Forced to fight renegades

by John Quiggin on March 27, 2008

The Maliki government’s offensive in Basra seems to have taken most observers by surprise. Possibly as a result, reporting of the event has been unusually revealing about the implicit presumptions that guide the news we get to read. The New York Times, for example, leads with a photo of “Fighters loyal to renegade Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr”, taking up positions in Basra. Later on, the article notes

If the cease-fire were to unravel, there is little doubt about the mayhem that could be stirred up by Mr. Sadr, who forced the United States military to mount two bloody offensives against his fighters in 2004

Like most of the other militia leaders in Iraq (including the leaders of mercenary militias like Blackwater), Sadr is not a particularly attractive character. But in what possible sense can he be described as a “renegade”? He was a consistent opponent of Saddam and became a consistent opponent of the US occupation. This might justify descriptions like “rebel” or “recalcitrant”, but Sadr is one of the few Iraqi figures who hasn’t switched sides, in many cases more than once.

More important though, is the second paragraph. The US was not, in any sense, forced to launch the 2004 offensives. These were miniature wars of choice within the broader war of choice in Iraq. The assumption was that Sadr’s supporters could be crushed by military force, leaving the way open for the US occupation government to reshape Iraq along the lines it wanted. In the end, after much bloodshed, nothing was achieved. Arrest warrants for Sadr, the pretext for the first offensive, quietly disappeared when they became inconvenient, and much the same happened the second time around.

We are now seeing a repeat of the same strategy, adopted by the Maliki government. On past performance, the likely pattern will be one of initial success, followed by a lot of tough talk, and then a bloody stalemate, ending in a patched-up compromise.

{ 89 comments }

1

HH 03.27.08 at 12:14 am

The fragmentary information coming out of Basra indicates serious miscalculations on Maliki’s side. Going into Basra with guns blazing, then giving your adversaries 72 hours to lay down their arms indicates a lack of, shall we say, success.

Sadr has zealots fighting for him. Maliki has a better armed by poorly motivated puppet army. This could be an indecisive struggle that continues until Americans intervene. The main casualty is likely to be the marvelous “surge.” Petraeus will be testifying about his great success while cable news footage of street battles in Basra is broadcast. How awkward.

2

leinad 03.27.08 at 12:32 am

This offensive doesn’t appear to be well thought out at all. If the goal was to mop up rogue elements of JAM why did they start going after Sadr loyalists?, and if the goal was to go after JAM and Sadr, why now, when there’s still a ceasefire and a chance of reconciliation?

This might be Maliki thinking to strike while the iron is hot and before the US starts scaling down its presence, but you’d think the US would have put the kibosh on it if the gameplan was to palm Iraq off to the next administration.

Baffling stuff.

3

mikesdak 03.27.08 at 1:09 am

I agree that the idea was to hit while the US can still help. I also think the reason the US let it happen is because they see Iran behind every rock, and Maliki used that to get the go-ahead, never mind that his own army has plenty of Iran sympathizers in it. It also temporarily distracts our Sunni hired guns by giving them a inter-Shia war to cheer on.
Of course it won’t end well. Maliki doesn’t have enough to finish the job, and the longer it goes the weaker his government becomes.

4

Andrew 03.27.08 at 1:17 am

Leinad @ #2:

Baffling stuff yes, but hardly surprising:

This offensive doesn’t appear to be well thought out at all. If the goal was to mop up rogue elements of JAM Al Qaeda, why did they start going after Sadr loyalists Saddam? And…why now, when there’s still a ceasefire inspections process underway and a chance of reconciliation peaceful resolution?

As you note, it would have made sense for the US to knock this on the head, but the current US administration does not make sense. This is just par for the course behaviour.

5

Roy Belmont 03.27.08 at 1:26 am

Oh, it’s baffling all right. Mind-blowing, staggering, astounding. But it’s also perfectly consistent with the entire program from the get, there is that.
Something that never gets tagged on to the “renegade” rebel” “firebrand” glossary of Al-Sadr stock descriptors is that Saddam’s Baathist thugs murdered his father, a popular cleric in his own right, along with two of his sons, Muqtada Al-Sadr’s brothers.
In fact, it never gets mentioned at all. And by golly that’s baffling too. But consistent.

6

HH 03.27.08 at 1:39 am

The bafflement continues. Today McCain gave a foreign policy speech in which the goal posts were moved away from averting civil war (oops!) to preventing GENOCIDE! Note that there has never previously been a threat of genocide in Iraq, but America has brought new possibilities to that nation.

Another baffling development was the discovery of “special groups.” Thise is a new kind of Iraqi enemy that is generically labelled for fear of giving offense to people we would rather not be fighting in larger numbers. It is reminiscent of “Catch 22” and the Special Services unit. Perhaps we can use American Special Services to defeat the Iraqi Special Groups. Wouldn’t that be special.

7

Steve LaBonne 03.27.08 at 1:45 am

Sadr is a nationalist. We Yankee imperialists don’t cotton to that sort of thing in our fiefdoms. On the other hand, Sadr’s enemies are willing to promise us our permanent bases (now, delivering may turn out to be a different story- but shh, don’t tell Cheney and McCain) in exchange for propping them up (and helping them eliminate Sadr). See? It’s not really so complicated.

8

P O'Neill 03.27.08 at 3:23 am

They like “renegade” because the term “maverick”, which could also be used, is reserved for John McCain.

And it was only a couple of days ago that Fred Kagan was boasting at AEI that JAM would never dare take on the Iraqi army with the US still around, because they’d get wiped out so quickly.

9

nick s 03.27.08 at 6:02 am

Something that never gets tagged on to the “renegade” rebel” “firebrand” glossary of Al-Sadr stock descriptors is that Saddam’s Baathist thugs murdered his father, a popular cleric in his own right, along with two of his sons, Muqtada Al-Sadr’s brothers.

