New York Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin visited Najaf last week, and found strong signs of economic growth and development. According to Rubin, the city is set to become a "hub of Shi'ite political and economic power," a process which will "further weaken the Iraqi central government." Rubin interviewed local officials who said they want greater autonomy from Baghdad in making development decisions.
It seems that the terrorist threat has receded to the point that the scariest thing the New York Times can find in Iraq is economic development. We are supposed to start worrying that Najaf might compete for political authority with Baghdad, a city ten times its size.
The depth of the city's sense of its separate identity becomes clear when a driver enters the greater city limits. The security controls are akin to crossing an international border. "The Islamic State of Najaf," joked one driver recently as he waited in one of five lines where a phalanx of local and national policemen checked each car for bombs and illegal guns. Anyone with a "foreign" license plate, meaning a plate from outside the Najaf Province, is subject to a thorough search and is required to go to a nearby police station to register.
The role of the Iranians in helping the province is largely unacknowledged by Najaf's politicians, most of whom are members of the Supreme Council. Although the party's roots are in Iran, it has forged a strong allegiance with the United States and appears eager to keep at arm's length - at least publicly - from its former sponsor. Najaf officials said they had refused most of the help the Iranians offered, because they felt it could be too controversial politically. They did say they had made a deal with Iran to organize tours that would bring several million more pilgrims to the city each year.
"Iran would like to help us with many things, but we are not giving them the chance because of the tensions with America," said Mr. Abtan, the Provincial Council chairman. "We don't really want to shift the battle between Iran and America to Najaf. We want Najaf to become a very powerful commercial city, and this policy means you have to stay out of sensitive positions."
Two points should be made:
1) The security procedures at the entrance to Najaf are the only real evidence Rubin presented of the city's "separate identity." But these procedures are not unique to Najaf. The "Iraqi Awakening Council" also requires registration for vehicles entering Anbar from other provinces. Other cities and provinces across Iraq maintain checkpoints at their borders, which they sometimes close when terrorist attacks seem likely. Najaf has been hit by al Qaeda attacks before; its security measures are not evidence of separatism.
Najaf has been a major pilgrimage site for Shi'ite Muslims for centuries, but it has not and cannot be "independent" of Baghdad, where about a quarter of Iraqis live.
2) The Iranians would certainly love to exert more influence in Najaf, and they may view aid projects as a way to develop popularity or gain a say in local affairs. However, as Rubin notes, local officials are well aware that this aid has a price, and have refused much of it.
Iran is deeply unpopular throughout Iraq, including in the Shi'ite south. Many Iraqis think that Iran wants to control their country, and will stop at nothing to do it. "Iranian agent" and "Persian" are two of the most common epithets Shi'ite politicians fling at each other. And in Najaf itself, there have been repeated reports in the Iraqi media that residents blame addicted Iranian pilgrims for bringing drugs into their city. Iran will have to do more than build a power plant to overcome these feelings.
Perhaps the best refutation of the idea that Najaf will willingly become a conduit of Iranian influence comes from Rubin's article itself:
Despite the Iranian support there appears to be genuine ambivalence about Tehran's role. Twice, when reporters for The New York Times produced video cameras and telephoto lenses outside Grand Ayatollah Sistani's office, the cleric's security detail pounced immediately, demanding to know: "Are you Iranians?"