Thursday, December 21, 2006

Shifting from Sadr, while Sadr shifts again

There's an important AP report this morning:
Half the delegates traveled to Najaf Wednesday night and were gathered Thursday morning at the home of the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an official in al-Sistani's office said on condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities. The others were traveling to Najaf on Thursday, he said.

The visit is intended to allow the Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, to work out some of Iraq's biggest political obstacles in front of al-Sistani, and to pressure al-Sadr to rein in his fighters and rejoin politics -- or face isolation, participants said.
For several weeks, there have been external and internal pressures in Iraq that would shift the power base of the government from Sadr to Hakim, the cleric in charge of SCIRI. Time and again, Sadr has shifted his positions, and we may see another change in the coming days. His forces battled Marines in Najaf. His followers boycotted elections. Then, his supporters formed one of the most powerful political blocks when Sadr endorsed voting. His influence is impressive, but he seems to want to follow the leadership of Sistani and remain an Iraqi/Arab/Shiite in the public's perception. Sadr believes in velayat-e faqih, or rule of the clerics. One day, he may wish to be the most prominent cleric in Iraq. But at this point, his beliefs and public persona necessitate that he remain a follower of Sistani.

With substantial changes in the Iraq government, progress could be made. However, there is not much reason for optimism at this time. Two articles detail the potential trouble in shifting the political power structure in Shiite/Iraq at this time.

Reuel Marc Gerecht (highly speculative) in the New York Times:
In fact, attacking Mr. Sadr now and elevating the Supreme Council is likely to accomplish the exact opposite of what we want. And it shouldn’t be that hard to see why: the sine qua non for peace in Iraq, and for a democratic future for the country, has always been unity among the Shiites. Any violent struggle between the Mahdi Army and Supreme Council could provoke anarchy throughout the entire Arab Shiite zone, including Iraq’s holy cities and the oil-rich south. As bad as things seem now, such Shiite strife could impoverish all of Arab Iraq, dropping the non-Kurdish regions to an Afghan-like subsistence level.

In such a situation, we would likely see the hyper-radicalization of the Shiites, who have already become more militant owing to the tenacity and barbarism of the Sunni insurgency. In addition, whatever fraternal and nationalist bonds remain among moderate Sunni and Shiite Arabs would probably disappear in a Shiite-versus-Shiite bloodbath.

We would do well not to underestimate how these age-old familial and national ties and sympathies still diminish the sectarian strife. A genocidal Shiite-versus-Sunni conflict in Iraq — a real possibility — would be much more likely after an intra-Shiite war that destroys the traditional social and religious hierarchy that has remained vastly stronger among the Shiites than among Sunni Arabs since the American invasion.

Yes, the forces of the Supreme Council might be able to beat Mr. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army. Trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Badr Organization is a serious army that might handle Mr. Sadr’s more numerous and passionate supporters. The mullahs in Tehran, who have aided both Mr. Sadr and Mr. Hakim, would probably throw their support to the latter’s Supreme Council in the event of all-out war. Such a confrontation, beyond wrecking Iraq politically, would probably allow the worst elements in the Supreme Council — those who envision a religious dictatorship along the lines of Iran — to become more powerful within the party.
Sudarsan Raghavan in the Washington Post:
Hakim, who once verbally attacked U.S. policy, now senses a political opportunity and is softening his stance toward the Americans. Sadr's position is hardening. Young and aggressive, he has suspended his participation in Iraq's government and is intensifying his demands for U.S. troops to leave the country.

Their rivalry is rising as the moderating influence of Iraq's most revered Shiite figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is fading on the streets of Baghdad and is being replaced by allegiance to militant clerics such as Sadr, according to Iraqi officials and analysts.

They question whether Hakim can counter Sadr's growing street power without worsening the chaos. As President Bush ponders limited alternatives in forging a new approach in Iraq, some wonder whether the United States is overestimating Hakim's ability.

The U.S. embrace of Hakim "will deepen their rivalry," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator. "And it will deepen the rifts between the United States and the Sadrists."

