The violence that has raged in Najaf in recent days is an unfortunate reminder of just how reliant the authority of Iraq's interim government is on American firepower. The immediate cause of the clashes is unclear. According to the Mehdi army, the militia that controls Najaf, it started when US forces attempted to surround the home of its leader, the Shia cleric, Muqtada Sadr. The Americans, on the other hand, claim they were asked to intervene by the governor of Najaf after the Mehdi army attacked a local police station.
Whichever account is correct, the events of the past few days show that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, is no closer to being able to dispense with the services of the US army. Iraq's security forces are still unable to assert the authority of the interim government.
The problem is that every time US forces are deployed, Mr Allawi's government is further discredited in the eyes of much of the population. This is because American military power is still a very blunt weapon. The US army's claims to have killed 300 Shia fighters in Najaf may yet prove to be an overestimation, but the devastation visited on the Sunni town of Fallujah last year shows that it is certainly capable of inflicting such carnage. The bullet holes in the dome of the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf also bear witness to the US army's dangerously clumsy approach.
The complications of deploying the American military machine on Iraqi government business are compounded by the fact that US generals have their own ideas about how to deal with insurgents. To the Americans, Sadr is still a wanted man and the claims that US forces broke the truce and tried to capture him last week ring true. But yesterday Mr Allawi was, by contrast, making conciliatory overtures in Sadr's direction when he made a surprise visit to Najaf. The Iraqi Prime Minister suggested that the insurgents of Najaf are "common criminals" rather than Sadr's followers. There seems to be genuine confusion over whether it would be better to try to do business with Sadr, or to knock him out completely. But trying to do both, as at present, is a dangerous course.
The volatile situation in the Shia cities of the south is not helped by the fact that the most powerful and respected of Iraq's clerics, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is in London being treated for a heart condition. Sadr could well be using this opportunity to reassert his authority. But the key to nullifying the threat from Sadr is the economy. Many of the cleric's supporters in Najaf and the Baghdad slums of Sadr city, are unemployed. If Iraq begins to produce jobs, security may improve. Yet economic prospects will remain dire while violence and insecurity plague the country. Thus, the American forces and the Iraq interim administration find themselves in a Catch-22 situation.
The best, albeit slim, chance of getting out of it remains free and independent elections. Only when there is a sovereign government, which can boast genuine democratic legitimacy, will insurgents and terrorists find themselves on the back foot. And only when a degree of security exists will the economy begin to function and oil exports begin in earnest.
Elections have been scheduled for the end of the year, and promised by January 2005 at the latest. Missing this deadline would be folly. The best service the interim government could do for the Iraqi people would be to hold elections as soon as possible. It should concentrate its resources on shielding the United Nations mission while it goes about its work in preparing the ground for them.
Every flare up in violence, especially those that involve American forces, pushes the prospects of democratic elections, and thus a more stable Iraq, further away. It is a time for Iraq's leaders to hold their nerve and concentrate on doing what is necessary to deliver the country from the misery of violence and insecurity in which it now trapped.