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Tilting at Windmills

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May 30, 2008
By: Eric Martin

GETTING TO KNOW YOU...Like Dr. iRack, I found Dexter Filkins' review of Patrick Cockburn's new book on Moqtada al-Sadr to be well worth the read (don't agree with everything Filkins or Cockburn write, but overall, insightful). This is a pretty good summary of the persistent condition of ignorance vis-a-vis Sadr that has been so prevalent amongst US policymakers:

Muqtada al-Sadr stands for everything in Iraq that we do not understand. The exiles we imported to run the country following Saddam's fall are suave and well-dressed; Muqtada is glowering and elusive. The exiles parade before the cameras in the Green Zone; Muqtada stays in the streets, in the shadows, surfacing occasionally to give a wild sermon about the return of the hidden twelfth imam. The Americans proclaim Muqtada irrelevant; his face adorns the walls of every teashop in Shiite Iraq. The Americans attack; Muqtada disappears. The Americans offer a deal, and Muqtada responds: only after you leave.

Who is Muqtada al-Sadr? What does he want? And how many divisions does he have? That we know so little so late about someone so central to the fate of Iraq is an indictment of anyone associated with the American endeavor there. But it is also a measure of Iraq itself: of its complexity, its mutability, its true nature as an always-spinning kaleidoscope of alliances, deals, and double- crosses. Muqtada al-Sadr is not merely a mirror of our ignorance, he is also a window onto the unforgiving land where we have seen so many of our fortunes disappear.

Administration policymakers have ignored, underestimated and prematurely written off Sadr since before the invasion (when few, if any, even knew who he was), to immediately after the invasion (when he was dismissed as an insignificant rabble rouser not worthy of attention), through a series of clashes with US forces and subsequent poltical maneuvers (after and during which Bush administration officials and their supporters have proclaimed Sadr and his movement dead so many times that cat's stare in awe at his innumerable lives).

Even now, there is much buzz about the impact of the recent anti-Sadr operations in Basra and Sadr City - with many pointing to the fact that Iraqi government forces are in both places as a sign of Sadr's diminishing relevance. I would caution against putting too much stock into that reading.

Some basic facts to consider: the Sadrist trend is generally estimated as comprising between 3-5 million Iraqis. That would put his movement in the range of 15-20% of the entire Iraqi population (especially when you consider that, due to the relatively modest means of his constituents, few Sadrists were among the massive exodus of some 2 million wealthier Iraqis that fled the country as refugees).

Though not a cleric yet himself, Moqtada is the heir to a well respected and immensely popular clerical lineage that dates back many decades (his father and father's cousin were extremely influential Grand Ayatollahs). Beyond the sheer numbers of his constituency, Sadr represents a social movement (and an effective network that distributes vital services to millions of poorer Iraqis) and brand of religious millenarianism (Mahdism) that has a rich and lengthy tradition throughout Iraq's Shiite-dominated south (the latter, with literally centuries of history). The Fadhila Party that dominates Basra is itself an off-shoot of the Sadrist trend that emerged after the assassination of Moqtada's father - just to give you a sense of its reach.

Thus, it is entirely unrealistic to believe, as the Bush administratoin apparently does, that the Sadrist trend can be neutralized militarily, or marginalized through intra-Shiite political maneuvering. Despite recent gains made against Sadr's militia, Sadr's endgame involves exerting his considerable influence via the ballot box and through popular appeals. The US would be far better served by coming to grips with his clout and attempting to normalize relations with his movement, rather than trying to ignore it or adopt policies that amount to wishful thinking. If the US continues to target Sadr and his followers, in the end, such hostility will only harden anti-American attitudes, radicalize the Mahdist movement (and cause dangerous splinter groups to break off) and help weaken one of the truly nationalistic, anti-Iranian forces in Iraqi Shiite politics.

That last point, I would say, represents the other great misunderstanding about the Sadrist movement - its reputed ties to Iran. Actually, I'm not sure it's a misunderstanding as much as useful propaganda adopted by the Bush administration in order to further a political agenda (permanent bases, heavy foreign involvement in the oil industry) that Sadr opposes. In this, the Bush administration has made common cause with Iraqi political parties (ISCI/Dawa) that have much stronger ties to Iran than Sadr. But that is a rather inconvenient and awkward position, so instead of acknowledging the reality of the situation, we adopt a fictitious narrative. But there is a potential for self-fulfilling prophesy: in targeting and isolating Sadr, we are pushing him closer to Iran by denying him viable alternatives.

