Saturday, March 29, 2008

Iraq: Whither Sadr and the Mahdi Army?

As fighting rages between government forces and Sadr’s militia in several cities, senior clerics from the hawza (senior Grand Ayatollahs) made a debut in the conflict.

Ayatollah Fadhil Al-Maliki issued a fatwa in which he openly called on police and army to abandon their duty, adding that operation Knights’ Charge is not targeting criminals but an aggression against “the majority of the Iraqi people.” Although there is news about a handful of soldiers and policemen abandoning their posts and joining the militia, this fatwa is not going to have a significant effect on operations. However it’s a reminder that there are still people who bet on fatwas as long as some are willing to offer allegiance to the sect instead of the country.

This fatwa revives the old conflict over legitimacy between the ethnic Arab and foreign clerics of the hawza. The former, like Ayatollah Al-Maliki or Sadr himself, accuse non-Arab clerics like Sistani of leading a “Hawza Samita” or a silent hawza in the face of what Sadr considers injustice and tyranny.
Iran, on the other hand and as we predicted yesterday, chose not to endorse Sadr’s position and did nothing more than issue a call through Ahmed Jannati, chief of the Guardians Council, for negotiations between Sadr and the government to resolve the crisis.

On the field, as fighting spread to include Karbala province, Sadrists rejected Maliki’s call to lay down their weapons and said they’d do that only surrender their weapons to a government that “fights the occupation”. Putting such an unrealistic condition is synonymous to “we will never lay down our weapons”. This defiance is logical from their perspective that is based on force and in order to justify the use of force they need to find a pretext—and what’s better than claiming to be fighting for the cause of national liberation!?

The clashes were not limited to the streets of Basra, the halls of the parliament saw some fighting as well, but in the form of fist-fights between Sadrist MPs and their counterparts from the other parties in the UIA. The UIA and Kurdish bloc walked out of last evening’s emergency session after an intense verbal exchange among some MPs developed into a fist fight, the chief of the UIA bloc Jalal al-Din Saghier told Radio Sawa.
The parliament as usual decided to form a committee to deal with the situation—a move to save face, no more; in Iraq we have a joke that says “if you want to not solve an issue, let a committee take care of it”.
Again, as predicted in an earlier post, Sadrists have approached tribal leaders and clerics and asked them to mediate between them and the government. The prince of the giant Rabi’a tribe will lead a delegation to negotiate a solution with the government.

Last but not least, it’s good to finally hear Maliki acknowledge the danger that Sadr’s militia pose to the country. Saying that Shia militias are “worse than al-Qaeda” signifies the ferocity of the battle and the enormous pressure it applies on the government. It makes me optimistic that the leadership has realized the extent and nature of the threat. In fact I hope that my expectation of a truce that spares the heads of evil proves wrong. Avoiding taking a battle to the end could cost us several times the price in recurrent outbreaks of violence.

While most influential parties seem to be in favor of the crackdown on Mahdi army (including Kurds who view Sadr as an obstacle to establishing the federal system that would grant them control over Kirkuk. Also recall that Masoud Barazani was so vocal in expressing his hostility to Sadr back in late 2003 when he was temporary president of the GC) Sadr’s old ally Ibrahim Jaafari stepped forward to call for an end to the fighting and to accept the Sadrists back in the political process. The statement was described by Maliki’s advisor Sami Askari as “inappropriate and meaningless“.

But ironically a similar call came from Adnan Duleimi of the Sunni Accord Front. In my opinion this came out of Duleimi’s concern about maintaining the balance of power among Shia parties—a Da’wa and SIIC with near absolute power in the center and south would put more power at the disposal of these parties in Baghdad with federalism again being the central issue.

I was going to stop here but now I see that Sadr finally decided to break his silence and make the first public appearance in several months. While the location of the interview remains undisclosed, the fact that he was interviewed by Ghassan Bin Jidou suggests that he’s either in Iran or is enjoying the generous hospitality of his Lebanese twin Nesrallah (can anyone check the recent stamps on Bin Jidou’s passport?).

