Monday, April 28, 2008

Are Sadr and Al-Qaeda Teaming Up in Iraq?

A few days ago, there were two suspiciously coordinated statements emerging from Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr made open-war threats followed immediately by a similar threat from al-Qaeda.
As they say, there is usually no smoke without fire.

Respected Iraqi writer and lawyer Suleiman Hakim (a prominent writer regularly published on the leading Iraqi politics and culture website Kitabat ) reported on April 11th -more than a week before Sadr and Abu Ayyub made their threats- about serious negotiations taking place between Sadr’s movement and a leader of the Islamic army group.
The meetings, Hakim believes, are taking place in Syria and Lebanon and are sponsored by a special Syrian security apparatus specialized in Iraqi affairs.

“Sheik Zergani [Sadr’s representative in Lebanon] and Sadr’s representative in Syria met in the Lebanese capital last March with Mr. Khalil Jumeily [a leader of the Islamic army] and after preliminary discussions in which they exchanged their views about the situation in Iraq and their plans for overthrowing the existing order and reviewing the positions of domestic and regional allies, they decided to resume the discussions in Damascus so that once they reach specific agreements, one certain Syrian security apparatus in charge of Iraqi issues would witness and sponsor those agreements. the relationships between Sadr movement and the Islamic army are not outside the frame of the Iran-Syria alliance. And so these relationships are being restored after being severed in the aftermath of the holy shrines bombings in 2006 and the massacres committed by Mahdi army indiscriminately against Sunni Iraqis. The main requirement of the new agreement is that the Islamic army launch wide operations against American and government targets and to take control of cities and towns near the army’s strongholds, in addition to the provision of assistance and backup to the Mahdi army once Muqtada unfreezes the army and gives the green light for starting the battle against the authority of the Shia coalition. … [The objective is] to create a new situation on the ground that forces the American forces to negotiate a new formula for power and authority in Iraq."

The fact that this story was written almost days before both al-Qaeda leaders sent in a wave of audio recordings and Muqtada threatened open war gives them increased credibility.
True, the idea of the Islamic army cooperating with Mahdi army sounds as peculiar as it always has. Not because of the sectarian difference, because the two groups did cooperate and sent reinforcements to each other back in 2004 during the battles of Fallujah and Najaf.
It’s because by considering a new joint venture with Sadr the Islamic army is making two huge mistakes. It’s true that the leaders of the group are likely not politically savvy and driven by emotion, but it still should be easy for them to understand that this would be a blunder.

First, by siding with Sadr they’d be obviously choosing a losing partner in the long run, and the bet on quick gains through a nationwide shock offensive is too much of a longshot stretch, with highly unpredictable outcome.
Second, and most important, is that former Sunni insurgent groups (the Islamic army being one of the most prominent), by turning against al-Qaeda, have already created for themselves better bargaining positions when it comes to negotiating the future distribution of power in the country with the government or the U.S.

It is close to impossible to truly gauge what the leaders of these groups are thinking because we still don’t have enough knowledge about the subtleties that underlie the relationships between the different factions within the Sunni insurgency in general, and the Islamic army in particular.
But we Iraqis need to stay alert, for something nasty might be brewing for us in Damascus.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Determined but Desperate

The latest three messages from al-Qaeda addressing the Sunni community uncover the depth of the crisis that al-Qaeda is facing in its former host community.
The threatening tone of the missives from the alleged Abu Omar Baghdadi and Aby Ayyub, and the insulting tone of the second by Zawahiri, reflect mistrust, anxiety and a dire need to retrieve what was lost.

Death threats do not represent a serious call for cooperation on an achievable objective. This “work-for-me-or-I-kill-you” tone is completely different from the usual recruiting slogans that have focused on the ideology of fighting for absolute truth against absolute evil.
Those slogans have failed, which is why they have been discarded and replaced by threats and an effort to seek out third parties to render verdicts on disagreements, which is what Baghdadi alluded to when he proposed that some (not all!) Sunni clerics come forward to mediate between al-Qaeda and the public.

This call for mediation indicates first, that al-Qaeda has lost direct contact with the public and second, that there are still some clerics involved with al-Qaeda.
This is the main reason why people have abandoned the Association of Muslim scholars and it’s also the reason that moderate Sunni clerics declare war on the organization.
This is also a reason for the conflict between some tribes with some members of the Islamic party. One suspects that a group of the party’s members are essentially stuck with al-Qaeda: they can’t walk away because of the incriminating evidence al-Qaeda has against them and could threaten to expose.

