Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Bet on the Cat Herder
The news was broken first by the Arabic newspaper Azzaman, which put it this way:
The row between Moqtada al-Sadr and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has subsided, thanks to the country’s top Shiite Cleric Ali Sistani.
Sistani, who resides in the Shiite city of Najaf, has mediated a settlement between the Shiite rivals.
This would be more typical of how factional politics in Iraq has gone the past few years. The U.S. pressures Sadr, who balks publicly, and the SIIC and Da'wa parties flirt with forming a new coalition that excludes Sadr and ties them more closely to the Kurds. Then Grand Ayatollah Sistani knocks the various Shiite leaders' heads, says, "C'mon, you knuckleheads, stop arguing and stick together"... which they do, and the barely-United Iraqi Alliance limps forward to its next adventure. [emphasis in original]
True. This cycle will likely be broken some day, but betting against a collapse of the UIA would have made you pretty rich over the past few years. Especially considering all the exaggerated rumors of the UIA's imminent demise, which would have led the bookmakers to offer some pretty sweet odds.
It should be noted that the US has been trying to isolate Sadr from the rest of the Shiite establishment for some time now (breaking up the UIA's stranglehold of the government in the process would no doubt an ancillary goal - the easier to impose US imperatives on a less unified political front). As a result of US efforts, Maliki and his constituent Dawa Party have felt considerable pressure to move decisively against Sadr - which they have only done in fits and spurts, but never going all the way. While Dawa has hesitated, SIIC (formerly SCIRI) has been far more receptive to such schemes, which is no surprise considering the frequently fierce competition between SIIC and Sadr's cadres in the South.
Sistani, though, has been adamantly opposed to such a break with Sadr which he rightly realizes would dilute Shiite power and political domination. In addition to wrecking the political unity that Sistani himself set in motion with the UIA slate, alienating Sadr would also cost the Shiites a very potent enforcer/deterrent just in case of a schism with occupation forces.
Despite the other persistent exaggerated rumor - that of Sistani's demise as a political force - it is Sistani who continuously prevails over the dictates of the US, and the temptations of SIIC. That's impressive.
Thus, betting against Sistani would have also been a losing proposition. Thus far at least. For now, though, I'd let it ride on the Grand Ayatollah.