I want to end this by saying that if we put together Sadr’s words that he’s in control of the Mahdi army and Maliki’s words that Shia militias are worse than al-Qaeda then the logical conclusion should be that Sadr must be dealt with in the same manner in which we deal with terrorist chiefs when we spot them.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Behind the Bloodshed in Basra

One of the most notable things about the fierce and bloody confrontation taking place the government and Sadr’s militia is the spin on the operation by the commanders and the government; that it is a crackdown on outlaws with emphasis that the operation targets no particular movement or political line.
This generic label, includes the so-called rogue Sadrists. Sadr announced only weeks ago that whoever doesn’t uphold the ceasefire would no longer be considered a member of the movement.

Now, Sadr is watching those rogue elements being hit hard by the government forces. Instead of disavowing those who blatantly disobeyed his ceasefire orders we see him call for negotiations and condemning the government, thus once more revealing his real face as a defender of his own version of terrorism.
Another important dimension in this confrontation, largely ignored, regards Sadr’s rhetoric about security situation in Basra. The anti-Multinational Force powers always blamed British troops for insecurity in the province prior to their withdrawal.

Now it must be asked in a loud clear voice - who’s responsible for insecurity now that British troops are gone?
Another important aspect of this operation is the excessive enthusiasm of the UIA-led government in striking the Sadrists, who are supposed to be part of the UIA and are also Shiites.

This is the first sign of the rising election fever in the south. Word on the street is that Sadrists want to hijack the provincial elections. Everybody knows that their criminal methods can severely reduce the chances for holding fair elections and may grant Sadr’s people huge gains at the expense of other Shiite factions such as the SIIC, Da’wa and Fadheela. The stakes are high for the SIIC in particular whose federal dream in the south, which Sadr is opposed to, hinges on the results of provincial elections.
If Sadr is to be cut down to size before the provincial election law can be passed, presumably his rivals would be able to compete in a relatively more civil way.
The outcome of this operation in my opinion will not involve the extermination of Sadr’s militia but rather the reduction of its power.
A truce would then be put in place with mediation by senior clerics, tribal leaders and third-party politicians.

But this would be a mistake - similar to former interim prime minister Allawi’s when he didn’t finish the job back in Najaf four years ago, except that the situation is more complicated this time as both belligerents are from the UIA.
Why? Because leaders like Saddam, Nasrallah and Sadr always manage to turn defeat into symbolic victory for domestic consumption. If Sadr and a decent part of the movement’s command survive this round, he will portray his movement as an innocent victim of the “occupation and its agents” and will use this for an even louder propaganda campaign after the battle.
Those killed in the fighting are poor unfortunate followers, but the real outlaws, the heads of the movement, will likely escape punishment.

Just like Desert Storm or the summer 2006 Lebanon war, the survival of the leader can easily become synonymous to victory in their twisted dictionary.
And let’s not forget Iran. Its role in this chapter of the struggle for power in the south is still unclear to observers. Both sides of the conflict are friends of Iran, yet I think Iran will support the SIIC and prime minister Maliki this time.
It appears, for now, that Iran has begun to abandon this undisciplined movement. Iran has learned over time that Sadr’s militia, although powerful in some regions, is reckless and unpredictable - unlike the rest of the UIA which is consistent and organized in utilizing the power granted to them as the biggest party in the government to their advantage.

It is true that the grand strategies of Tehran and Sadr are quite the same when it comes to their ambitions in spreading their version of totalitarian Shia Islamism in the region. However, Sadr’s ambitious aspirations are not in harmony with Tehran’s tactical plans. He rejects a federal system in Iraq because he wants to control the whole country, while Iran at this stage is only looking forward to having an ally in a stable Iraqi south.