Of course the threatening messages had to be backed with action in order to be taken seriously; the bombings in Mosul, Anbar and Diyala served as the actual bloody part of the message.

Here we can note, however, that the act didn’t match the threat. Instead of killing security forces and “awakening” fighters only (whom al-Qaeda calls collaborators) the murderous crimes reached civilians who had nothing to do with the whole conflict. Although one attack targeted a funeral of two “awakening” members, the actual victims were noncombatant mourners.
These crimes demonstrate that the principles and values that al-Qaeda touted are false and that the old ways have failed. Otherwise al-Qaeda wouldn’t have switched to terrorizing fellow Sunnis instead of promising mansions in heaven and dozens of virgins.

It is worth noting a difference in style: while Baghdadi used threats, al-Zawahiri has instead resorted to insults. By asking “Are these Awakening Councils in need of someone to defend them and protect them?” al-Zawahiri is playing on the sensitivity of the issue of pride.
In Arabic, there are instances in which questions could serve as assertive statements, in this case an insulting one. Basically what he’s saying is “By seeking protection and cooperation from the US military you are behaving like helpless women and children”.

Such an insult directed against tribal warriors hardened by endless wars since 1980 to date could easily infuriate the target audience more than Baghdadi’s threats did.
It is likely the response of the people will be of the scale of al-Qaeda’s crimes and that blood will only bring blood. This is what we saw from the first reaction from sheik Ali Suleiman of the Duleim tribe (the most prominent tribe in Anbar) who said “we’re not going to let them walk out of our land alive” and called Baghdadi’s message “words of a mad man”. This last notion of madness technically indicates that what al-Qaeda is proposing is absolutely nonnegotiable; the sheik didn’t use words like unacceptable, inappropriate, too harsh, too arrogant; he simply called the proposal crazy.

Attacks on civilians are only going to make the “Awakening” warriors more determined to stand their ground and al-Qaeda is only going to get more solid resistance and more enmity from the people in return for keeping this course of action.
The bad news is that the timing of the newest message from Abu Ayyub suggests that Iraq is heading for tough times in the short term.
It appears that Abu Ayyub wants to synchronize his own campaign with that promised by Sadr.

They know that Iraqi army units have been pulled from Anbar and elsewhere to support the fight against Shia militias, meaning that escalation on a second front would make the job of the Iraqi and US military harder.
The messages in words and bombs indicate that al-Qaeda remains determined to fight on the Iraqi front, which Zawahiri once again called “the fortress” of al-Qaeda’s terror campaign and will keep directing resources towards this purpose.
But at the same time, the vocal anger and frustration reveal that al-Qaeda continues to lose allies and ground and that time on the long run is not on its side. Above all it means that those of us determined to fight terrorism must not lose resolve in this critical battle.

Al-Qaeda has made the Iraqi front its physical center of gravity, and so it’s exactly the place where we must fight, and win.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Iraq's Moment of Truth in Baghdad and Basra

The battle between criminal gangs and the state continues, yet the war is far from being over. Public statements keep coming from both sides and they don’t seem to promise a diplomatic resolution for the crisis.
The latest exchange included a pledge for a “final battle” by Sadr’s spokesman Bahaa Aaraji and an assertion by Maliki that the government will not stop pursuing gangs militarily and politically. Telling Sadr that his movement cannot take part in elections unless he disbands his militias and surrenders weapons is a turning point in Iraqi politics, especially because a broad political front including leading Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish powers emerged to back this new trend in dealing with this issue.

I think what encouraged Maliki to push the limits of the conflict to this unprecedented level was the first-of-a-kind success of the Political Council for National Security — an entity that includes the president, PM, and leaders of major parliamentary blocs — to reach consensus on a decision. This entity managed for the first time a week ago to overcome the impotence that had halted its mission since its inception. Evidence of the newfound potency of this entity is that Ayad Allawi, who had refused being part of it for a long time, is now sending delegates to negotiate terms for his membership.

The ongoing confrontation highlights a dramatic change in the inclination of the Iraqi leadership, which decided to face the challenge with unwavering resolve instead of shrinking away. We have learned from the experience of the last five years that unresolved fights tend to be very costly in the long run, as we will have to deal with recurrent fights over and over again. It can be understood from Maliki’s words that he came to realize that the decision to disband or exterminate illegal military entities should have been made a long time ago.

