Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Bully in a China Shop

My gut reaction when I first heard the "breaking news" on Sunday of a pitched battle between US/Iraqi forces and Sunni insurgents that had gathered near Najaf as part of a plan to assassinate several high ranking Shiite clerics (including Sistani) was that something didn't sound quite right. You'll have to take my roommates' word for it as, in typical fashion, I directed my initial skepticism at the unresponsive television set.

It just seemed like an unduly risky gambit for so many Sunni combatants to converge in one place, as this would render them uniquely vulnerable to US air power and armor - which are still unmatched in such a setting. After conducting insurgent operations for years during which much more care was shown in terms of offering such a target rich environment, why cede the advantage to your adversary now? For what grand objective?

Along those lines, would most Sunni insurgent groups (enough to muster this number of fighters - in the 300-600 range) really view the killing of Sistani as a strategic boon? Wouldn't the likely result be a unified, highly motivated, unrestrained Shiite force bent on disproportionate retaliation?

True to form, the battle in Najaf was not as initially advertised. Rather than Sunni insurgents, the "fighters" appear to be one of a variety of Shiite breakaway sects that many have come to label "cults." Jim Henley has been doing his best to try to wade through the reeds, machete in hand (there are other entries before and after the linked one on Henley's site, for the curious), and Juan Cole is, as usual, on the spot with translations from the Arab media and government sources. At best, the picture is murky, with various Iraqi governmental organizations giving competing and contradictory accounts of the nature of the fight and the identity of those on the other side.

A few common themes do seem to be emerging, though: this was a case of Shiite on Shiite violence, not a confrontation between US/Iraqi forces and Sunni insurgents. The various Shiite sects that were on the receiving end of US/Iraqi fire are rivals to SCIRI, Dawa and much of the rest of the Shiite power establishment. Also, ironically enough, the targeted sects were known to be overtly hostile to Iran.

In other words, the dead are comprised of groups considered irritants that many in positions of power in Iraq would prefer to have "neutralized." The question is, were these Shiite sect-members really planning an attack on Najaf, or is that merely a convenient after the fact narrative used to justify such a slaughter? As now appears, the earlier allegations of al-Qaeda's presence on the battlefield seem to be at the very least overhyped. It's possible that some al-Qaeda elements were involved, as their motive for killing Sistani is more compelling, but questions remain about the presence of a plot to actually conduct an attack on Najaf in the first place. Without that ingredient, al-Qaeda would have little reason to be present.

Nor can we discount the possibly that the specter of al-Qaeda was used by Iraqi forces as a means to induce the US to enter the battle on the preferred side. Iraqi forces know which buzz-words to use by now, even if they don't always accurately describe a given situation. Zeyad at Healing Iraq has been providing some extremely informative, if speculative, commentary (see, also, here for a more chilling account from Zeyad):

I suspect this whole campaign is a result of Al-Hassan’s strange, unorthodox teachings and his defiance of the mainstream Shi’ite religious and political institution, including, most importantly, Iran. [...]

The “preemptive” crackdown against Al-Hassan – like that against Mahmoud Al-Sarkhi months ago, which I wrote about here – bears all the signs of U.S. Shi’ite allies (SCIRI and Da’wa) fooling the U.S. into supporting them in their intra-Shi’ite struggle to control the south....This might actually turn out to be a massacre against some harmless cultists. If true, then congratulations to the U.S. for carrying out Iran’s dirty deeds in Iraq yet again.

For these reasons, I am less concerned than Kevin Drum about David Schuler's observation (and side with Henley on the notion that Bill Roggio's sources that tell of al-Qaeda's involvement might be missing something):

Aren't large pitched battles like this characteristic of insurgencies that believe they are on the upswing? Not particularly good news.

Unless we've taken to describing Shiite militias and breakaway religious sects as insurgents. In which case, "not particularly good news" is a breathtaking understatement. In defense of David Schuler, who is generally speaking a sharp commentator and observer, the information flowing from this incident has been so confusing that it has not been easy to keep the story straight for anyone.

This post itself is still predominately based in conjecture, and I acknowledge that I could have many of the facts wrong. But this level of uncertainty only makes Zeyad's admonition that much more profound:

Hint for the U.S.: There are no "bad guys" and "good guys" in Iraq. Everyone has dirty hands. It makes no sense for you, nor is it going to improve anything in Iraq, to side with one bad guy against another, just because you're so confused that you can't differentiate between friend and foe. Just please remember that.

Well, at least Iran's happy at the outcome. That should win us some Persian hearts and minds.

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