Nor the precedent of the 1991 Shia uprising thing in the south, either. Not a perfect fit, but you can bet your bottom dinar that it’s being invoked in Basra right now as the US provides air support.

10

dsquared 03.27.08 at 7:32 am

[crossposted, with a few minor changes in this version, from comments at “The Yorkshire Ranter”]

I’m not sure I believe in this concept of a “Sadr movement” and in particular, I don’t believe that the people calling themselves the Mehdi Army in Basra have all that much in common with the inhabitants of Sadr City or the hardcore fighters in Najaf. Moqtada al-Sadr became a brand name early in the war as the only real focus for non-Ba’athist nationalist resistance, and as a result the rather strange coalition that built up around the time of the siege of Najaf (which included a couple of British guerilla-tourists who really clearly didn’t know what they were doing there) has never really made much sense as a political entity.

As a result, if I were M al-S, I’d have been worrying for quite some time that the Basra branch was a loose cannon almost bound to end up as an embarrassment. And when you think about it, they’re very vulnerable to a squeeze there as they have much less of a political base than anyone else and no allies. I think that they do end up getting squashed.

But something like this had to happen; the alternative was that Maliki just sat around running the clock out on the surge before getting on the wrong end of a coup, with even more disastrous results. It’s a good sign that he is willing and able to order the Iraqi Army to do anything offensive; agreed that this is good in the sense that out of our two chances, Slim hasn’t quite reached the town boundaries yet, but something had to happen. This isn’t contrarianism and I don’t see why it’s annoying.

Or to put it more simply, I think that the attack on Basra has to be seen as analogous to directors buying stock in their own company – it doesn’t change anything in and of itself, but as an indication of the subjective assessment of people in the middle of things, it’s a piece of information that a smart chap doesn’t ignore (viz, the HBOS directors putting in more or less their entire bonuses last week; otoh, Bernie Ebbers was buying Worldcom stock all the way down so it’s not a perfect indicator).

If al-Maliki really does believe that he can do this on his own, that’s something very interesting, because he’s potentially a lot better placed to make that call than I am. On the other hand, maybe I’ve overestimated him and that old Saddam-era type that’s running the operation – it’s of course always possible that they’re doing the typical American client tactic of trying to cause a disaster so big that daddy has to step in and bail them out. In which case, of course, we’re in the shit. But it does strike me as worth a punt at the right odds; in punditry terms as in the market, you never get rich by backing the favourite in every race.

11

dsquared 03.27.08 at 8:20 am

Hey, I appear to have independently come up with the Pentagon line! If you’re recruiting paid hacks, guys, my rates are decidedly reasonable.

12

John Quiggin 03.27.08 at 8:47 am

DD, I must say that this kind of application of the theory of information revelation “X is doing something that seems batshit insane, so he must have private information to show it makes sense” has never appealed to me much. But in the case of Iraq, it is just about impossible to think of anyone to whom it could be applied. Even the Kurds have managed to overplay their hand to the point of bringing the Turkish army into play.

13

Daniel 03.27.08 at 9:20 am

hmmm, I see what you mean, but even the fact that Maliki has a hand to play is not totally uninformative. I would have guessed that six months ago if he’d ordered the Iraqi Army to attack Basra, they’d have said “no”.

14

leinad 03.27.08 at 9:59 am

ISCI/Dawa were on track to get wiped off the ballots by the Sadrists whenever the provincial elections were called, which probably figured heavily in the decision, but I can’t really see a series of street battles no matter how successful ‘marginalising’ the Sadrists before the elections. Instead I can easily see this dragging on for weeks and entrenching factional grudges even futher.

15

Badger 03.27.08 at 10:25 am

16

abb1 03.27.08 at 10:34 am

What is this Al-Sadr movement, anyway? Nationalist? Sectarian? Populist-demagoguery? Personality cult? Class-based (wiki: “Al-Sistani is said by observers to draw support from established, property-owning Shi’ites, while Muqtada al-Sadr’s support is strongest among the uneducated urban poor, many of whom see him as their champion“)? Something else? Combination of things?

I haven’t seen any convincing analysis so far.

17

Daniel 03.27.08 at 11:17 am

Latest news appears to be that “militias” have taken over half a dozen police stations, the Pentagon “refuses to comment” on how Iraqi troops are performing and someone’s blown up a pipeline (long oil was a no-brainer on this one, I guess; no matter what happened, something important was bound to get damaged in the process).

It appears that (although I maintain that initiative and aggression on Maliki’s part were a good sign) the Iraqi Prime Minister hasn’t taken into account the Napoleonic maxim “if you set out to take Basra, take Basra“. Political consequences pretty disastrous I suppose.

18

Alex 03.27.08 at 11:45 am

Well, yes…I had hoped that after all the thousands of words I’ve spent on this point since March 2004, at least my readers would have got the point that the Sadrists control *our MSR* and *the southern oil system*, or rather, they are permanently in a position to disrupt same. This is an artefact of geography and demography; the permanently operating factors, as they used to say in the Soviet General Staff.

19

Barry 03.27.08 at 12:19 pm

“…but I can’t really see a series of street battles no matter how successful ‘marginalising’ the Sadrists before the elections. Instead I can easily see this dragging on for weeks and entrenching factional grudges even futher.”
Posted by leinad ·

Unless the purpose is to justfy not letting Sadrists (or rather, their neighborhoods) vote in the election.

As related point, under NYT Hackwatch, note the following phrase:

“But if the Mahdi Army breaks completely with the cease-fire that has helped to tamp down attacks in Iraq during the past year, there is a risk of replaying 2004, when the militia fought intense battles with American forces that destabilized the entire country and ushered in years of escalating violence. Renewed attacks, in turn, would make it more difficult to begin sending home large numbers of American troops.