I haven't had the time to read Cockburn's book on Sadr yet, but I have read this extremely informative piece by Reidar Visser. Visser's work is a valuable tool in overcoming the ignorance surrounding Sadr and his movement that Filkins describes. I'll post an excerpt below the fold that touches on some of the issues mentioned above, but I highly recommend the entire piece.

The problem in this is the character of the "rejection of Iran" referred to by Bush as a supposed attribute of the Maliki government. A brief glance at photos of the frequent and amicable meetings between top ISCI officials and Iranian leaders immediately sows doubts about the realities of that "rejection." Similarly, studies of the run-up to the Basra operations against the Sadrists show that some of the "Iraqi" parties routinely accused of having intimate links to the Iranian revolutionary guards - such as the Sayyid al-Shuhada movement - played a role alongside ISCI in instigating the Maliki government to escalate its operations against the supposedly "pro-Iranian" Sadrists. Only weeks prior to the operations, the only Iraqi group that was talking about pushing its enemies "back to Iran" was the Sadrists. By April, even mainstream Western media reports suggested, albeit belatedly, that perhaps ISCI and their scheme of a single Shiite federal region could after all be Iran's number one priority in Iraq. In short, there is still very little hard evidence that indicates any change in the longstanding historical image of ISCI as Iran's primary partner in Iraq and the Sadrists as Iran's primary challenge - a situation with which Tehran deals shrewdly through dividing and ruling the Sadrists as much as possible through the creation of "special" splinter groups (about which Sadrists complained as early as in April 2007), while at the same time maintaining fallback strategies, such as operating a television channel in Arabic (al-Alam) that allows articulation of both the Sadrist and the ISCI point of view.

Nevertheless, US policy has been the logical opposite of Tehran's strategy of spreading the bets, namely, to persevere with one particular set-up - a coalition of "sectarian moderates" supposedly representing an imagined trinity of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. But two out of the three main components of this coalition (i.e. the "Shiite" ISCI and the "Sunni" Tawafuq) enjoy only limited popular backing in the constituencies they purport to represent. Despite all the spin, key Sunni and Shiite groups outside the government (including for instance Fadila) remain sceptical of Maliki's methods against the Sadrists, and while Basrawis certainly seem to appreciate the strengthened presence of the Iraqi army in their area, this in itself does not mean that support for the Maliki coalition as a political force is growing. Even the higher ranking ulama (and Sistani himself) have reportedly signalled that any move to marginalize any particular party in the next elections would be unacceptable. Against this background, the emerging US reconstruction project in Iraq increasingly comes across as a colossus with feet of clay: only Kurdistan is being represented in government by politicians who enjoy widespread popular backing; substantial segments of the Arab population are either being bombed into submission (the Sadrists) or bribed and armed (the Sunnis) instead of becoming genuinely integrated in national politics; finally, in the absence of a grand political compromise that could secure durable peace and healing across sectarian divides, Iraq's capital city itself is being compartmentalised with concrete barriers, despite complaints by many Iraqis who think that physical separation is no adequate substitute for true reconciliation.

Despite all this, Washington consistently refuses to rethink its basic choice of Iraqi partners (ISCI and the Kurds), and appears to continue to eschew any serious contact with those Shiite groups in Iraq that "reject" Iran - Bush's term - in a far more convincing manner: the Fadila party, "moderate" Sadrists and independent Shiite figures (both secularists and Islamists) who all repeatedly have made calls for assistance against Iranian infiltration in Iraq's security forces, and have asked for help to cope with the pressures they are being exposed to due to their anti-Iranian attitudes. More plausible approximations of the dictionary definition of "rejection" include accusing Iran of death threats (as the Fadila governor of Basra has repeatedly done), criticising the "Iranian occupation of Iraq" to the press (a frequent complaint by Fadila members of the Basra council), accusing Shiite parties of having their headquarters in Iran (the latest charge by Wail Abd al-Latif, a Shiite secularist from Basra) or even setting fire to the Iranian consulate in Basra (followers of the small Sadrist group of Mahmud al-Hasani have reportedly been involved in this). But despite a catalogue of political demands that are shared by a high number of independent experts on Iraqi affairs - a timetable for US withdrawal, a negotiated settlement of Kirkuk, early provincial elections, prudence in the federalism question - such genuinely anti-Iranian elements among the Shiites continue to receive very limited attention from the United States, whether from Democrats or Republicans.

