Those they can't co-opt, they destroy
The US military offensive against Najaf is a dangerous and ill-judged escalation, revealing the violent reality of an occupation that has undergone only cosmetic change since the supposed handover of power to an interim Iraqi administration in June.
For more than a week, an aggressive foreign power has addressed an essentially domestic political question by means of tanks, helicopter gunships and F16s.
There had been a ceasefire in place between the US forces and their main opponents around Najaf, and mediation efforts had been effective in containing tension.
The current violence in the vicinity of one of Islam's most sacred sites appears to be a result of the failure of this mediation to co-opt Moqtada al-Sadr and his movement into a national conference, which the US had hoped would bestow a stamp of approval on the interim government.
The offensive is not - as claimed by the US-appointed interim government and by the US military - an action against outlaws, nor is it an attempt to establish security and the rule of law.
There is a great deal of random violence in occupied Iraq. Some of this violence is of a purely criminal character and some is of a terrorist nature with more or less vague political objectives - many of the perpetrators are so shadowy as to invite a widespread belief that outside powers are directly involved in fomenting chaos.
In the absence of a genuine accounting for past suffering and political crimes and of a process of reconciliation, there is also violence associated with score-settling by political groups.
Not least, of course, is the military violence of the 200,000 foreign forces and armed mercenaries, and of the diverse groups resisting their presence in the country.
All these forms of violence are escalating, leading to a chaotic and catastrophic outcome.
The way to deal with this situation is not to pour petrol on the fire, but to look for an imaginative and honest political way out.
Having been appointed by the occupation authority under a corrupted UN oversight process, Ayad Allawi's interim government lacks any legitimacy whatsoever.
Its success could only be measured through its ability to address the needs of the Iraqi people, foremost among which is security.
The offensive against Najaf is the most crude and inept action possible, and it follows a long line of such actions by the occupation forces and their political leadership.
Some Iraqis hoped that the so-called transfer of power would permit a lessening of tension and a quick withdrawal of foreign forces from the cities, to be followed by greater cooperation between police and the population in tackling random violence.
It had been hoped that the police would become more effective in protecting doctors and other professionals from targeted kidnap and murder, and that homes, places of worship and other public places would become less insecure, and that efforts would be redoubled to address the abysmal failure to rebuild the infrastructure.
Instead, there is now a greater effort at involving the police and other new Iraqi armed forces in waging the United States' war-by-proxy against the political opponents of the occupation.
The collapse of law and order has little to do with Sadr. His is one of a number of forces with armed militia operating in the country.
Its control of poor slum areas and inner cities resulted from the chaos that was brought about by the occupation; it was not itself the cause of the chaos.
The physical destruction of state power, the interference in civil society institutions, and the violence and lack of legitimacy of the occupation were responsible for the emergence of new centres of power and authority that must now be integrated into the political process.
In particular, the Sadr movement has a wide appeal among young, poor, marginalised and traditionally edu cated sections of the urban population, and it is irresponsible to ignore or antagonise such a wide section of Iraqi society.
These are people who should be allowed to enter the political process through their chosen vehicle. They have a legitimate critique of the present flawed process, which is designed to serve the political objectives of the US administration and its few Iraqi allies.
But instead, the US occupation is trying to destroy or marginalise those movements, while also reinforcing existing inequities through media censorship and by heightening tension with neighbouring Iran.
After Najaf, where are US troops going? Are they going to encircle Thawra (Sadr City), the Baghdad suburb? Are they going to attack every poor suburb of every city from Kirkuk to Basra? And bomb every town where there have been large demonstrations in opposition to the attack on Najaf?
This offensive has already dealt a severe blow to the interim government. It has shown that it is unable to rein in the US presence, and can only fall in line with America's military imperatives.
It has shown that the US has no intention of permitting a genuine Iraqi political dialogue or the development of an inclusive democratic process.
The action in Najaf is also deeply symbolic. This is not only a Shia issue. Najaf is a holy site for all Muslims everywhere and has particular historical significance for Iraqis.
It is the seat of traditional learning and a repository of Iraqi communal and national culture, but it was also the focus of the 1920 uprising against British colonial rule that had set Iraq on the path of independence.
Najaf has been a lively centre of commerce, industry and political activity ever since. Nothing cut the last links between Saddam Hussein and large swathes of Iraqi society more than his persecution of Najaf.
It is here that Iraq has its greatest tradition in mediation, where social, moral and religious influences can be brought to bear, and where economic regeneration has brighter prospects. Trying to solve Najaf's problems by Yankee fire is a mark of abysmal failure.
Some liberals who opposed the war subsequently adopted an argument that the US and Britain now have a responsibility to remain in Iraq and to see to it that the country arrives at the safe shores of democracy and stability.
This argument is based on the presumption that, left alone, Iraq would fall into internecine conflict which only the US and Britain, being such civilised and civilising nations, could address. This was always a convenient myth, but the repeated military offensives against Iraqi cities must now make it clear that chaos and internecine conflict is with us already, and it is being expanded and prolonged by foreign military forces.
It is time to set an early date for a complete withdrawal of foreign forces and then to ask what can and should be done to help Iraq.
This article war originally published in The Guardian. Copyright 2004 The Guardian