I guess the Sunni guerrillas are now truly being re-written in history to suit the current political arrangements. I wonder how the NYT will play it if/when they resume attacking US forces.

20

Kevin Donoghue 03.27.08 at 1:14 pm

…the Iraqi Prime Minister hasn’t taken into account the Napoleonic maxim….

If Maliki was any kind of Napoleon we would have had a Brumaire long before now.

21

HH 03.27.08 at 1:30 pm

But, but, but.. what about Al Qaeda?

Surely the spectacle of Shia factions shooting it out in the streets of Basra proves that Al Qaeda is the main enemy and Iraq is the central front in the war on TERROR!

I agree with a poster on another blog who observed that US policy in Iraq has moved from post-modernism back to Dadaism.

22

Daniel 03.27.08 at 1:55 pm

the Sadrists control our MSR and the southern oil system, or rather, they are permanently in a position to disrupt same

“control” and “permanently in a position to disrupt” is the same thing in military terms but not at all the same thing in political terms though, isn’t it?

23

HH 03.27.08 at 1:59 pm

Sadr just gave us a “do I have your attention now” demonstration:

The price of crude oil surged this morning after saboteurs bombed one of Iraq’s main oil pipelines in what was feared to be a backlash attack by powerful Shia Muslim militias.

The attack is being seen as an act of retaliation for the Government’s campaign to crack down on the Shia private armies, many of them Iranian-backed, which have exerted a powerful and violent influence over the south and centre of Iraq.

Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article3631718.ece

24

Daniel 03.27.08 at 2:02 pm

That would be “the Mahdi Army gave us a demonstration”. Moqtada al-Sadr is still claiming to be maintaining a ceasefire and instructing his followers to only shoot in self-defence.

25

Alex 03.27.08 at 2:27 pm

The moral high ground, Daniel, is a great place to shoot from.

“control” and “permanently in a position to disrupt” is the same thing in military terms but not at all the same thing in political terms though, isn’t it?

This is a war, in case you hadn’t noticed. Further, as all oil products sold in Iraq are a net loss to the government and all exports are net hard currency income, it’s politically equivalent to having the government’s balls between your teeth.

Anyway, abb1, imagine something between an army, a religious revival, and a Shi’ite version of the Northern Irish civil rights movement.

26

lemuel pitkin 03.27.08 at 2:31 pm

What is this Al-Sadr movement, anyway? Nationalist? Sectarian? Populist-demagoguery? Personality cult? Class-based? Something else? Combination of things?

Abb1 is asking the right question.

One might wonder the same about some of the other players here, like Maliki. That Visser article suggests that his base is in the security services, putting him in the centralist camp compared with other Shia parties. Which makes sense, but making sense isn’t the same as being true.

But honestly? Just typing the above makes me feel ridiculous. None of us should put any confidence in our analysis of Iraqi politics; the US government certainly doesn’t have any grasp on it. Which is why I think that Daniel’s position that the US could have won in Vietnam, and could still win in Iraq, if it just picked the right proxies, is hopeless. It’s the proxies doing the picking.

27

Alex 03.27.08 at 2:42 pm

Certainly the Sadrists are opposed to “Sumer”, the ISCI/SCIRI/Badr-supported Shia regional entity, and presumably they don’t lose much love for the KRG either.

But the thing about “based in the security services” is flying the reciprocal……right, “his” here refers to Maliki? Ah. Makes more sense, but the big Shia group in the forces was SCIRI/Badr, going back to Bayan Jadr’s period as interior minister in 2004/2005 and right back to the 2003-2004 ICDC.

28

Alex 03.27.08 at 2:50 pm

Nationalist?

Yes, violently hostile to Iran and Iranians, unfriendly to the US and the green zonies.

Sectarian?

Yes. Shi’ite till I die. But see point 1; has more common ground with the Sunnis than ISIC.

Populist-demagoguery?

Yes, furious demands for the Americans out, the government down, and the oil revenues south.

Personality cult?

It’s named after its leader.

Class-based?

Yes, the local branches are often hardly distinguishable from “Frankie Says: Arm The Unemployed” for real.

29

Kevin Donoghue 03.27.08 at 3:00 pm

It’s named after its leader.

Or after the guy Saddam got rid of? My impression (which may be way off) is that some people who call themselves Sadrists don’t have that much regard for Moqtada – hence his rather shaky grip of the movement, or movements.

30

Alex 03.27.08 at 3:15 pm

OK, then, it’s named after its leader’s assassinated dad. You think that’s less of a personality cult?

31

Daniel 03.27.08 at 3:17 pm

This is a war, in case you hadn’t noticed.

It’s a political war though, and Moqtada al-Sadr isn’t a soldier, he’s a politician (or more precisely, he’s a clearly intelligent and shrewd man, but basically a ne’er-do-well on the fringes of the clergy who found himself centre stage). If the end game of this battle ends up with his political bloc being either shoved out of Parliament or effectively neutered within the UIA, Basra isn’t a regional power base he can count on as a substitute for national politics.

32

Daniel 03.27.08 at 3:20 pm

The name must surely be after Moqtada rather than his dad – al-Sadr senior was a beloved populist cleric, but the Mahdi Army that fought in Najaf was a personal militia of Moqtada’s – there wasn’t a pre-existing “Sadrist” political movement that he just stepped into.

33

Kevin Donoghue 03.27.08 at 4:21 pm

When it comes to Iraq’s Shiites I depend on Juan Cole. Back in April 2003 he wrote about the roots of the Sadrist movement: “As I understand it, when Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was assassinated in 1999, some of his followers in Najaf remained loyal to him and became known as Sadriyun.”