The ironic result is that in the end, even these Shiite Iraqi nationalist groups will have nowhere else to go than Iran. It is of course understandable that Washington may dislike the prospect of Muqtada al-Sadr's strict Islamism becoming ascendant in the new Iraq. But that kind of reasoning misses the point in three ways. In the first place, the main Shiite alternative, ISCI, has been equally involved in the Islamisation of Iraq after 2003, even if they are more professional than the Sadrists in handling their reputation when they deal with the Western media, and sometimes also rely on proxy-like groups, like "Hizbollah in Iraq" and Tharallah.

Secondly, the Sadrists can offer something to other Iraqis which ISCI is unable to deliver due to its insistence on a Shiite federal region: national reconciliation that would appeal to a majority of Sunnis. (If Maliki is serious about dialogue with the Sunnis, he should stop boasting about "going after the Sadrists" and instead start pressuring ISCI to take the scheme for a Shiite federal region off the agenda.) And thirdly, to include the Sadrists in the political process is not the same as making Muqtada al-Sadr the next premier of Iraq, and also does not imply a green light to the sort of extremist vigilantism perpetrated by Sadrists in Basra. Rather, the most likely outcome would be a change in the dynamics of Iraqi politics, back to a more nationalist and centrist atmosphere. This in turn could bring to the fore new leaders and new political formulas that simply do not have a chance in today's Iraq, where the political game is largely controlled by a minority of returned exiles who insist on a more sectarian, ethno-federal approach to Iraqi politics. It would be the sort of change that could produce a new Iraq more in touch with the long lines of its own history and hence more stable; dialogue with the Sadrists is as central to this kind of outcome as negotiations with Hamas is in the Palestinian question and as engagement with Hizbollah is in Lebanon.

Finally, it is high time that Washington understands that Muqtada al-Sadr was driven to Iran in 2007 as the result of threatening US policies, not as a consequence of any longstanding warm relations between him and Tehran. More mistakes like this could deprive the United States of one of the last chances to salvage the political process in Iraq, and might also unleash some of the most destructive forces that exist in southern Iraq. The consequences for the geopolitics of the world's largest belt of oil resources could be devastating.

Eric Martin 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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Comments

Hi Eric, great post and a well-deserved A-list guest slot.

A little bit of news you might have missed though - Hakim of the ISCI has come out against the proposed US/Iraq basing agreement, saying unspecified points would "violate Iraq's national sovereignty" and no agreement has been reached.

The agreement is due to be finalised in July but it's now opposed by Sistani, Sadr and Hakim so fat chance of that happening. So what's next, when the UN mandate expires?

Regards, Cernig

Posted by: Cernig on May 30, 2008 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

Hi Eric, great post and a well-deserved A-list guest slot.

A little bit of news you might have missed though - Hakim of the ISCI has come out against the proposed US/Iraq basing agreement, saying unspecified points would "violate Iraq's national sovereignty" and no agreement has been reached.

The agreement is due to be finalised in July but it's now opposed by Sistani, Sadr and Hakim so fat chance of that happening. So what's next, when the UN mandate expires?

Regards, Cernig

Posted by: Cernig on May 30, 2008 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

Wow. That's huge!

Thanks, as always Cernig, for the information.

Posted by: Eric Martin on May 30, 2008 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

I want to put myself on the record as openly rooting for Sadr and his vision of Islamic democracy.

Is that wrong?

Posted by: Anthony on May 30, 2008 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

All of this can be readily summarised by noting the US position of divide-and-conquer - encouraging if not actually implementing tribalism in the guise of a so-called "federalism" - to ensure an indefinite presence in Iraq, versus al-Sadr's nationalism and pan-confessional appeals to national unity, which would deliberately exclude the occupying power from any further role in Iraq. The promotion of sectarian and tribal militias is the US/Petraeus position currently, and is unlikely to change when he is promoted out of Iraq, or even perhaps will continue after the grotesque Cheney-Bush crowd decamp next January.

Posted by: barrisj on May 30, 2008 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

I want to put myself on the record as openly rooting for Sadr and his vision of Islamic democracy

I actually like Sistani's vision of Islamic democracy better.

