Iraqi People Hold Key to Ending Najaf Standoff, General Says
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 11, 2004 The best resolution to the standoff in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf will be one orchestrated not by the coalition but by the Iraqi people themselves, the commander of the 1st Armored Division said in Baghdad today.
Army Maj. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told reporters it's up to Iraq's stakeholders its tribal leaders, clerics and politicians to tackle the delicate situation in one of the country's holiest cities.
The standoff requires the coalition to walk a narrow line, Dempsey said, "acting aggressively to reduce the threat and to increase security, while at the same time trying to get stakeholders in buy into the process."
He emphasized the standoff ultimately is an Iraqi problem. "This is their holy city. It is not my holy city," Dempsey said. "I have said to as many people as will listen: I will provide you the support and the stability. You solve the problem. And if you can't solve the problem if you can't solve the challenge inside your holy city then you are going to be hard-pressed to solve any problem."
Dempsey said the coalition probably erred by being overly cautious in its initial response to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The son of a beloved Shiite cleric who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein's regime, Sadr has remained hidden away in Najaf since ordering his militia to confront the coalition in early April.
The general said that in retrospect, the coalition "probably gave (Sadr) six more months than we should have," enabling him to train his troops, gather resources and stockpile ammunition to support his militia.
That militia consists of an estimated at 600 to 800 young men, some of whom Dempsey said "are probably decent young men who have been badly led astray." Many, he said, could actually be good candidates for the Iraqi security forces that will ultimately provide full protection for the country.
Dempsey said he would be open to having tribal or political leaders within the community offer up some of Sadr's militia for training by the coalition after they are thoroughly vetted.
Sadr himself would not be a candidate, Dempsey said, because he is under indictment for murder by the Iraqi legal system. However, the general said some of the cleric's lieutenants and other followers could ultimately become "part of a solution" in Najaf and elsewhere in Iraq.
"If at some time they come forward with an idea about how to lay down their arms and be integrated into the group that cares about the future of Iraq," Dempsey said, "we can probably work something out."
Again, the general stressed the role of Iraqi leaders in Najaf. "I hope that the Iraqi tribal leaders, religious leaders and politicians are as concerned about the future of their youth as I am," Dempsey continued. "And if they are, they will figure this out."
Meanwhile, Dempsey said, his troops "are moving very deliberately and patiently" in the region. "I really want this to be solved by those who have a stake in the Iraqi holy cities, and I am giving them time to do that," he said.