So there was a movement at that stage but (thanks to Saddam) no army. What I would like to know, but I’m not sure even Cole could tell me, is to what extent these guys are bound together by loyalty to Moqtada rather than reverence for his father. My feeling is that in a religion which places as much stress on martyrdom as Shiism does, you don’t really rate until you’re dead.

The trouble is we are all (I think, but maybe I should just speak for myself) trying to understand Iraqi politics in terms of analogies with other situations where we have a bit more information – Vietnam in the 1960s, Algeria in the 1950s etc. For example, whenever Sistani’s influence (or lack of it) is discussed I can’t help thinking of Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin in the 1950s and the Irish politicians who, as one of them put it, wanted at all costs to avoid “a belt of a crozier.” But I don’t suppose any of these analogies really works.

34

abb1 03.27.08 at 4:49 pm

Alex, all this seems rather contradictory (and it’s clear from your comment that you see it too): Shi’ite till I die and hostile to Iran? Islamist and class-based and nationalist too? I dunno, seem difficult to reconcile. Either he is just an opportunistic demagogue or there must be some angle there we can’t quite identify yet.

35

Alex 03.27.08 at 4:51 pm

If the end game of this battle ends up with his political bloc being either shoved out of Parliament or effectively neutered within the UIA, Basra isn’t a regional power base he can count on as a substitute for national politics.

As if his power base was restricted to Basra…there’s a reason why Sadr City is called that. You know, the smelly bit next to Baghdad with 10% of the total population in it.

36

Alex 03.27.08 at 4:54 pm

Abb1, it’s because those identities overlap. If you’re Shia, you’re probably poor, and probably southern, either now or in the past, and if this is the case the Iranians probably shelled the shit out of your home town in 1980-1988. You’ve got the complete Sadrist deck of grievances right there.

37

Jim S. 03.27.08 at 4:55 pm

Again, let us not forget that the American people are not volunteering for this war nor are they allowing themselves to be drafted for it. This is keeping the number of troops down, which in turn is making it all but impossible for the Bushies and Neocons to win at any offensives-not in 2004, not now. Let alone win the war.

People here should do a better job of separating the American people from the (at the moment) American government.

38

HH 03.27.08 at 5:00 pm

Re: 37

The American people have not rejected this war in anything but opinion polls. There are no large demonstrations against the war, and tens of thousands of immoral and impecunious young Americans continue to enlist to fight in a brutal neo-colonial occupation each year. It’s not just Bush. We Americans are all responsible for this awful crime.

39

abb1 03.27.08 at 5:26 pm

I dunno, Alex. Take North Ireland, for example: sure, identities overlap, but they had class-based Officials and sectarian Provos, right? With this Sadr guy it’s just not clear what his main angle is.

40

Daniel 03.27.08 at 5:46 pm

35: my whole point is that the Basra Mahdi Army is something which can and probably should be lopped off in the general interests of stability in Iraq, and that its relationship to the Sadr Movement faction in the Iraqi parliament isn’t one such that doing so would totally undermine the legitimacy of Iraqi politics. I would actually not be too surprised if the outcome of M-al-S’s negotiations with Maliki is to formally disassociate himself (Obama-style) from the gangs in Basra.

41

lemuel pitkin 03.27.08 at 7:18 pm

the Basra Mahdi Army is something which can and probably should be lopped off in the general interests of stability in Iraq, and that its relationship to the Sadr Movement faction in the Iraqi parliament isn’t one such that doing so would totally undermine the legitimacy of Iraqi politics. I would actually not be too surprised if the outcome of M-al-S’s negotiations with Maliki is to formally disassociate himself (Obama-style) from the gangs in Basra.

Isn’t this an awfully thin reed of speculation on which to hang your belief that bombing the crap out of one of Iraq’s major cities is a good thing for everybody?

42

Steve LaBonne 03.27.08 at 7:35 pm

Actually the outcome which appears to be occurring right now is Maliki’s gang getting its clock cleaned but good, in Baghdad as well as Basra. Will be interesting to hear how Petraeus manages to spin this as another “positive outcome of the surge”.

43

dsquared 03.27.08 at 7:47 pm

41: yes, maybe so, but what are the alternatives here? The situation in Basra was intolerable before as well; there was no sort of stability and it was a gangster-state. I would certainly go on record as being totally opposed to bombing civilian areas – I think I said this, perhaps not emphatically enough, in my post two below.

44

lemuel pitkin 03.27.08 at 8:01 pm

what are the alternatives here?

Well, one alternative as far as you or I are concerned, is that when you don’t know, you say, “I don’t know.”

The situation in Basra was intolerable before as well; there was no sort of stability and it was a gangster-state.

If there’s one point you have consistently (and rightly) made in other contexts, it’s that no matter how bad a situation is, that’s not, in itself, an argument to just do something.

45

Peter H 03.27.08 at 8:12 pm

Dsquared,

I’m certainly no fan of the Sadrists, but they’re hardly the only militia in Basra. If this is about restoring order, then why is Maliki ignoring the other militias – ISCI, Fadhila, Dawa?

46

Righteous Bubba 03.27.08 at 8:21 pm

If there’s one point you have consistently (and rightly) made in other contexts, it’s that no matter how bad a situation is, that’s not, in itself, an argument to just do something.

Okay, at this point there are a whole bunch of troops in Iraq. I accept that you and I have no idea what to do and it seems obvious that the Bush administration has no idea what to do.

Beyond whether or not we can credibly imagine solutions to the debacle, should we vote for a candidate that will do nothing – that is maintaining the current position – or something?

47

lemuel pitkin 03.27.08 at 8:39 pm

whether or not we can credibly imagine solutions to the debacle, should we vote for a candidate that will do nothing – that is maintaining the current position – or something?

