Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Is That the Only Thing You Care About, Splitting Up the Money and Share It Out?

Kevin Drum quotes the consistently insightful Cernig regarding a rumor predicting the emergence of a new cross-sectarian political front in Iraq, formed for the the purpose of usurping the current Maliki government. Says Cernig (whose site is worth a daily visit):

The front, [Raed] said, would include "the national dialogue front, the national Iraqi list led by Allawi, the reconciliation and liberation front led by Meshaan Aljuburi, and the Sadr movement." It would also draw support from Baathists, pan-arabists, the old Army leadership and seven important clerics.

The inclusion of Sadr in this alliance is a bit of a stretch - and that's likely an understatement (Cernig, to his credit, has been quick to acknowledge that this is on the speculative side, as mentioned in our brief back and forth on Henley's site). Without Sadr, though, this front won't have the votes to really take control.

As for Sadr's potential role in such political intrigue, recall that he has recently been strengthening ties with Sistani and some of the other senior clerics based in Najaf. This should come as no surprise, given the legitimacy and religious credentials that Sistani, et al, can bestow on a relative novice like Sadr. In return, Sistani gets Sadr's muscle, and his continuing fealty to the cause of establishing Shiite rule in Iraq for decades, if not centuries to come. Sistani's is the longview.

Expecting Sadr to openly defy Sistani by allying with Sunnis, ex-Baathists and US-tied leaders like Allawi - absent some overpowering, extenuating circumstances - is not where I'd want to bet my money. Should SCIRI, Dawa and other Shiite factions make the mistake of trying to cut Sadr out of his share of the new Iraq's wealth and power (or acquiesce too completely to US efforts to target Sadr), that could change. But, thus far, Sistani has done enough to keep the cats herded. I don't expect that to change any time soon.

While Sadr has publicly sparred with the Maliki government over certain issues (especially when Maliki is going through the motions of cracking down on Sadr's militia), he has yet to completely abandon the UIA front. And for good reason. Despite the frequently brandished "nationalist" credentials, Sadr is first and foremost a sectarian Shiite leader. His base of power, mostly located in the eponymous Sadr City region of Baghdad, is almost entirely Shiite. His political allies are similarly homogenous. His religious authority flows directly from the clerical hierarchy.

It is acting in conjunction with said allies on behalf of his constituency, and, of course, in his own self interest, that Sadr has been able to accumulate considerable power, wealth and influence - well beyond, in the religious milieu, what would normally accrue to such a junior cleric. Now we are supposed to assume that Sadr is going to go out on a limb without a parachute - abandoning his Shiite co-religionists, and incurring Sistani's wrath, instead trusting, entirely, Sunnis, ex-Baathists and US-friendly exiles? Why?

Despite Sadr's strong Shiite identity, he is frequently viewed as a wild card - primarily motivated by a sense of nationalism, and harboring a latent desire for rapprochement and unity with his Sunni countrymen. This mythos has been fed by Sadr's frequent rhetorical flourishes, hist consistent opposition to the occupation and his well publicized offer of support for Sunni insurgents during the first siege of Fallujah. The latter bit was, perhaps, a little well-timed self-promotion.

While there is little doubt that Sadr opposes a prolonged US presence in Iraq (a view shared, almost uniformly, among the Shiite coalitions other members - as well as the Sunni population), there are some inconsistencies in other areas of Sadr's narrative. For example, Sadr's militias are among the more ruthless on the Shiite side of the ledger in ethnically cleansing Baghdad, retaliating with ferocity (often indiscriminately or at least recklessly) to Sunni insurgent attacks and otherwise stoking sectarian tensions. He recently came out against proposals to ease the de-Baathification laws, and has shown no inclination to push for an equitable resolution to any of the other major political sticking points.

What a curious way to push for an inclusive agenda.

It is also commonly argued that Sadr stands in stark opposition to Iranian influence - and that is further evidence of his nationalist worldview. Again, though, there is likely some space between the rhetoric and the reality. It's not that Sadr is an Iranian pawn or some such other nonsense propagated by the Bush administration. Further, groups like Dawa and SCIRI have stronger and longer-standing ties with Iran. Yet, at the same time, Sadr has been strengthening his own relations with Iran - accepting money, arms, training and other boons. The bottom line is that all of Iraq's factions need wealthy foreign patrons if they want to survive against rivals with such backers. The Sunnis have them. The Kurds too. And so do the numerous Shiite groups.

Sadr is not above covering his bases, and neither is Iran. After all, where is it that Sadr has recently been rumored to have taken up sanctuary during the security crackdown? Also, Sadr was the only major Shiite leader to publicly declare that his cadres would retaliate against US forces if the US attacked Iran. Perhaps this anti-Iranian cleric isn't quite as dedicated to that cause as we've been led to believe - by Sadr himself in many instances.

The other major factor in establishing Sadr's nationalist bona fides has been his consistent rejection of any plan to partition Iraq. While this position enjoys popular support in some regions (not Kurdistan, obviously), it is also consistent with Sadr's self interest. Consider that Sadr's base of power is located in Baghdad. Should Iraq be partitioned, the status of Baghdad remains unclear - it could be considered its own region, and due to its ethnically/religiously mixed population, there have been suggestions of treating it as a partitioned and internationally administered city. There has even been speculation about making it a concession to appease th Sunnis who will otherwise be cut out of the oil-rich regions post-partition.

Thus, in a partitioned Iraq, Sadr could be isolated and cut off from the Shiite stronghold in the South - which, uh, also happens to be the region that contains all that oil and all of those money making, influence building shrines. Groups like SCIRI, on the other hand, have a strong foothold in the South, and have thus been pushing hardest for partition on the Shiite side.

I suppose one could look at that economic/political/demographic reality and still argue that sentimentalities such as "nationalism" - and the lack thereof in groups like SCIRI - are the primary motivations of the respective actors. Further, one could ignore the day to day clashes between Sadr's militias and Sunni combatants, civilians and expelled denizens of Baghdad and argue that underneath it all, Sadr would like to form a pact with Sunni elements.

As for me, I have my doubts.

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