Monday, July 31, 2006

Mookie Wilson's War

In the wake of the Qana bombings discussed by Haggai on American Footprints, the stakes just got a little more interesting for all parties involved - not the least, the United States. As Swopa notes, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani upped the ante big time with a thinly veiled warning to America shrouded in, relatively, inflammatory language [emphasis added]:

Iraq's top Shiite cleric Sunday demanded an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon, warning the Muslim world will "not forgive" nations that stand in the way of stopping the fighting. [...]

"Islamic nations will not forgive the entities that hinder a cease-fire," al-Sistani said, in a clear reference to the United States.

"It is not possible to stand helpless in front of this Israeli aggression on Lebanon," he added. "If an immediate cease-fire in this Israeli aggression is not imposed, dire consequences will befall the region." [...]

Al-Sistani, who also has a large following among Lebanon's Shiites, said "words are unable to condemn this crime that was carried out by those who got rid of all humanitarian values."

"The size of the catastrophe in Lebanon resulting from the continuation of the Israeli aggression has reached a point that cannot tolerate more patience and we cannot stand idle toward it," al-Sistani said.

It should come as no surprise that the Bush administration's clumsy approach to the crisis - initially wishing to delay the advent of a cease-fire - is coming back to haunt it. It represents a most extraordinary position from a diplomatic perspective: revealing to the world that we not only tolerate, but perhaps welcome, some level of military confrontation - at least initially. Fairly or unfairly, we will be held accountable for our role in facilitating the bloodshed in the interim period.

But there is also an interesting back-story to Sistani's vocal condemnation. Last week, I cited a post by Spencer Ackerman that told of inter-Shiite maneuvers in Iraq vis-a-vis Lebanon. As Ackerman noted, Moqtada al-Sadr was quick to seize the mantle as the champion to the Lebanese people through a series of blustery speeches culminating in actively pursuing the possibility of mobilizing elements of the Mahdi Army to travel to join the fight in southern Lebanon.

Aside from the obvious (sincere anger at Israel's actions), Moqtada shrewdly gauged the crisis as an opportunity to out-flank his Shiite rivals - safe in the knowledge that few could match his fiery rhetoric, and none (probably) his decision to send fighters - should he ultimately take that step (assuming he hasn't already).

As Juan Cole notes, the vehement tone of Sistani's statements might have been at least partially influenced by the need to respond in kind to Sadr's moves:

Sistani is taking such a hard line on this issue not only because he feels strongly about it (his fatwa against the Jenin operation of 2002 was vehement) but also because he is in danger of being outflanked by Muqtada al-Sadr. [...]

Sistani cannot allow Muqtada to monopolize this issue, or the young cleric's legitimacy will grow among the angry Shiite masses at the expense of Sistani's.

In this sense, the Lebanese/Israeli conflict creates a self reinforcing loop of radicalization in the region: (a) Anger at scenes of the carnage radicalizes constituents; (b) Firebrands like Sadr move to capitalize on, and further stoke, the resentment; (c) Other more moderate voices (like Sistani) are forced to try to match Sadr with forceful rhetoric; and (d) This abandonment of moderation, in turn, further radicalizes the constituents making any position short of that espoused by the radicals untenable. When the moderates are forced to imitate the firebrands, few, if any, positive results follow. Yet that is undoubtedly the result of radicalization, which inevitably flows from military engagements of this nature.

This, of course, says nothing of the heat Nouri al-Malaki must be feeling right about now. With the other major forces in the Iraqi Shiite firmament making loud noises, Malaki risks losing face and legitimacy if he is perceived as a quisling to US interests. Yet how far can he go out on the tightrope, rhetorically and practically, without risking a loss of support from his American patrons? Not an enviable position to be in.

It's not limited to the Shiites, however. Even the Sunnis in Iraq are feeling the pressure to turn the volume up. As Ackerman observed:

To make matters even worse...despite all the talk about Sunnis resisting the pull of Hezbollah, the Iraqi Sunnis feel pressure to one-up Sadr and join the fight against Israel as well, quoting Sunni Sheik Abdul Rahman Al Duleimi:

"This is a must-do, to show all the Arabs that Iraq is still standing," said the Sunni cleric.

"And the other reason is we want to extend the fighting range so they will know Lebanon is not just one country and Iraq is not just one country, it is Muslims from all over the world," he said.

The tricky part is, with moderates like Sistani pushing their chips to the middle of the table in such a bold move with the rest of the powers that be, enraged Iraqis might call the bluff even if moderates like Sistani try to put the brakes on at a later date. Such forces, once unleashed, are very difficult to control.

Again, Juan Cole offers a glimpse at some possible scenarios:

What could he do if he were ignored? Sistani could call massive anti-US and anti-Israel demonstrations. Given Iraq's profound political instability, this development could be extremely dangerous. US troops in Baghdad and elsewhere are planning offensives against Shiite paramilitary groups, so tensions are likely to rise in the Shiite areas anyway. But big demonstrations could easily boil over into actual attacks on US and British troops.

The longer the conflict in Lebanon rages, the more empowered forces like Moqtada al-Sadr will become and the more likely an eruption becomes. If we lose the Shiite population in any significant numbers, and attacks commence on US troops throughout the south of that nation, not only will casualty rates increase measurably, but, as Pat Lang explained, our troops could face a real crisis in maintaining open supply lines. Our sphere of influence, and territory controlled, would shrink commensurately.

With this in mind, I think it's about time to start pressing for that cease-fire. Let's just say that enough damage has been done already - even if not necessarily to Hizbollah.

[UPDATE: Praktike's post at American Footprints - which traces the strengthening of radical elements in other nations in the region - tracks nicely with this post. Says prak:

...regional governments have been pushed from surprisingly strong scolding of Hizballah to harsh criticism of the Israeli reaction.[...]

In other words, even as the U.S. leans on Mubarak for more help in Gaza, with Syria, and in confronting Iran, our policies in the region continue to undermine his legitmacy in favor of people like Mustafa Bakri...and the Muslim Brotherhood.
None of these developments assist us in achieving our goals in the region and beyond. I would say the same goes for the goals of Israel - ironically or not.]

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