BAGHDAD, Iraq – The decision to launch a major strike against militants in Najaf risks inflaming the nation’s Shiite majority against the U.S. military and Iraq’s interim government, even as that government tries to build support across the country.

But the risks of letting the conflict fester may be greater.

Since taking power June 28, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, has staked out an image as a decisive – even harsh – leader willing to crack down on the violence destabilizing the country. That image has earned him the respect of many Iraqis who are exhausted by the unrelenting chaos.

Allawi has threatened the insurgents, announcing last month that he had authorized a U.S. airstrike on the city of Fallujah, the heart of a tenacious Sunni uprising marked by car bombings, kidnappings, sabotage and other violence.

But Najaf is no Fallujah. It is a city sacred to Shiite Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the country’s 25 million people. And it is home to the Imam Ali shrine, which holds the remains of Ali, the most exalted Shia saint.

With militants loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr hiding out in the shrine, fighting will almost certainly reach there – a battle sure to infuriate Shiites throughout the country.

The fighting, if it ends with the arrest or killing of al-Sadr, also risks turning the young anti-American firebrand into a martyr.

With an eye toward the growing demonstrations against the offensive, the government moved to vilify the militants, with Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib saying they were engaged in a “conspiracy against the Iraqi people.”

“What is happening at this stage is not to the benefit of anyone,” he said Thursday. “What is happening is the murdering and the massacring of the Iraqi people, and the destroying of the public institutions … They are trying to derail the rebuilding of Iraq, trying to prevent Iraqis from carrying out their normal lives and threatening their future.”

Little choice

Even with the risk, the government and the military might have little choice but to tackle al-Sadr’s followers.

If they can rapidly put down the uprising – and the Marines have said they plan to rout the militants with massive force – it might spark intense, but short-lived, anti-government protests.

If they chose to continue low-level daily confrontations with the militants, it would chip away at the government’s legitimacy, erode its already shaky efforts to stabilize the country and sabotage moves to push Iraq toward democracy, including a key national conference beginning Sunday.

It could also turn al-Sadr, already a hero to many Shiites, into an even more powerful force, weakening moderate Shiites the interim government and the United States need on their side.

‘More than battle’

A long fight against the Shiite militants would take badly needed resources away from the battle against Sunni insurgents and would weaken Allawi’s and the U.S. government’s so-far fruitless efforts to persuade more countries to send forces here.

By contrast, a devastating assault on al-Sadr’s militia would send a crucial message to the Iraqi people and other insurgents.

“This is much more than a battle against Sadr. It’s a battle to show that the new government is strong enough to govern Iraq,” said Gareth Stansfield, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in Britain.

The U.S. military and the government hope to rectify some of the mistakes made in ending al-Sadr’s two-month uprising in the spring.

That violence, which killed hundreds of militants, halted with a series of fragile truces that left al-Sadr’s forces intact and gave them a chance to regroup and rearm. Much of the fighting over the past week has taken place in Najaf’s vast cemetery – an area forbidden to U.S. forces by the truces – where militants have been stockpiling arms for weeks.

The military, as well as witnesses in Najaf, said the militants have repeatedly broken the truce terms, carrying weapons in public and waging incessant pinprick attacks against police in the city.

Since the new fighting started Aug. 5, Iraqi and U.S. military officials have brushed off repeated overtures to restore the truces.

“They are going for the complete elimination of Muqtada al-Sadr,” said Mustafa Alami, a consultant with the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in Britain.

Each side now views the other as an implacable enemy that must be destroyed.

“Occupation forces have come to realize that there will be no stability in Iraq unless Muqtada al-Sadr is gone. Similarly, Muqtada al-Sadr realizes that there will be no stability unless the occupying forces are gone,” al-Sadr aide Ahmed al-Shaibany said. “These two currents cannot exist at the same time.”

Ravi Nessman covered the U.S.-led war on Iraq last year.

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