to Kurds, one to a Turkomen and one to an Assyrian Christian. The Foreign Affairs portfolio went to a Kurd, Hoshyar Zebari; Finance went to a Sunni, Kamel al-Kilani. However, Mohammad Bahr al-Uloom, a Shi’a dignitary on the Governing Council, announced on on August 30, 2003, that he was “suspending” his membership of the body in protest against the August 29, 2003, bombing because “the Governing Council ... was unable to assume its responsibility of ensuring that coalition forces protect our people, holy sites and religious authorities”.

In the new Cabinet, the Oil ministry went to Shi’ite Ibrahim Mohammad Bahr al-Uloum, and the Interior Ministry went to Nuri Badran. One ministerial post went to a woman, Nisrin Sidiq Berwari, and there would be five deputy ministerial posts held by women. The new interim Government would not have defense and intelligence ministries.

Some key members of the new Interim Cabinet were as follows:

Chairman of the Governing Council (rotating monthly): Ahmed Chalabi (Shi’a, INC, current incumbent)
Minister of Finance: Kamil Mubdir Gailani (Sunni)
Minister of Foreign Affairs: Hoshiar al-Zibari (Kurd, Sunni, KDP)
Minister of Human Rights: Abdul Basit Turki
Minister of Interior: Nuri Badran (Shi’a, INA)
Minister of Public Works: Nisrin Sidiq Berwari, Mrs (Kurd, Sunni)
Minister of Science & Technology: Rashad Mendan Omar, Dr (Turkomen)
Minister of Oil: Ibrahim Mohammad Bahr al-Uloum (Shi’a)

Meanwhile, it was announced on September 1, 2003, following the appointment of the Cabinet, that Nouri Badran, a former diplomat with intelligence experience, the new Interior Minister, would recruit a paramilitary force composed of former Iraqi Army special forces troops with the mission of pursuing guerillas, terrorists and saboteurs who were undermining national stability. Civil Defense Battalions, with a planned recruitment level of 70,000 (including civil defense forces, police, traffic police and border guards) would come under the command of the Interior Ministry, and would be trained by the US.

The Iraqi National Accord (INA), which has been long supported by the CIA, had reportedly taken the lead in drawing up future security plans for Iraq and INA leader Ayad Alawi heads the Governing Council’s security subcommittee. 

The new Cabinet was to be sworn-in on September 2, 2003.