The latter, of course.

I wasn’t clear enough. We know of to establish some general principles — that peace in Iraq will some kind of political settlement; that the US military lacks the means to contribute to that settle and indeed that the occupation is probably a major obstacle to it; and that a US withdrawal that’s contingent on “success” will be hostage to all kinds of factors that could destablize the country during withdrawal.

What we don’t know is the implications of particular political or military development in Iraq. Will the fighting in Basra strnegthen Maliki, or weaken him? Will it stabilize Basra, or sdestabilize Baghdad? Does the Sadr movement have a strong enough base and enough organizational coherence to govern (Shiite) Iraq, or is it just a loose collection of gangs? Those are the kinds of questions to which the only honest answer is, “We don’t know.”

And given that, our judgement about the situation in Iraq shouldn’t depend on those kind of factors. That’s all.

48

dsquared 03.27.08 at 8:52 pm

I actually think that there’s a duty to at least try to form opinions on those subjects; hence my assessment that a) any way out of the corner we are in would have to involve Maliki being stabilised as monopolist on the use of violence b) that it would therefore involve his “stepping up” and taking responsibility for security in Iraq himself – this was after all the whole success-criterion for the surge and the measure of its apparent failure up to now and c) that the Basra attack would be a positive milestone on this path.

On the other hand, it is looking pretty bad for this case at the moment, as rioting and violence have broken out in a lot of other towns – I had clearly overestimated the extent to which the Basra Mahdi Army was separable from the rest of the Sadrist movement, an/or the extent to which it would keep stood down on the instructions of Moqtada. To continue the stock market analogy above, this is getting to the point at which my mental stop-loss order kicks in. It’s very much beginning to look like John was right in guessing that this was a silly, desperate gamble on the part of Maliki (or if it’s being-charitable-to-me day, a sensible gamble that didn’t work out), and that it’s going to end up fatally weakening him, with fairly disastrous consequences.

I may have failed to observe the old proverb of London Business School “not all problems have solutions” and have been looking for ways out of a hole which in fact had no way out.

49

lemuel pitkin 03.27.08 at 9:15 pm

I actually think that there’s a duty to at least try to form opinions on those subjects

OK; but also to be clear on the confidence one has in those judgements, and where it’s low, to look for conclusions that are robust to the various ways you could be wrong.

Personally, the only thing that would change my opinion that the US needs to withdraw from Iraq as quickly as possible is a major, sustained reduction in violence there. I just don’t think we’re in a position to make any more fine-grained assessment of the situation.

Saying a peaceful settlement is a precondition for US troops *staying* in Iraq seems to me a much sounder position, politically and analytically, than the opposite one that one hears so often, that a peaceful settlement is a precondition for them *leaving*. (Note it follows that a redeployment to Kurdistan might be ok.)

But it doesn’t sound like we are far apart at this point.

50

Laleh 03.27.08 at 10:25 pm

Kevin Donoghue: “My feeling is that in a religion which places as much stress on martyrdom as Shiism does, you don’t really rate until you’re dead.”

Umm… Ayatollah Khomeini during his life? Shaykh Hasan Nasrallah now? Al-Sadr indeed does have a great deal of respect because of the family connection, because of his fighting in Najaf against the US, because of the fact that when the US was destroying Falluja, he sent medicine and food and called for the Shi’a to support the Sunnis being starved and slaughtered there, and because he is at once a nationalist and a Shi’a (nowhere as eloquent or even enlightened as Lebanon’s Nasrallah, but like him he can marry those two identities).

Alex: “If you’re Shia, you’re probably poor, and probably southern, either now or in the past, and if this is the case the Iranians probably shelled the shit out of your home town in 1980-1988.”

Not necessarily. The established Shi’a communities of the South and the more middle-class neighbourhoods of Baghdad are well-to-do, educated etc. In mid-twentieth century, they also formed the backbone of the Iraqi Communist Party. Sadr City is a slum that emerged after mass migration of the Shi’a from the south. It is a poor neighbourhood and the true base of Sadr’s movement.

abb1: “Shi’ite till I die and hostile to Iran? Islamist and class-based and nationalist too?”

Yes. Amazingly, many Iraqi (and indeed Lebanese) Shi’a have no affection for Iran. Politics wins over sectarian identities. As for “Islamist and class-based and nationalist” all together, please see Hizbullah of Lebanon, or Iran’s Mojahedin-e-Khalq before they became crazy and sold themselves out to Saddam Hussain (circa early-1980s).

51

Alex 03.27.08 at 10:45 pm

Sadr City is a slum that emerged after mass migration of the Shi’a from the south. It is a poor neighbourhood and the true base of Sadr’s movement.

Uuuhh…..yes! So, if you’re Shia, you’re probably poor. Maths.

Astonishing that everyone in the ‘sphere who knew this back in 2004 seems amazed now.

52

Laleh 03.27.08 at 11:14 pm

Alex, there is a significant portion of the population of country who live in the South, are Shi’a and are not poor.

53

Kevin Donoghue 03.27.08 at 11:41 pm

Laleh,

Obviously my remark about martyrdom was a bit glib. I didn’t seriously mean to say that only martyrs are respected. But I don’t think the fact that Khomeini had a huge following tells us anything about Moqtada al-Sadr. Khomeini was senior clergy – as near to being Pope as a Muslim cleric can get. Moqtada is a lowly curate by comparison. Khomeini’s reputation as a critic of the Shah was his own, in contrast to Moqtada who inherited his father’s reputation. Is a reputation for virtue heritable, in the eyes of Shi’ites? I presume not but I don’t pretend to know.