Check out this report when you get a chance. Babak Rahimi is a tremendous resource.

http://www.usip.org/pubs/specialreports/sr187.html

I'm not a huge Sadr fan. I just don't see why we should spend trillions and take tens of thousands of lives to prop up ISCI/Dawa instead since most of my objections to Sadr are similarly leveled at them. Likewise, I vehemently oppose operations like those in Sadr City that resut in the deaths of thousands of innocent supporters of Sadr for such reasons.

I should not have a vote in Iraq's future. And certainly should not be in a position to impose my will via the barrel of a gun.

Still, I'm too wedded to human rights and the liberal tradition to "root" for Sadr per se. He's not the devil he's portrayed to be, but not near a saint either.

Posted by: Eric Martin on May 30, 2008 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Al Sadr not only represents the poorest and most defenseless people in Iraq, he has mostly stood with them in their jeopardy, providing whatever meager aid and defenses he can. Mr. Martin's marriage to human rights and liberal traditions resembles W. Clinton's commitment to prolong sanctions on Iraq and bomb Belgrade's civilians.

Al Sadr is the only hope for the people of Sadr City and Shiites elswhere of participating in a popular government. He is probably the only hope for the people of America to finding a peaceable way out of Iraq. I expect al Sadr will be assassinated by US forces, dashing any hopes of a change for the better in Iraq, because so-called human rights advocates and militant liberals accept the dogma Shiites are antithetical to their ideas of liberty and freedom.

Posted by: Brojo on May 30, 2008 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

I should not have a vote in Iraq's future. And certainly should not be in a position to impose my will via the barrel of a gun.

Still, I'm too wedded to human rights and the liberal tradition to "root" for Sadr per se. He's not the devil he's portrayed to be, but not near a saint either.

Bingo!

Posted by: Cernig on May 30, 2008 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

When we start getting enmeshed like this in the internal struggles of Third World countries that we don't understand, I can't help but recall Kipling:

Now it is not good for the Christian's health to hustle the Aryan brown,
For the Christian riles, and the Aryan smiles and he weareth the Christian down;
And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: "A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East."

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on May 30, 2008 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

Mr. Martin's marriage to human rights and liberal traditions resembles W. Clinton's commitment to prolong sanctions on Iraq and bomb Belgrade's civilians.

How exactly is that? Care to elaborate.

I mean, I opposed the invasion before it started. Have been urging for a withdrawal of US troops. Have strongly and relentlessly advocated against offensive operations against Sadr City and other densely populated areas.

What exactly do you mean?

(for the record, I was for the smartening/softening of sanctions too)

Posted by: Eric Martin on May 30, 2008 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

What Eric Martin means by "not a saint" is that Sadr and his organization have sponsored death squads and criminal enterprises that are largely responsible for the exodus of millions of Iraqis to Jordan and Syria. The death squads targeting Sunni Arabs in the Baghdad area are a major reason for Sadr's popularity among Shiites who have long borne the brunt of the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency's mass-casualty attacks on civilians and Iraqi government employees. They are also, of course, useful in imposing Sadr's will "via the barrel of a gun." And they were the impetus behind the "threatening American policies" last year that ended up driving Sadr to leave Iraq.

That is Iraq. If Muqtada Sadr did not exist, someone else would emerge to assume the role he is playing now. He is an authentic expression of Arab Iraq's political culture, as Saddam Hussein was. This means two things: one, that a stable Iraqi democracy is not now and never has been a realistic objective for the Americans in Iraq, and two, that should the Americas leave things in Iraq could get very bad. How bad could depend on how much power Sadr still has.

Is preventing this from happening worth what it would cost in American blood and treasure? I've been clear for some time that the answer to that question is no. On a tactical level, the Americans under Petraeus have enjoyed considerable successes over the last year or so. The difficulties they have faced have stemmed less from their not grasping the intricacies of Iraqi Arab politics than from their having been unable to trump them with the limited tools available.

But this still begs the question of whether there is anything in Iraq, or any conceivable outcome there, worth the enormous price the United States has already paid, and under current policy will continue paying into the indefinite future. Gen. Petraeus cannot answer that question. President Bush refuses to. And a surprising number of the war's critics seem more concerned with finding fault with American tactics and wisdom about Iraqi politics than with addressing the war in terms that have something to do with the interests and priorities of this country.