At this point neither side is happy with the results and I think that both have made up their minds to go to war because each one thinks his side is closer to winning and has greater backing from the public than his rival. However, I believe that Sadr is making the mistake of thinking that what worked for previous battles would be equally effective in future ones. I strongly think that if a final battle is to take place, it will unfold with a bitter defeat for Sadr militarily and politically; the balance of power by far favors the state in spite of the difficulty of the situation.

The Iraqi leadership represented by Maliki is standing before a historic opportunity to strengthen the foundations of the rule of law. This opportunity has been made available by the decision of the Shia to renounce and expel the extremists amongst them, a decision that was long avoided because of sectarian considerations that were proven wrong later.
Everyone has come to realize that allegiance to the country provides more security in the long run than sectarian entrenchment does, and in my opinion the awakening of the Iraqi west and the uprising against the perverted violent practices of co-religionists have provided an example for a similar awakening among the Shia — of course, with the main difference we outlined in an earlier post; that is, while in the west we had a tribal uprising against extremist religious powers, in the south the uprising is religious-on-religious, with the target highly identified with one particular group.

I believe that another promising sign further emphasizes, to the government and people alike, that putting sect and tribe above country is a bad idea. Today 1,300 police and soldiers who disobeyed orders or, worse, sided with the enemy in Basra will get to taste the consequences of that, the same way that the commanders who were in charge of recruiting them did.
This housecleaning is not limited to security forces; Maliki also issued an order to fire Habib Sadr, the director general of the Iraqi Media Network, obviously over the disgraceful coverage of the battle. I didn’t follow the coverage of Iraqiya TV, but there was a lot of misplaced sympathy for Sadr on the government-owned al-Sabah, and the reader could indeed feel that the network was apologizing for, if not defending, the militias.

Back to the awakening theme. In both cases, extremists did not look after their brethren and tried to impose their radical views and practices upon everyone else around them. That’s why although the sect was perceived as a source of security in the first place, people got to realize with time that those extremists who held the banner of the sect had a different agenda from the provision of security for their people.

No Iraqi leader since 2003 has had the same broad support for a policy that Maliki has right now. For the first time a leader has the support of a majority of Shia, along with the approval of the Sunni and Kurds in addition to the sympathy of the public, which has grown tired of the recklessness and violence of Sadr’s movement. For the first time the leader appears more like a leader of Iraq than a leader of a particular sect, party, or ethnic group. Moreover, he has won the support of the coalition to further build an unprecedented consensus among all concerned parties.
I see that Maliki and the government are standing before a chance that will not come again to move the country forward. I’m optimistic about Maliki’s promises and determination more than ever and I totally agree with him that the solution is in disbanding the Mahdi Army (or al-hal hoa al-hal; literally, “the solution is in the [dis]solution,” in a play on words of which Iraqis understand the implicit meaning).

Again, the main element in a resolution for the battle should not be exclusively military through disarming the Mahdi Army, nor exclusively political by excluding the movement from the political process. It has to be also judiciary.
The rule of law must be established and emphasized through prosecuting the heads of the movement who are involved in major atrocities. Evidence is abundant and damning; the movement repeatedly took up arms against the state and caused the deaths of many thousands of civilians and security personnel.
In fact the movement itself keeps offering free confessions every time they boast of their militiamen’s performance in battle. If we actually succeed in putting the leaders of the militia on trial, then I believe that all others who illegally carry arms will be facing a serious challenge. As the Arabic proverb says, “Hit the big and the little will be frightened.” Right now the Mahdi Army is the biggest among insurgents, so defeating it will make others think more than twice before they take up arms against the legitimate institutions of the state.

I hope the Iraqi leadership benefits from this moment of unity, not only to quell violence but also to promote political reconciliation. I agree with observers in Baghdad who say that we’re witnessing a political spring. The most important event so far has been Maliki’s meeting with VP Hashimi to discuss the revival of the national unity government. Actually, a political breakthrough is now more likely to take place than ever, especially since all rivals have acknowledged Maliki’s role as a leader of a central government that has the exclusive right, and the obligation, to restore the prestige of the state and establish the rule of law.
Again, it’s a great opportunity for making substantial progress in the process of building the state and we must not waste it.