I take your point that Moqtada has grown in stature thanks to his stance on the siege of Fallujah etc., but I’ve no idea what that’s worth in Basra.

54

John Emerson 03.27.08 at 11:48 pm

Can anyone recommend a news link? I usually don’t follow stories closely but this one seems pretty critical.

55

Laleh 03.27.08 at 11:51 pm

abb1: a timely book! Patrick Cockburn (the best European journalist in Iraq) on Muqtada al-Sadr

and the review in the Economist (only because I just saw it, not because I think Economist is smart and wonderful :) )

http://www.economist.com/books/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10917976

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John Emerson 03.27.08 at 11:57 pm

From what I’ve seen so far, it’s do or die for Maliki and Sadr both, and Sadr’s chances mostly lie in creating widespread disruption (away from Basra).

You have to assume that Cheney approved the attacks, if he didn’t initiate them.

Should we expect the US to get involved, perhaps with carpet-bombing or something?

I’m out of character today because I really don’t pretend to know anything at the moment.

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Laleh 03.28.08 at 12:01 am

John @ 54, check out Lenin’s Tomb for a couple of posts and loads of links:

http://leninology.blogspot.com/

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John Emerson 03.28.08 at 12:06 am

If this is what it looks like, I hope to God that both Democrats pin it on Cheney.

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John Emerson 03.28.08 at 12:12 am

Because, I hasten to add, that will be evidence that they have finally decided to attack Bush-Cheney-McCain on the Iraq War issue, instead of just releasing position papers and making little speeches.

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John Emerson 03.28.08 at 12:25 am

61

capelza 03.28.08 at 12:36 am

Have I missed it in the post or in the comments?

Sadr is in Qom, and has been there for several months I believe.

Does this have any implications?

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seth edenbaum 03.28.08 at 12:44 am

Here’s Marc Lynch, linking to a number of thoughts/possibilities, including the Reidar Visser piece I linked to yesterday, and to this “prescient analysis” (dated Feb 7th.) by the International Crisis Group.

And US forces are already involved. If you’d follow the links I gave days ago [weeks and months ago since they’re to sites I read every day], you wouldn’t have to ask such questions. Arab Links, Conficts Forum, Conflicts Blotter, Helena Cobban, Marc Lynch, Joshua Landis on Syria, and even an actual a-rab or two. As’ad AbuKhalil? Did any of you watch Sinan Antoon on Charlie Rose?
How many of you will go on having opinions without bothering to find someone who knows something? Is there any subject other than Arabic where one person’s interpretations carry so much weight in the “liberal” pundits web? Is Juan Cole your hero? Read some of the others and you may change your mind.

Thank you Laleh.

63

Chris Stiles 03.28.08 at 1:09 am

Shi’ite till I die and hostile to Iran?

Er .. there is a very easy way to understand this – Arabs and Persians are incredibly conscious of their ethnic differences.

Religion only goes so far – and there are plenty of old-style Shias who regard Iranians as a bunch of decadent arrivisite former-Zorastrian (which is to say – heathen) converts.

64

lemuel pitkin 03.28.08 at 1:50 am

Well, credit where due, the Lynch post Seth links to does a good job laying out the many unknowns.

Which only reinforces my view that if one is going to engage with the Iraq question politically, support some policy there or describe developments as good or bad, it had better be a judgment that will be valid in any of the most plausible scenarios. For my money, “US out now!” still is, but anything more nuanced? probably not.

65

Righteous Bubba 03.28.08 at 2:02 am

Nobody seemed bothered about Wisse describing the Sunni Arab minority enslaving the Shia Arab and Sunni Kurd majority as an example of a “coherent” Iraqi society.

Were they enslaved? Please describe the nature of this enslavement.

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HH 03.28.08 at 2:40 am

Re: 65

Genocide means the targeting and destruction of a large group of people. Saddam’s terrible regime did kill large numbers of people, but never sought to exterminate a particular group. The Marsh Arabs suffered terrible reprisals for their revolt, but they were not exterminated. It is likely that the total fatalities resulting from the US occupation now exceed the highest estimates of deaths caused by Saddam, and the killing caused by the occupation continues.

It is a matter of record that many of Saddam’s evil deeds occurred while he was an ally of the United States. Similarly, the US has provided support to several regimes that have conducted massacres (e.g., Suharto in Indonesia). Thus, the claim that the US invades other nations to avert mass killings is highly suspect.

Nations lie to conceal disreputable motives. America lied about its invasion of Iraq because it was motivated by neo-Imperial aggression. The cover story has changed from WMD, to implanting democracy, to fighting Al Qaeda, to averting civil war, to averting genocide. The only constants are our steady construction of permanent bases and complete control of Iraq’s oil. How much plainer can the truth be?

What will the next cover story be? Averting the Apocalypse?

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HH 03.28.08 at 3:37 am

Re: 69

Mr. Phomsey seems keen on making tallys. Estimates of Saddam’s killing are imprecise.

Here are some estimates from “Secondary Wars and Atrocities of the Twentieth Century” http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/warstat3.htm

Iraq, Saddam Hussein (1979-2003): 300 000

* Human Rights Watch: “twenty-five years of Ba`th Party rule … murdered or ‘disappeared’ some quarter of a million Iraqis” [http://www.hrw.org/wr2k4/3.htm]
* 8/9 Dec. 2003 AP: Total murders
o New survey estimates 61,000 residents of Baghdad executed by Saddam.
o US Government estimates a total of 300,000 murders
+ 180,000 Kurds k. in Anfal
+ 60,000 Shiites in 1991
+ 50,000 misc. others executed
o “Human rights officials” est.: 500,000
o Iraqi politicians: over a million

You can see that they average around half a million over 25 years. The US occupation has claimed anywhere from 100,000 to one million, depending on the statistic you choose, so half a million might be a reasonable compromise over five years.

