THE PARADOX of Najaf is that the stakes in that city are much higher for the new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi than they are for the rebel cleric he confronts, Muqtada al-Sadr. With a battle shaping up between the two sides, failure would be a crippling blow to the prestige of Mr. Allawi - and his American allies. Yet no matter what happens to Mr. al-Sadr - up to and including his martyrdom - his Mahdi Army will survive to fight another day.
A large U.S. force, working jointly with Iraqi government units, has penned up the Sadrists in the Old City. The city's population has generally turned against them. But the question facing U.S. commanders is how to dislodge the fighters from the Imam Ali mosque without doing damage to it, because it is a sacred site for Shiites. Iran was already denouncing the U.S. push as a desecration before it had begun; there is speculation, in fact, that Iranians have had a covert role in fomenting the current uprising.
It is encouraging that American commanders have been sensitive to local and religious sensibilities. Some reports have suggested American patrols are far more warmly received by residents than those of their Iraqi government allies. But even a perfectly executed operation would not spell the end of the Sadrists for a simple reason: Most of them are in Baghdad.
Their leader speaks as though he's inviting death at the hands of Americans; maybe he means it. There's no question that in death, perhaps more than in life, he could become a potent symbol for the many thousands of disaffected people who have flocked to his cause in the Shiite slums of the capital. He may, alternatively, be taunting his opponents in the belief that he can, as he has before, slip their net. Understandably, American officers would love to capture him alive. But they also want to minimize the risk of U.S. casualties.
Prime Minister Allawi has called on Mr. al-Sadr and his men to lay down their arms and enter politics. It's difficult to imagine that happening. Fighting is already going on not only in Najaf but in Kufa, Kut and Basra, far to the south. Mr. Allawi is a reformed Baathist leading a cobbled-together government of marginal legitimacy. Mr. al-Sadr is a zealous Shiite imam, whose following appears to be limited but determined. Is this the start of the much-feared civil war, right under American noses? The conduct of American troops in Najaf, and especially of their Iraqi allies, will be telling.
If the Iraqi government forces crumble, as they have in the past, it will make a mockery of the idea of Iraqi sovereignty. If, on the other hand, they abuse and intimidate the local population, they could succeed in turning public opinion, nationally, against them. Either outcome spells plenty of trouble for the American project to remake Iraq.