Tuesday, February 20, 2007

When I Am Numbering My Foes, Just Hope That You Are On My Side My Dear

In a previous post, I cited an Iraqi blogger who wondered whether the US government had ever considered the likely answer to the following question:

If the war started between U.S. and Iran, on which side the Iraqi government will be?

There have been numerous responses offered to this question with varying degrees of plausibility. Many commenters have pointed out that the Iraqi government would side with what it perceived as the eventual victor, as a sort of cautious weather vane. Others, that allegiance to their Iranian co-religionists amongst Iraq's Shiites would dominate the decision making progress for that group. And still others point to Iraq's nationalistic streak - as well as the Arab/Persian mistrust - as the controlling factors.

While the actual answer is at best speculative at this point, there are some things we do know, and some strong indicators that should inform our assumptions.

First, we should unpack the term "Iraqi government" since that entity is comprised of disparate ethnic/sectarian/ideological groups. Having done so, it would be a safe bet that the Sunni elements of the Iraqi government would go along with any US military action against Iran - or at least tolerate it without interference. The Kurds would also likely accept such an action with only mild protest - if that - put forth to maintain its ties with Iran.

How the Shiite factions within the Iraqi government would react is something altogether different. Hardest to predict would be the secular factions, such as Allawi's organization. These groups are relatively small, but they would be the most likely to remain neutral if the fighting started.

Sadr's organization is probably the easiest to predict because, well, he has already told us. A little over a year ago, Sadr pledged to respond to any attack on Iran by unleashing his Mahdi Army on US forces. So we should be operating under the assumption that at least one major component of the Iraqi government would side with Iran.

Here's the upshot though, of the big three Shiite political blocs - SCIRI, Dawa and the Sadrsts - Sadr's gang is the most independent of Iranian influence, and consistently stakes out the most anti-Iranian rhetorical position. So whither SCIRI, Dawa and the top Shiite cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah al-Sistani (himself born in Iran) - all of which have closer ties to Iran than Sadr? Peter Beinart (via Sisyphus) offers one interpretation:

...Though many Sunnis won't admit it, Iraqi nationalism runs deep among their long-repressed [Shiite] countrymen. As historian Reidar Visser has observed, Iraq's Shi'ites have never launched a broad-based movement to secede. When Baghdad and Tehran went to war in the 1980s, Iraq's Shi'ite soldiers fought fiercely, especially after Iranian forces crossed onto Iraqi soil. It's true that one major Shi'ite party, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa, took refuge in Iran during Saddam's rule. Another, SCIRI, was actually born there. But since entering government, leaders of both parties have carefully displayed their independence from Tehran.

I think Beinart is soft pedaling the effects of the decade Dawa spent in exile in Iran, and the fact that SCIRI (and its Badr Corp militia) was "born there." Further, pointing to the fact that Iraqi Shiites fought Iranians when those two countries were at war as evidence that should the United States attack Iran, Iraqi Shiites would support the United States in such a conflict assumes too much.

Iraqi nationalism would be a powerful force in determining allegiance should Iraqi Shiites be forced to choose between Iraq and Iran in a replay of the 1980's war (though the Dawa/SCIRI Iranian ties did not exist back then, and so might be a complicating factor even still), but the US would not enjoy the benefits of Iraqi nationalism vicariously. As a matter of fact, most Iraqi Shiites consider attacks on US forces by insurgent/militia groups to be justified as is.

That the US would lose a popularity contest with Iran amongst Iraqi Shiites is further supported by the record of the Israeli conflict with Lebanon last summer. At the time, even mild-mannered Sistani had stern warnings for the US - and the US wasn't even directly involved in the fighting!

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." [...]

"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.

So tallying up the ledger of the Iraqi government's allegiance: I'd put the Kurds and Iraqi Sunni factions on our side - or at least neutral - along with Shiite secularists in the Allawi camp (though with less confidence here). Sadr would be a determined ally of Iran. Dawa and SCIRI would also be working against us, even if they attempted to do so in a surreptitious manner so as to avoid being directly targeted by the US military (though I'm not sure how long they would be able, or willing, to maintain this pretense).

Even Sistani - who is not an Iranian stooge, and does not want to replicate the Iranian mullahocracy in Iran - would likely side with Iran given the options. He was almost willing to take that step on behalf of Lebanon's Hezbollah.

While "optimists" might point to the nationalistic streak of Iraq's Shiites, and that group's history of fighting the Iranians when Iraq and Iran were at war, it would be a rather audacious leap to assume that Iraqi nationalism, and the instinct to defend one's countrymen in a time of war, would extend some deference to US forces confronting Iran.

In fact, that same legendary Iraqi nationalism could just as easily lead a plurality of Iraqi Shiites to appreciate the opportunity to finally rid their nation of the occupier that would be presented by a military confrontation between Iran and the United States. That's how nationalism works. It puts the nation first, and contrary to the pervasive "narcissism" afflicting so many Americans, Iraqis would consider the interests of Iraq ahead of the United States.

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