Wednesday, December 05, 2007

How to eat an elephant

Most people would say it’s impossible. No one could eat an elephant. Others would argue that one actually could eat an elephant—with patience, one bite at a time.
The government cracked down on the Association of Muslim Scholars, an organization of Sunni clerics sympathetic to al-Qaeda and believed to have even been involved in leading, funding and hosting insurgent groups that have been responsible for countless attacks against Iraqis and Americans alike.

Unlike previous operations, this one is different in that the troops were sent following a request submitted to the government by the department of Sunni endowment, an entity in charge of overseeing Sunni mosques and other religious activities. The chief of the Sunni endowment, Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Ghafour Samarraie, is a moderate Sunni cleric who has renounced the insurgency and explicitly accused the association of assisting al-Qaeda by justifying their murderous attacks against Iraqis.

For four years now we’ve been waiting for this to happen. This al-Qaeda apologist, so-called association of Muslim scholars had to be dealt with and honestly it was frustrating to see them operate freely when the damage they caused was widely known, in nature if not in extent.

This incident, I believe, is not to be seen as abstract and it’s no coincidence that the raid on their office came amid efforts to prosecute corrupt officials from Sadr’s movement and the Fadheela Party. The list includes the former deputy minister of health, a Sadr follower who’s been accused of running sectarian death squads and the chief of the integrity committee in the parliament; a member of the Fadheela Party which is believed to be involved in massive oil smuggling operations in the south. He is now about to lose parliamentary immunity over corruption charges.

The interesting thing indeed is that the officials who are leading this campaign and rose to challenge the Sadrists and the association are from their respective sects and regions.

In Karbala, as a most recent example, the police chief finally declared the Mahdi Army an outlaw group. He accused them of murdering over 700 Iraqi civilians, 70 police officers, kidnapping over 130 civilians as well as conducting some 50 attacks with roadside bombs over the last three years in Karbala province alone.

In my opinion, what we’re seeing right now is an exploitation of the achievements of the surge strategy in the direction to establish rule of law-step by step.

I think, and it would be a practical approach if that was the case, that the campaign will involve multiple steps and will deal with targets one at a time according to a certain pattern; that is from the most aggressive, least reconcilable and less politically powerful to the less aggressive, more reconcilable and more politically powerful.

Yes, I consider Sadr now to fit in the less powerful politically category because a) PM Maliki became less dependent on him after withdrew his followers from the cabinet and from the UIA as well and b) his political weight comes from his ability to create chaos and fear; this ability is not as great as it used to be.

Of course such a pattern would require different means and tactics to deal with each target. For example with al-Qaeda it is simply a great military and intelligence effort to exterminate them. With Sunni insurgents it was a combination of coercion and persuasion. Those who agree to cooperate are welcome in the new Iraq-those contributed to the effort against al-Qaeda — while those who don’t suffer the consequences.

Now it’s Sadr’s and Dhari’s (the head of the association of Muslim scholars) turn. The two have been more or less defanged in many parts of the country as Dhari can’t find reliable bargaining power in al-Qaeda anymore and as Sadr is being squeezed with pressure from his former allies in the UIA and determined Iraqi military commanders in the south.

In my assessment of the situation, I think this phase of the campaign will focus on these two threats while momentarily purposely overlooking the smaller ones (small in the ability to create chaos, greater in political weight though). This can make a lot of sense. What stopped the US military from taking decisive action against Dhari or Sadr and his followers were the concerns that doing so might cause more harm than good. Now it seems that those two have lost the capacity to cause enough chaos. In other words they no longer can deter a decisive action by the US troops and Iraqi government. This is truer since the decisive action is coming in the form of legal processes and charges pushed by Iraqi officials supported by evidence, meaning the defendants are denied the use of the occupation /sectarian partiality cliché.

When this phase is completed, and it might take a while, the judicial and security institutions of the state will have gained confidence, popular support and will be galvanized by the experience. That would prepare the atmosphere for the launch of the next phase—cleaning the “house of moderates”. Those moderates (represented by parties such as the SIIC, Islamic Party, Kurdish parties, etc) have enjoyed a fairly long “grace period” since they have been indispensable in establishing the political process after the fall of the former regime. But when state institutions become stronger, terror and other threats and manipulation by extremists would be neutralized to a great extent; those parties will become more vulnerable to scrutiny and to the rule of law.

Our moderate politicians-I prefer to call them “less radical” politicians — might not like this in the future but I doubt they would be able to stop the moving wheel of evolution. The beautiful nature of democracy and power-sharing is that concessions will always be made in order to preserve both; the system for the state and the best possible position for the groups within.