Thus the annual rate of killing during the occupation appears to exceed that of the Saddam era, and unfortunately the occupation continues. Perhaps we can use these numbers as a starting point for comparing the deaths resulting from Saddam’s rule and the American occupation of Iraq.

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John Quiggin 03.28.08 at 3:40 am

Phomesy, you’re banned. I’ve deleted your comments – can I ask others not to respond any further.

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Roy Belmont 03.28.08 at 4:07 am

Thank you, Laleh and Seth Edenbaum.
Anyone who wants to put a human face on Basra should read Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs. Received wisdom may be that Basra’s a “gangster state”, just like received wisdom has Al-Sadr as little more than a successful thug. And who would miss that?
It’s just that right now in the US and the UK received wisdom isn’t worth jack shit.

70

The Oracle 03.28.08 at 4:58 am

Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator. However, instead of being a brutal religious dictator (like the Taliban/al Qaeda in Afghanistan, most Wahibbists in Saudi Arabia, and certain ayatollahs in Iran) he was a brutal secular dictator, who reportedly admired another brutal secular dictator, Josef Stalin.

So, being a brutal secular dictator, Saddam Hussein kept the brutal religious dictators at bay in Iraq, using brutal measures (similar to those the Bush administration has employed against al Qaeda). Many of Iraq’s brutal religious dictators, though, bided their time, with an occasional uprising against Hussein and the Baathists being crushed, while every now and then trying to assassinate Hussein and his sons.

Then, Bush and Cheney ordered Iraq attacked, Saddam Hussein was captured and killed, and all the Sunni Baathists (more secular in nature) were subjected to a coordinated de-Baathification program…and all the brutal religious dictators cheered. Bush and Cheney (and all the PNAC nuts) accomplished what they’d been unable to do in Iraq, not while the brutal secular dictator, Saddam Hussein, was still in charge.

So, knowing what was going to happen once Bush and Cheney led (lied) us into war in Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein and the Sunni Baathist bureaucracy (to grease Western access to and control over Iraq’s vast oil resources), I looked for those reports that would indicate a shift in Iraq from a more secular, liberal, free society into a brutal, religious, morality-police-patrolled society (like the Taliban and al Qaeda established in Afghanistan).

And sure enough, these reports started flooding in like a river of blood. Iraqis being murdered all over the place, but especially those who didn’t subscribe to the hardcore, brutal, ultra-orthodox relentless sharia brand of Islam. Businesses started being bombed and business owners were butchered, especially those who owned a liguor store, movie house, music shop or even a restaurant that served wine with meals. Iraqi women started being brutalized, raped and even murdered if they weren’t “properly” attired as sharia demands.

None of this would have happened (and still be happening) if Saddam Hussein had not been deposed. But even the deposing of Saddam Hussein wasn’t really what triggered all the carnage in Iraq. It was the wholesale removal of all Sunni Baathists from the Iraqi bureaucracy/government/military/police that opened wide the door to all the brutal religious fanatics (including a relatively small number of foreign al Qaeda fighters), and has led to all the sectarian bloodshed that has ensued between Iraqis, as well as the deaths (and maiming) of so many of our soldiers serving bravely over in Bush’s war in Iraq.

Heckuva job, Bush, Cheney and all you PNAC fools. Heckuva job. And a hell of a legacy.

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Daniel 03.28.08 at 7:21 am

Received wisdom may be that Basra’s a “gangster state”, just like received wisdom has Al-Sadr as little more than a successful thug. And who would miss that?

It’s not just received wisdom with respect to Basra being a gangster state – Steven Vincent’s journalism documented its descent before he died and lots of first-hand reports have confirmed it. Agree with you on Moqtada – whatever else he is, he’s clearly a very clever politician (albeit one who got his initial break through “right place, right time”, but who among us didn’t?).

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abb1 03.28.08 at 8:33 am

70: Heckuva job, Bush, Cheney and all you PNAC fools. Heckuva job. And a hell of a legacy.

They are no fools, because from in view of imperial politics, Arab nationalism represented by the Baath party is more dangerous than Islamic fundamentalism. Religious movements are much more fragmented with different sects and all. Much easier to manipulate.

73

abb1 03.28.08 at 9:08 am

…Iran’s Mojahedin-e-Khalq before they became crazy…

Well, Laleh, incidentally, I was watching MEK people demonstrating in front of my building for several weeks last year. Their insignia leave little doubt that their main theme is hard-core revolutionary Marxism and I definitely heard them playing and singing at least one Russian revolutionary song circa 1917.

These are exactly the kind of clues I’m missing in regards to the Al-Sadr’s group. What’s on their flags? What are their songs? What is the punch line of Al-Sadr’s standard speech? A mass-movement is usually based on some simple idea.

74

Kevin Donoghue 03.28.08 at 9:25 am

What is the punch line of Al-Sadr’s standard speech?

“God for Harry, England and St George” with the names changed.

A mass-movement is usually based on some simple idea.

“Revenge bejaysus, revenge!”

Seriously abb1, what sort of answers do you expect? In some sense all nationalisms are alike, but if you want to understand any particular version you have to immerse yourself in the culture and nobody commenting here has done that. Neither have the Americans which is one reason why most of us think they would be better off out of there.

75

abb1 03.28.08 at 10:20 am

Why, ‘nationalist movement’ would be enough of an answer for me, I don’t need fine details. The problem is, sometimes it’s presented as a religious movement and sometimes he’s a sort of Robin Hood popular in slums of Baghdad and Basra.