Across Baghdad, as the fourth year of war nears an end, many Iraqis are asking one question: Can their prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite politician backed by Sadr, balance U.S. demands to distance himself from the cleric and move their country forward?
The potential talks among the Shiite governing factions could change the dynamic in the country. However, this will have to be seen so that it can be believed. Sadr's militia has been brutal, and there are indications that he does not have complete control of his own followers.

Ultimately, this is about the militias, the insurgents and strictly internal Iraqi politics. Matteo Tomasini pointed to an article by Anthony Cordesman:
No US strategy or surge effort can work without a militia and local security forces strategy. Simply buying temporary security in Baghdad is pointless without such efforts. Yet, no consensus now exists within the Maliki government on the treatment of the Shi'ite and Kurdish militias, how to deal with local Sunni forces, and over a schedule for action.

Fixing the police and justice system will take years, and it is far easier to call for the militias to be disbanded than create real day-to-day security. The Iraqi government and the US may well need a plan to try to coopt such security forces, rather than disband them, and gradually include them in the police or pay them to find other jobs. Surging US forces to try to forcibly disband them before any other forces can provide local security seems a recipe for disaster.
A surge is pointless without political progress in Iraq. In fact, a surge could be counterproductive unless a substantial amount of the Iraqi population believes that it is in their best interest. Yesterday, America handed over its first province to the Iraqi government. This province so happens to be Sistani's Najaf. The New York Times reported this banner:
The general public did not attend the event. Much of the audience was made up of the area’s powerful tribal leaders, who sat beneath a sign that read: “We are the sons of those who drove the British out in 1920.”
There is a long legacy of foreign interests in Iraq. We must be cognisant of the colonial (British) and imperial (Ottoman)legacies in Iraq. Without political progress and this sensitivity, we may find General Abizaid's wariness of a large military presence to be prudent, the Washington Post:
Yet critics say Abizaid has placed too much emphasis on Arab sensitivity to foreign occupation, and therefore never demanded enough U.S. troops to stabilize the country. "He was too smart by half," another U.S. officer said.

"The bottom line is we are losing a war in his theater on his watch," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, saying Abizaid's popularity has dwindled in recent months as the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan have deteriorated. "We need a fresh approach."

Abizaid made clear his continued opposition to a major surge of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the current 140,000, arguing that it would perpetuate a mentality of dependency by Iraqi forces and increase resistance among Iraq's population.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Al Sadr and not the SCIR actually is the one that has similar ideas as to the nature of an Islamic government as that of Khomeini.

Al Sistani also believes in the Islamic government minus the position of the Philosopher-King (the Supreme Jurisprudent).

Iran is not a dictatorship - it is restriced representative republic and the best shot of Muslims at achieveing Modernity with Islam.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Publia said...

I am looking forward to an op ed on Putin since you think TIME made a mistake on their person of the year. It would be very interesting.

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last night I happened to catch an English Language Arabic News feed on Comcast, it was discussing the changing religous dynamic both in Iraq and through-out the Middle East. The jist was that a growing number of Imams are now preaching against Jihad and Sectarian violence.

If true that is a positive developement and plays against Sadr.

Also this week Newsweek reported on Iraq's growing economy and it actually isnt as bad as many people believe. That will also cut into Sadr's strength as people with jobs don't generally join militias.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Chuck said...

Since I won't be blogging for the next few days while I spend Christmas with my family I would like to wish you and your readers a Happy Holiday and hope you all will be safe and secure.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

Hi C.E.,

2006 ended with a major debacle for the Pharisaic thugs of Neoconistan: let’s hope the political wine of 2007 will be as sweet to our patriotic pallets...

I look forward to hear Jim Webb’s first speeches in the US Senate: the Virginian will be Cheney’s worst nightmare!

In the meantime, I wish you a merry Christmas & happy new year.

May Crom and the Holly Tarim be with you and your loved ones


8:02 AM  
Blogger Publia said...

Merry Christmas!

6:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well CE...a little late to this discussion, but that's 'cause I only dropped in to wish you and your merry Christmas!

1:59 AM  

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