This is why supporting the SIIC makes more sense for Iran as the most reliable party that may be able to make the autonomous region in the south a reality—a reality in which Iran has a strategic interest, as it can turn the south into a friendly buffer zone instead of a thorn in its side.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Iraqis and US Presidential Elections

While common sense suggests that Iraq would be very interested in the U.S. presidential race — given the immense influence of U.S. decision-making on the situation in the country — we see that the local media in Iraq have largely been ignoring the developments of the Democratic and Republican primaries. Moreover, we have hardly heard any comments from the political class, and the average person on the street is not as interested about the American election as they were in 2004.

What could be the reasons for this?

The first, I believe, is that the clock in Baghdad ticks slower than the clock in Washington. It’s very likely that the media and politicians are not yet interested in the American election simply because there’s still plenty of time left until Americans get to make their final decision. Meanwhile, everyone in Iraq is busy living with immediate domestic challenges and issues of daily life.

There are, however, other likely reasons for the country’s lack of interest. The political class, for example, is perhaps reluctant to endorse or oppose any of the three candidates. This is a natural defense mechanism. They don’t want to throw in their lot with one candidate and then have to deal with a winner they opposed. That would be a great political risk to take for any Iraqi politician or party, especially since the Iraqi election is only 12 months after the American one. The media, being largely reflective of the viewpoints of the government or political parties outside the government, are expected then to exhibit the same kind of behavior in order not to undermine their political sponsors or affiliates.

While I expect the silence of the media and politicians to last through the coming months, the average Iraqi will begin to get more and more interested in the subject. From previous experience, I believe this will become visible once there are only two candidates competing for the presidency. That’s when the clock will — finally — start ticking in Baghdad.

No opinion polls have been conducted to see which of the three candidates (McCain, Clinton, Obama) is viewed most favorably by Iraqis. If I were to try to predict their feelings, I’d start by restating the fact that most Iraqis are concerned first and foremost about their living conditions — economy, security, water, electricity — and they care primarily about coming up with solutions to these problems. Iraqis have also come to realize that their problems are essentially domestic, arising from the struggle among political powers. These in turn are complicated by regional interference, which is most of the time permitted by those very same political powers.
Therefore, the solution has to come from within, and from within only. Yet we cannot ignore that this requires a foreign factor represented by the American presence. This presence is the only hope for creating the environment under which the solution from within can be reached. This is exactly the rationale for the surge, of which McCain has been one of the strongest proponents, if not its main architect.

While many Iraqis may be oblivious to that last fact, I believe there’s wide agreement that Iraq still needs America’s commitment to the democratic project in the country. Perhaps this belief is more prevalent among ordinary people than it is among politicians, particularly those who aren’t sincerely interested in the idea of a unified state. Those politicians, while still more or less silent, view the American presence as a restraint to their ambitions in the long run. They feel they have mustered the tools of power that would enable them to survive and prevail against their rivals — including the not-yet-strong central government in Baghdad — if they enter a struggle to realize their ambitions of walking away with a big enough chunk of the country; the SIIC of Hakim embodies this trend. There are also the Kurdish leaders who are growing more dissatisfied with the current administration’s “complicity” in Turkey’s operations in Kurdistan and are receiving American criticism for the undemocratic way in which they’ve been running their political parties and the Kurdish region so far.

In contrast with ordinary people — or at least with the predicted opinion of ordinary people — these two groups of politicians would rather see an administration that wants to walk away from the problem than one that wants to solve the problem.
This has encouraged Republican leaders, in particular John McCain, to visit Baghdad to negate the state of reluctance that accompanies the waiting for the American election results. This state of reluctance and the delay in passing laws are not good for the democratic process as a whole.

Visits like this, with the absence of similar visits from Democrats, have two dimensions: first, they push the political process in Iraq in order to achieve stability there, which would help the Republicans in the elections. Second, it makes Iraqi politicians and the public understand that a change in the administration does not necessarily mean abandoning Iraq and the immediate withdrawal of troops from the country. The Iraqi government has to work on these basics instead of standing by idly and wasting precious time.