The New Threat to Iraq: Economic Growth?
9:20 AM, Dec 18, 2007 • By NATHANIEL RABKIN
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.
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: