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Tuesday, August 10, 2004

View From The Street

The Guardian has a story by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a Baghdad resident, discussing the preponderance of posters that have been flying up onto the walls of the city. Everyone, it seems, is communicating to the Iraqi people via poster. As you read this bit, keep in mind what Juan Cole said, that perhaps the worst outcome for Iraq is Iran 1978.

Usually all these posters are torn down as fast as they are put up - even those for the Red Cross and other NGOs, and those for unexploded ordnance awareness campaigns. The only posters that survive the turmoil of Baghdad are those put up by the imams - Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite imams, Ali and co. - all in different positions: some praying, others killing lions, some with their heads bleeding or hearts shining light. Just months after the fall of Saddam, all the walls which used to be covered by murals in support of his regime are covered by pictures of old men with thick beards. It's very confusing.

What is clear is that the posters are used to mark territories of influence - for example, Sadr city is now a huge collage of posters of Moqtada, in all sorts of shapes, colours and sizes. And his are the most artistic and imaginative. The most famous is a picture of him wagging his finger, threateningly. But he also has a whole series of himself posing with other clerics, and these change according to the political situation. There is the one of him and the Ayatollah al-Sistani, from when he tried to build an alliance with the old man. And there's one of him with Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Islamic Lebanese Hizbullah, and a bunch of kids carrying RPGs. Then there are all kinds of posters featuring Moqtada himself with RPGs and machine guns, some with burned-out American humvees lying suggestively in the background.

Also, BBC is reporting that the US is calling for a civilian evacuation of Najaf. A major assault is in the works, it appears. If you add that to what a "senior military official" told the New York Times (and the expulsion of Al Jazeera beforehand), and there's a frightening scenario coming over the horizon.

The new political situation has so far emboldened the Americans that units of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Army's Fifth Cavalry Division have battled for the past days in and around the huge cemetery that has been used for a millennium by devout Shiites eager to rest in eternity near the shrine and burial place of Imam Ali, the most sacred figure in Shiite Islam. Spokesmen for the United States command say they have explicit authority from Dr. Allawi to enter the cemetery, where they claim to have killed more than 360 rebel fighters, and to advance on the shrine itself, if that proves necessary to dislodge the rebels.

A senior military official told reporters in Baghdad on Monday that the command would wait a few days to see how the rebels responded to their situation in the area of the mosque.

But he also hinted that an assault on the shrine had not been ruled out. "At the moment we are not conducting operations in that area, but we are ready to do so at a moment's notice," he said.

The spokesman laid down a possible rationale for an assault, saying that the rebels had used the shrine and the cemetery to stockpile arms and ammunition, and were fighting from behind tombs and headstones. All of this, the spokesman said, stripped the shrine of protection under the Geneva Conventions. "The use of that site makes it a legitimate target under international law," he said.

Most news outlets are reporting, too, that the residents of Sadr City are ignoring the curfew imposed by the interim Iraqi government and in fact, new fighting has been raging there this morning. These will be eventful days, to say the very least.

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