WASHINGTON - The standoff in Najaf highlights a confusing, shared leadership system in Iraq where key decisions about fighting insurgents get made - or not - by a combination of U.S. military commanders, American diplomats and Iraqi political leaders.
The shared decision-making has led to frustration in the military, U.S. officials acknowledge, as the Bush administration pursues the twin aims of defeating Iraqi insurgents and building up an Iraqi government that eventually will be capable of acting on its own.
According to reports from Najaf, U.S. Marines bypassed the system altogether in launching their offensive nine days ago against Shiite militiamen led by firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The roots of the confusing, shared command can be found in the diplomatic maneuvering over last spring's United Nations Security Council resolution marking the end of U.S. political control over Iraq.
Responding to pressure from the Arab world and Europeans for Iraqis to be granted genuine sovereignty, the United States agreed to an exchange of letters between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Ayad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, that called for shared responsibility over security.
When John D. Negroponte, now the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, was asked during his confirmation hearing in April how military decisions would be reached if U.S. commanders and Iraqis failed to agree, he hedged his reply: "These are the kinds of questions that I think our diplomacy is going to have to deal with."
Well before the June 28 handover, the Marines cut short their offensive to crush insurgents in the militant Sunni stronghold of Fallujah when members of the Iraqi Governing Council, whose members had been picked by the United States, protested. Instead, council members and local leaders brokered a deal that put Iraqis in charge of security in Fallujah.
Since the installation of Allawi, key military decisions have been reached collectively among the prime minister and other Iraqi leaders, U.S. forces under Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and Negroponte. The Bush administration insists, as White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday, that "coalition forces are there to support the efforts of the interim Iraqi government."
This has led to mixed signals from Washington and Baghdad.
In an interview Monday with The Cincinnati Enquirer, Powell declared that the insurgency "has to be defeated." He said the desire for democracy among 25 million Iraqis couldn't be held hostage to "a cleric in Najaf" who lacks support from "a significant portion of the Shia community."
A day later, U.S. officials provided military helicopters for representatives from the Iraqi Governing Conference, meeting in Baghdad to create a 100- member interim legislature, to negotiate an end to the standoff with al-Sadr.
On Tuesday evening, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told PBS' Newshour, "It's hard for me to say how they can run that country and allow a militia to seize portions of a city ... and kill innocent Iraqis and consistently oppose that government. So, at some point, one would think, that will have to change."
Allawi has alternated between talking tough and allowing himself to be drawn into cease-fire negotiations. This "showed that he is either not as strong as some observers thought or is adapting rapidly to political reality," according to a paper circulated Tuesday by Jeffrey White and Anna Solomon-Schwartz of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The holy city of Najaf presented a particularly difficult case because U.S. officials didn't want the Marines to be the ones who stormed the Imam Ali mosque, one of the foremost shrines of Shiite Islam, where al-Sadr's militiamen had been hiding.
Promises and doubts
At the same time, the mixed record of Iraq's security forces in combating militias elsewhere has led to widespread doubts as to whether they are ready to assume such a dangerous and politically explosive task.
Prospects for an end to the long-running struggle between al-Sadr and Iraq's interim government improved yesterday when a spokesman for the cleric declared that he had accepted a peace plan calling for his militia to disarm and to leave the Najaf shrine.
But al-Sadr has made similar promises before, leaving U.S. officials skeptical that he will abandon violence and be lured into a peaceful political process, as members of the Iraqi Governing Conference hope.
And the delicate problem of military decision-making in Iraq is likely to continue as angry and destitute young Shiites, Sunni Muslim militants and loyalists of Saddam Hussein's ousted Baath regime act to disrupt Iraq's development and attack coalition forces.
For Jay Farrar, a vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the military decision-making system has a sobering precedent in the ill-fated U.S. stabilization effort in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, when U.S. commanders and diplomats tried to steer their way through a conflict involving the Lebanese military and Christian and Muslim militias. Ultimately, American troops withdrew after 241 U.S. servicemen, nearly all Marines, died in a suicide truck bombing of their barracks in Beirut, opening a power vacuum eventually filled by Syria.
"It doesn't give you a lot of reason for optimism" about Iraq, said Farrar, who served as a Marine in Beirut.