Friday, May 11, 2007

We Can't Go On Together

After re-reading a post by the Non-Arab Arab that I linked to, again, yesterday (well worth the read and re-read btw), I wanted to highlight these paragraphs that speak to the plausibility, or lack thereof, of a broad, cross-sectarian alliance between Sadr and Sunni elements [emphasis added]:

The Sadrists have a wee bit of a problem though: their militia (the Mahdi Army) is wildly out of control and is slaughtering members of other sects. Big problem for inter-sect cooperation. Yes, the Arab or Iraqi nationalist and resistance angles give space for cooperation, but Iraq is just entering it's civil war and the Sadrists and Mahdi Army are young and undisciplined whereas Lebanon already went through a civil war (hopefully there's not another coming) and Hizbullah is a well-established and disciplined force. Even if Moqtada says the right things, it's hard to win friends on the basis of nice anti-occupation words when he can't control his foot soldiers and those foot soldiers are staging mass kidnappings of folks from other sects and dumping their drill-hole ridden bodies on rubbish tips.

Of course it's not just a matter of "well then why don't they just stop it?" Fact is emotions for the constituency Sadr represents are incredibly raw. They suffered immensely for the past century (they were always the poorest of the poor and being targeted under Saddam for supporting Islamists made it that much worse), and now from their perspective they're being targetted again. The Sunni resistance to the occupation has several strikes against it for winning Sadrist trust: (1) lots of ex- or current-Baathists who the Sadrists in many instances rightly know were the guys who used to torture and kill their people, (2) the Al-Qaeda type minority in the Sunni resistance is blatantly sectarian anti-Shi'a with all the infamous beheadings and car bombs in marketplaces and what not, and (3) the presence of those forces makes it really hard to trust anybody who works with them including what one might term "honest" nationalist resistance fighters. Think about it, if you're some guy who's grown up in Madinat ath-Thawra / Sadr City your whole life, walking through sewage, your dad and uncle disappearing or getting tortured for years for being a member of Da'wa, and then suddenly the Ba'ath falls and the guys who you tried to make nice with at first from over in Aadhamiya (Sunni part of Baghdad) to fight the Americans together are now seen as allies of the folks who are sending car bombs to the fruit market -- well, it's not hard to see why there's a lack of trust.

The flip side also holds true: if you're a Sunni opposition fighter or sympathizer whose primary goal is to rid the country of US occupiers and at first you saw great hope in all those joint Sunni-Shi'a prayers and Sadrist aid convoys to Fallujah in April 2004, but now you see the Mahdi Army mortaring your living room and torturing and killing people in the streets and in secret for having the wrong name...well, kinda hard to trust them too eh?

So, even though Sunni nationalists (minus Al Qaeda) tend to say the right things about national unity and common opposition to the US occupation, and even though Sadrist leaders tend to say much the same stuff, the reality is that dead fathers and raped sisters tend to have a bigger impact on people's feelings. And those feelings are raw. I'm afraid at this point that the scab has been ripped off and every day more salt is being poured into the wound.

One interesting development, though, is that Sadr has been taking steps to instill greater discipline within the Mahdi ranks. After observing the recent successes of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the model looks like an ever more attractive choice for emulation. Ensuring such discipline is not an easy feat by any stretch though - made exceedingly difficult by the cyclical, sectarian-based violence that tends to create imperatives and motivations that trump loyalty to hierarchical power structures, or charismatic leaders.

Aside from the fact that it is not a given that Sadr wants to leave the UIA flock in search of a Sunni alliance as a replacement, even if he did, the prospects would be shaky at best. Still, if he gets squeezed too hard by the US and his Shiite rivals, he may give it a go. That's the most important variable, and the story to watch.

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