Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wide Awake in Amara?

When touting the success of the Anbar Awakening around the time of General Petraeus' fateful appearance before Congress in September, the Bush administration began talking up the notion of exporting the Awakening [sahwa in Arabic] model to other parts of Iraq (particularly the Shiite south). At the time, I mostly dismissed this ploy as a bit of misdirection with no real practical applications. After all, how do you capitalize on opposition to a common enemy like al-Qaeda when al-Qaeda is already a despised force in the Shiite south?

Besides, as the recent bombings in Amara illustrate, the current turmoil in the Shiite south is not really a product of al-Qaeda's actions, and more the result of the intense intra-Shiite conflict playing out between Sadr's forces and those of his main Shiite rival, ISCI (formerly SCIRI). So what would the lever be?

A couple of recent articles have exposed my lack of imagination by reporting on how the Shiite model would operate: the common enemy would be the warring Shiite militias themselves, and non-aligned tribal elements would be courted to join with US forces in an effort to vanquish those militias. Each article highlights the considerable obstacles to applying the sahwa formula in the Shiite-dominated territories, albeit from different vantage points.

First, Trudy Rubin suggests that there is opposition from the Iraqi government, which has the ostensibly "legal" means to squash such efforts:

Under U.S. pressure, Iraqi money has just been appropriated for a jobs program, but some U.S. officials worry that it won't be implemented. They fear that disillusioned tribal fighters could be tempted back on the payroll of militant groups.

None of these fears have stopped sheikhs like Ali Hatem from planning the expansion of the sahwa movement....More dramatic, he says fed-up Shiite sheikhs from the south of Iraq, where existing Shiite religious parties are squabbling viciously over power, want information on how to form sahwa movements of their own.

The Iraqi government has said it won't tolerate any sahwa groups in the south of the country, and recently arrested a Najaf politician for suggesting a preliminary meeting.

So certain elements of the Iraqi government - some of which are aligned with the militias that would be targeted by the hoped-for Shiite sahwa - are erecting serious roadblocks. The problems go much deeper though, as illustrated by this excerpt from a piece by Sam Dagher:

[A Sadar spokesman Salah al-Obeidi] says the US military and the Mahdi Army's Shiite rivals are trying hard to force the dismantling of Sadr's militia forming tribal councils across the Shiite south, much like the Americans did in Sunni parts of the country to combat Al Qaeda.

But, the spokesman says, this strategy isn't going to work in the south, where many of the tribesmen's sons are Mahdi fighters. [emphasis mine throughout]

That last bit is worth considering. Whereas al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq had a distinctly foreign flavor (especially in terms of leadership) - and was a recent, almost entirely post-war phenomenon - the Mahdi militia (Jaish al-Mahdi or JAM) is a homegrown force, born out of a religious/social movement that had been percolating in Iraq for decades. Thus, driving a wedge between tribal leaders and JAM types won't be as easy as getting Sunni tribal leaders to turn on a newly introduced, foreign-led force that was overreaching anyway (though the Badr Corp - which was formed, trained and armed in Iran out of a contingent of Iraqi ex-pats - may be a bit more vulnerable). Is there really a strong enough faction of non-aligned tribal leaders that would feel confident enough to move against JAM? I have my doubts.

Even though Obedei suggests that Sadr's Shiite rivals (read: ISCI) are in cohoots with the Americans in pursuit of this Shiite version of sahwa, the reaction on the part of the Iraqi government (of which ISCI is the most powerful Shiite voice) suggests that even if Sadr's rivals would be willing to pursue this course to some extent, their support will be limited, contingent and only guaranteed so long as they can guide the process and determine exactly which Shiite militias get awoken. In other words, ISCI's Badr Corp militia would have to be left alone. And given Badr/ISCI's more tenuous Iraqi roots, they would have to proceed carefully, if at all. That being said, the widespread integration of Badr personnel into official Iraqi security forces (which allows them to shed the "militia" label and don official uniformes) may inspire ISCI to give it a go. We'll see soon enough.

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