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Bring Najaf to New York

I've been in New York a week now, watching the city prepare for the Republican National Convention and the accompanying protests. Much is predictable: tabloid hysteria about an anarchist siege; cops showing off their new crowd control toys; fierce debates about whether the demonstrations will hurt the Republicans or inadvertently help them.

What surprises me is what isn't here: Najaf. It's nowhere to be found. Every day, US bombs and tanks move closer to the sacred Imam Ali Shrine, reportedly damaging outer walls and sending shrapnel flying into the courtyard; every day, children are killed in their homes as US soldiers inflict collective punishment on the holy city; every day, more bodies are disturbed as US Marines stomp through the Valley of Peace cemetery, their boots slipping into graves as they use tombstones for cover.

Sure, the fighting in Najaf makes the news, but not in any way connected to the election. Instead it's relegated to the status of a faraway intractable ethnic conflict, like Afghanistan, Sudan or Palestine. Even within the antiwar movement, the events in Najaf are barely visible. The "handover" has worked: Iraq is becoming somebody else's problem. It's true that war is at the center of the election campaign-just not the one in Iraq. The talk is all of what happened on Swift boats thirty-five years ago, not what is being dropped out of US AC-130 gunships this week.

But while Vietnam has taken up far too much space in this campaign already, I find myself thinking about the words of Vietnam veteran and novelist Tim O'Brien. In an interview for the 1980 documentary Vietnam: The 10,000 Day War, O'Brien said, "My time in Vietnam is a memory of ignorance and I mean utter ignorance. I didn't know the language. I couldn't communicate with the Vietnamese except in pidgin English. I knew nothing about the culture of Vietnam. I knew nothing about the religion, religions. I knew nothing about the village community. I knew nothing about the aims of the people, whether they were for the war or against the war…No knowledge of what the enemy was after…and I compensated for that ignorance in a whole bunch of ways, some evil ways. Blowing things up, burning huts as a frustration of being ignorant and not knowing where the enemy was."

He could have been talking about Iraq today. When a foreign army invades a country about which it knows virtually nothing, there is plenty of deliberate brutality, but there is also the unintended barbarism of blind ignorance. It starts with cultural and religious slights: soldiers storming into a home without giving women a chance to cover their heads; army boots traipsing through mosques that have never been touched by the soles of shoes; a misunderstood hand signal at a checkpoint with deadly consequences.

And now Najaf. It's not just that sacred burial sites are being desecrated with fresh blood; it's that Americans appear unaware of the depths of this offense, and the repercussions it will have for decades to come. The Imam Ali Shrine is not a run-of-the-mill holy site, it's the Shiite equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. Najaf is not just another Iraqi city, it is the city of the dead, where the cemeteries go on forever, a place so sacred that every devout Shiite dreams of being buried there. And Moqtada al Sadr and his followers are not just another group of generic terrorists out to kill Americans; their opposition to the occupation represents the overwhelmingly mainstream sentiment in Iraq. Yes, if elected, al Sadr would try to turn Iraq into a theocracy like Iran, but for now his demands are for direct elections and an end to foreign occupation.

Compare O'Brien's humility with the cockiness expressed by Glen Butler, a major in the Marines whose August 23 New York Times op-ed reads as if it were ghostwritten by Karl Rove. Butler brags that though he has been in Iraq for just over a month, he "know[s] a bit about the caliph, about the five pillars and about Allah." He goes on to explain that by swooping low over Najaf's cemeteries, he is not inflaming anti-American hatred in the Arab world but "attacking the source of the threat." The helicopter pilot blithely dismisses his enemies as foreign fighters and ex-Baathists and "a few frustrated Iraqis who worry about Wal-Mart culture infringing on their neighborhood."

It's hard to know where to begin. The Mahdi Army that Butler is attacking is made up of Iraqi citizens, not foreigners. They are not Baathists, they were the most oppressed under Saddam's regime and cheered his overthrow. And they aren't worried that Wal-Mart is taking over their neighborhood, they are enraged that they still lack electricity and sewage treatment despite the billions pledged for reconstruction.

Before al Sadr's supporters began their uprising, they made their demands for elections and an end to occupation through sermons, peaceful protests and newspaper articles. US forces responded by shutting down their newspapers, firing on their demonstrations and bombing their neighborhoods. It was only then that al Sadr went to war against the occupation. And every round fired out of Butler's helicopter doesn't make Des Moines and Santa Monica safer, as he claims. It makes the Mahdi army stronger.

As I write this, days before the Republican convention, the plan for the demonstration seems to be to express general outrage about Iraq, to say "no to war" and "no to the Bush agenda." This is an important message, but it's not enough. We also need to hear specific demands to end the disastrous siege on Najaf, and unequivocal support for Iraqis who are desperate for democracy and an end to occupation.

United for Peace and Justice states that "there are two key moments this year when people throughout the United States will have the opportunity to send a resounding message of opposition to the Bush Agenda: November 2, election day, and August 29, in New York City." Sadly, this isn't the case: There is no chance for Bush's war agenda to be clearly rejected on Election Day, because John Kerry is promising to continue, and even strengthen, the military occupation of Iraq. That means there is only one chance for Americans to express their wholehearted rejection of the ongoing war on Iraq: in the streets outside the Republican National Convention. It's time to bring Najaf to New York.

This column was first published inThe Nation.

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