Monday, April 16, 2007

Y'All Know Me, Still the Same Ol' Mookie

The bad cop to Maliki's good cop is asserting himself again. A week after bringing out tens of thousands of Shiite supporters in peaceful marches in Shiite dominated cities (including Najaf) - with many marchers carrying anti-American and anti-occupation placards - Moqtada al-Sadr flexed some political muscle as well:

Cabinet ministers loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resigned on Monday to protest the prime minister's refusal to set a timetable for an American withdrawal, raising the prospect that the Mahdi Army militia could return to the streets of Baghdad. [...]

The departure of the six ministers, while unlikely to topple Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, deals a significant blow to the U.S.-backed leader, who relied on support from the Sadrists to gain office.

Perhaps concerned for the vitality of his armed wing, Sadr put forth his other primary demand:

Al-Sadr, who has tremendous influence among Iraq's majority Shiites, has been upset about recent arrests of his Mahdi Army fighters in the U.S.-led Baghdad security crackdown. [..]

[A spokesman] also relayed a demand by al-Sadr's movement, that all detainees held by "occupation forces" be transferred to Iraqi authorities
"because this is part of sovereignty."

So much for The Surge sounding the death knell for Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

The most charitable reading of these events from the Bush administration's perspective is probably that Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki is doing his best to contain Sadr, but has been dealt an impossible hand. I used to be more amenable to this interpretation, but the benefit of the doubt that was previously granted has evaporated like dew in the desert. Especially given reports of the budding Sadr/Sistani alliance that suggests that Sadr is not really the outside irritant and spoilsport that he is portrayed as.

Instead of bolstering the "Maliki as non-partisan, enlightened leader" narrative, recent events indicate that the Shiites continue to circle the wagons, fortify and unify their ranks along strict sectarian lines, and lay the groundwork for the imminent departure of US forces - or at least play the game in order to maximize on their gains in the continued presence of US forces. In addition to Sistani's rapprochement with Sadr, there is also the recent push-back on softening the de-Baathification laws, the fiddling with an oil distribution law that doesn't really offer the Sunnis a legitimate stake, and no progress on amending the constitution to placate legitimate Sunni concerns.

In this regard, Sadr is useful. Not only do his cadres (and Mahdi Army militia) represent a formidable bulwark against Sunni aggression - as well as potential coalition excesses - but his clout and popularity provide a ready made excuse for Maliki to plead helplessness while carrying out a partisan agenda. Maliki can argue, with some plausibility, that he can only go "so far" in cracking down on militia activity, and other conciliatory measures, for fear that his government would collapse. Sistani also comes in handy in this regard - and has for some time.

Meanwhile, the beat goes on as Sadr's armed wing acts out its role as the tip of the spear for Team Shiite:

The number of bodies found dumped in Baghdad increased sharply on Sunday to 30 — from as low as five in recent days — in a possible sign of the militia's resurgence, even ahead of the six resignations.

Also, Maliki can use Sadr's insistence on "sovereignty" as a means to pressure the Bush administration to cede more power. Maliki's response to Sadr's demands seems to indicate a certain shading:

The prime minister issued a statement later Monday saying "the withdrawal of multinational forces is linked to our armed forces' readiness to take over the security command in all provinces."

At the same time, Maliki can present himself as indispensable in the sense that he is the only political player capable of holding back the other prominent Shiite leaders like Sadr, and even Sistani himself, from demanding an immediate withdrawal of US forces.

In an inverted sense, Sadr (or at least the propagandized version) also provides a useful foil for the Bush administration. He can be made the scapegoat for all that ails the occupation, the putative "cause" for sectarian violence (or at least its exacerbation) and, though SCIRI and Dawa have stronger ties in reality, Sadr can be portrayed as the embodiment of Iranian malfeasance in Iraq.

So the Bush team gets to pretend that they have an ally in the Iraqi government, and that if it weren't for those meddling Iranians acting through their cat's paw, Moqtada al-Sadr, all would be well. If continuing the occupation is imperative, and it clearly is for Bush/Cheney, then maintaining this facade is important in that it creates the perception that we have an actual ally in Iraq worth backing to some feasible end. The "Iraqi government," thus, miraculously becomes a neutral party that we can support in order to counter the extremists in each corner. We measure progress by the reach and influence of that neutral, non-partisan Iraqi government.

This bit from a Peter Brookes column captures the gist of this preferred fiction:

[Iran is w]orking both ends (that is, the Sunni and Shia) against the middle (that is, the Iraqi central government) [and] will surely stifle Iraq's
development toward a stable, fully-fledged democracy.