Posted by: Zathras on May 30, 2008 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

I expect al Sadr will be assassinated by US forces, dashing any hopes of a change for the better in Iraq, because so-called human rights advocates and militant liberals accept the dogma Shiites are antithetical to their ideas of liberty and freedom.

Sweet jeebus, is there nothing in between rooting for someone and advocating for their assassination - which I DON'T!

But we should not be undialectical either. We should not adopt black/white worldviews whereby Sadr and his movement are turned into something they are not by our rigid thinking and need for "good guys."

Some of his followers kill women that wear makeup and/or eschew the veil. They kill those that sell alcohol. Their "virtue and vice" squads are ugly and oppressive. They impose a strict view of Shiism even on Christians and Jews. In addition, Sadr's followers have been involved in some of the most vicious sectarian cleansing that Baghdad has seen.

Does that not still matter? Should I ignore empirical evidence for the sake of some false binary choice whereby I either support Sadr 100% or want to assassinate him and bomb Sadr City?

Feh.

I don't know about you, but I'm capable of more complexity in my outlook.

Posted by: Eric Martin on May 30, 2008 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

My outrage meter is cranked up pretty high in regards to al Sadr and the oppressed Shiites.

Preferring the Ayatollah Sistani's 'vision' to al Sadr's acutal defense of Shiites communicates to me keeping the Shiites oppressed and impoverished is preferrable to defending themselves from both the Sunnis and Americans. To not 'root' for al Sadr communicates not rooting for the liberation of the Sadr City Shiites from their historical domination of Sunnis and now Americans. Basing that lack of support on a marriage to human rights and some liberal 'tradition,' seemed to disregard the long time suffering of Iraq's Shiites and their need to finally defend themselves.

But Cernig was correct, it was a great post. Few have argued for a reasonable view of al Sadr.

Posted by: Brojo on May 30, 2008 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

Patrick Cockburn is the best Western journalist working in Iraq. He courageously visits places no other Western journalist gets near. He has been saying that our occupation of Iraq is a festering pile of dung and we have no hope of turning Iraq into a liberal Western-style democracy since 2003, when the museums were being looted and deBaathification occurred.

Although I have not read his book on Moqtada al-Sadr either, I can guarantee you, sight unseen, that it is the best-researched and most authentic biography of this man you will read in English. Click here for a great article about the rape of the city of Mosul, written by Cockburn.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on May 30, 2008 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

Brojo,

Sorry if I came across combative. That was not my intention.

Personally, I would prefer it if Sistani spoke up a bit more too. But then, I think he is more willing to accept personal freedoms akin to the Bill of Rights. So there's a trade off. Also: Sistani is not always quiet. He was instrumental in forcing the Bush admin to allow elections early on in the process, and he was the force behind establishing the UIA.

He remembers the last time the Iraqis were dealing with an outside power (the Brits) and the way the Sunnis worked with the Brits leaving the piously resistant Shiites holding the bag. And nothing else. So he doesn't want to risk losing out again. He wants a Shiite dominated Iraq, but he has only so much patience for American interference.

And there are many things that the OMS (Sadr's political/social wing) does that I admire. If it helps, I have no problem "rooting" for the poor and disenfranchised Iraqis. I am not "rooting" for American puppets or Sunni elite domination either.

It's just the parts the violence and repressive tendencies that temper my support. In many ways, even Saddam's Iraq had more respect for personal freedoms than some Sadrists would have it. Especially if you're a woman. (and, no, that does not mean that I would prefer Saddam or some similar Sunni strong man)

Posted by: Eric Martin on May 30, 2008 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

I have always felt the US should have turned to al Sadr and provided him aid and the tools of US power to become the ruler of Iraq. The US has been arming Sunnis and a puppet Shiite led government rather than the most popular and nationalist Iraqi. When the US leaves Iraq it will be the American armed Sunnis who will commit the most violence in an attempt to retake national power.

Al Sadr's followers have committed war atrocities. So have the followers of W. Bush. War means atrocities. Perhaps for civil wars even more so.

Of all the leaders with force in Iraq, al Sadr has been the most reluctant to use force and the first to order his followers to stand down. He has reached out to Sunnis to create an inclusive state free of the invaders. The prejudice against Shiites is so deeply ingrained people cannot see that they are a peaceful people who are no longer going to allow their subjugation.

Posted by: Brojo on May 30, 2008 at 9:49 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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