76

novakant 03.28.08 at 11:07 am

For anybody putting faith into the current Iraqi government, this is what John Burns, who knows a thing or two and has been a pretty fair observer, has to say about Maliki:

Maliki is a man who — not to be unkind — I think if you were sitting on a local school board, you’d worry about appointing him to be principal of your local high school, and here’s a guy who’s been put in charge of a nation of 30 million people.

77

Kevin Donoghue 03.28.08 at 11:09 am

I don’t see the problem, abb1. Nationalists are often deeply religious and competing nationalist leaders usually appeal to different social classes. If Robin Hood ever existed he was presumably some sort of Saxon nationalist as well as a redistributor of wealth, just as Joan of Arc was both patriotic and devout. There is no doubt that al-Sadr draws his support mostly from the have-nots and from those who looked to his father as a spiritual guide.

78

DWMF 03.28.08 at 11:14 am

Has nobody considered that Maliki’s aim is to purge Basra of Iran’s influence. Sadr is a puppet of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. When the going gets tough, he goes to Qom. I hear he’s getting a crash course in Shiite theology at the moment, to make him more “statesmanlike”.

79

John Emerson 03.28.08 at 12:18 pm

78: People are actually saying the opposite, that the Iranians are cutting Sadr loose because their relationship with Maliki is good and Sadr is no longer useful.

80

Steve LaBonne 03.28.08 at 12:20 pm

Actually, dwmf, it’s the factions supporting Maliki (especially SIIC formerly SCIRI) who have stronger long-term ties to Iran. (Perhaps you missed the reports of Maliki’s recent love-fest with Ahmadinejad). Sadr’s sojourns in that country are mostly the result of his needing a place to hide out when the going gets rough.

81

Steve LaBonne 03.28.08 at 12:28 pm

Remember, though, as soon as President McCain gets all these guys together and tells them to stop the bullshit, peace will reign forevermore. And a pony.

82

mds 03.28.08 at 3:54 pm

Sadr’s sojourns in that country are mostly the result of his needing a place to hide out when the going gets rough.

Well, choosing Qom probably has an additional long-term purpose. It would be a significant boost in authority for Sadr if he could make mujtahid. If he just wanted to hide out with the eeeevil Iranians that are backing him, he could simply go to Teheran, like the politicians the US keeps supporting. Instead, it’s seminary time. Be seen to be above the fray by hitting the books, keep out of the path of flying bullets, and lay the groundwork for greater influence. What’s not to like?

83

abb1 03.28.08 at 4:24 pm

and lay the groundwork for greater influence

Hmm, maybe, maybe not. In a situation like this some guy who blows up a tank or shoots a helicopter might suddenly become more influential.

84

roger 03.28.08 at 4:54 pm

One of the puzzles of this war is the lack of class analysis that has been brought to it. Although the rightwing loves to float endless analogies between Iraq and South Korea, or Germany, or whatever, in actuality one of the unusual things about Iraq is that the U.S., from the beginning, misrecognized its natural constituency. This has always been the upper middle and upper class – the professional class. Instead, up until last year, the U.S. consistently persecuted this class, whether Shi’ite or Sunni, because it was, naturally, rewarded by the Ba’athists. This is one of the truly poisonous effects of Chalabi, who entered Iraq with the revengeful disposition with which some of the Bourbons entered France in 1815. Chalabi actually wanted to restore the social order that had existed in the mid fifties in Iraq – an insane proposition, but it did put a bare cover over Chalabi’s rampant theft. That provincial viewpoint basically kidnapped the American p.o.v. Hence, the professional class fled. One of the purposes of the accord in Anbar was to signal that they should come back. But the signal is too late: a new group, joined to the new Shi’ite governing class, is never going to let them back.

In brief, this is why the U.S. policy in Iraq is fucked over the short term. But will the governing class decide that they need the U.S. to enforce the new social arrangements in Iraq? That might be what is being decided now. Myself, I think that as they decide they do, the U.S. will be deciding to wind down in Iraq, since the monetary cost is simply too much.

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Jim S. 03.28.08 at 4:56 pm

Sorry, no. 38, but 180,000 out of 300,000,000 is not tens of thousands. Americans are responisble, but virulent self-hatred gets one nowhere.

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Laleh 03.28.08 at 7:05 pm

abb1, for the symbols and iconography, check out

http://healingiraq.blogspot.com/uploaded_images/sadr-billboard-palestine-street-722408.jpg

the symbols are all there: the Iraqi flag (very important; in Iran, the Islamic Republic immediately after the revolution did not really display the three colours of the flag; it began to do so again after Saddam ordered the iraqi military into Iran); images of the two elder Sadrs (Baqir – who used Marxist analysis in his very articulate economic/theological analysis – read Charles Tripp’s Moral Economy of Islam and Sadiq – who was much more of a hands-on and revered elder); and an image of the masses.

A sort of populist (not in the derogatory meaning of the term) with nationalist and *IRAQI* Shi’a iconography as well as a refernece to the people. Unlike Hizbullah of Lebanon, no images of Khomeini or other Iranian clerics.

as for speeches, apparently (based on what As’ad AbuKhalil says) he is not a very eloquent speaker. i am not sure how he rouses the public…

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abb1 03.28.08 at 7:48 pm

Thanks, Laleh. So, it is a “God And The Country” thingy, something like Patrick J Buchanan’s “Pitchfork Brigade”.

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Laleh 03.28.08 at 8:01 pm

87: Yeah, but without the fascist overtones I think – and of course, Sadr’s movement inevitably has an anti-colonial feel to it (even if its nativism and its sectarianism are unpleasant – and sometimes deadly).

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abb1 03.29.08 at 8:48 am

88, yes of course, the context matters. Unlike Sadrists, Buchananists are only imagining that their country is being invaded. That’s sorta like a difference between legitimate self-defense and a paranoid psychopath acting to ‘defend’ himself.

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