Sure. The Iraqi government made up of SCIRI, Dawa and Sadr are the "middle" - the forces in Iraqi political life hostile to, and under siege from, Iran. Except Sadr, sort of, whose also a key part of that government. Or something. If you believe that one, I've got a bridge in Baghdad to sell you.

The same day, in the same paper (Rupert Murdoch's New York Post) on the same page, Amir Taheri dedicates an entire column to extolling the virtues of the brave, independent Nouri al-Maliki who is fearlessly taking on the mullahs in Iran despite unwarranted criticism from certain US leftists figures who just want to cry defeat and leave. As Blake Hounshell once mused on AmFoot some years back, if Taheri says it, assume the opposite. This is no exception. Says Taheri:

Maliki has also given the green light to a crackdown on Shiite militias and death squads, serving notice that the war of the sectarians must end. Within the next few weeks, he is expected to further anger Tehran by dropping from his Cabinet all five Sadrist ministers, who are beholden to the Iranian regime.

Tehran indicated its displeasure by activating its networks in Iraq to organize last week's demonstrations in Najaf.

Again, the notion that Sadr, who has the fewest historical and recent ties to Iran, is doing Tehran's bidding in opposition to the SCIRI and Dawa factions is a dubious proposition to say the least. Recall, many of the leaders of SCIRI and Dawa lived in exile in Iran during the past decade, and in the case of SCIRI, its armed wing - the Badr Corp. - was created, armed and funded in Iran by the Iranian government.

Regardless of the spin put out by shameless propagandists like Taheri, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding intelligence brief. As Spencer Ackerman (and many others) notes, the Bush administration doesn't really trust Maliki. And doesn't really believe that Maliki is interested in cracking down on Shiite militias as Taheri, Brookes and others would have it:

The sordid story of Muhammed Shahwani takes a new turn. Shahwani, you'll recall, is the Iraqi intelligence chieftain, surviving since the halcyon days of Iyad Allawi's tenure as premier. His credentials as a survivor are undermined somewhat by his reported status as a CIA asset. It turns out that the CIA has been distrustful of turning the Iraqi intelligence apparatus over to the Shiite-led government, despite all the sovereignty rhetoric and such. One such concern is that the Maliki government would transform the Iraqi intelligence service into an instrument of sectarian persecution. Meanwhile, Shahwani's Iraqi National Intelligence Service does things that the Maliki government denounces, like detaining Iranian diplomats in Baghdad.

In response, reports Ned Parker in today's L.A. Times, Maliki has created a parallel intelligence service, one that he can control. (Parker confirms that CIA still pays for the INIS, which helps explain those Iran-diplomat detentions.) Sure enough, that service is described by a Western diplomat as "slightly reactionary in a Shiite sense": it's what was behind Maliki's January outburst about "presenting the file" of a hardline Sunni parliamentarian, Sheikh Abdul Nasser Janabi. Needless to say, it doesn't put the Shiite death squads in its cross-hairs. [emphasis added]

Despite all this, many of the war's supporters continue to do their best to obfuscate the fact that the Iraqi government itself is infiltrated by "death squads" and partisan Shiite militias. In reality, it is but one facet of an ongoing civil war. Instead of confronting (or admitting to) this truth, the Bush administration and its allies hold out Sadr (with Iran's backing) as the one force standing in the way of Iraq's successful transition to peaceful, stable, US-friendly democracy.

Despite this dissembling, Sadr is an integral and valued part of an alliance of Shiite factions whose leaders (especially Sistani) aren't particularly interested in partaking in a strategy that will, if not "divide and conquer," at least "divide and dilute," their current hold on power. To expect a prime minister to crack down on vital members of his own government, amidst a tumultuous backdrop of pitched ethnic/sectarian fighting, where every soldier (and militia member) is invaluable, is wishful thinking to say the least.

Unfortunately, it's also a key component of our current strategy vis-a-vis The Surge. Maliki's crackdown on Sadr's forces - aided by our increased troop presence - is supposedly going to create the relative calm necessary for the adoption of broad-based political compromises that will defuse the brewing civil war.

As I mentioned earlier, though, the ruling Shiite slate hasn't exactly been quick to endorse any of those key political concessions such as de-de-Baathification, or an equitable oil revenue law. Interesting behavior for such an earnest "unifier" like Maliki. Naturally, I blame Sadr. I'm sure Maliki does too.

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