Monday, April 07, 2008

Circle Gets a Square

The pressing need to hold regional elections in Iraq has created a peculiar dilemma for the Bush administration. The conundrum goes something like this: The Awakenings/CLC groups have been demanding a share in the local government (they are on the outside due to their prior boycott) and are threatening violence absent such inclusion. Postponing elections, thus, risks losing key parties in the Awakenings/CLC movement, in turn jeopardizing gains in reducing anti-coalition violence.

On the other hand, our strongest ally in the Iraqi government (and Iran's), ISCI, has been steadily working to put off regional elections (including vetoing the most recent legislation) because of fears that it will lose considerable ground to the more popular Sadrist current (which also boycotted the last round of regional elections).

This intra-Shiite contest is important to the Bush administration for a few reasons. ISCI is amenable to a prolonged occupation, open to foreign investment in the oil sector on very beneficial terms to outsiders and intent on implementing some form of soft partition by creating a Shiite super region in the south (all goals shared by the Bush administration - with the last also favored by Iran). The Sadrists oppose each aspect of that agenda, so the US is mindful of ISCI's plight: any gains by the Sadrists at ISCI's expense would prove problematic to Bush administration designs.

How to square that circle? In February, Reidar Visser picked up the following chatter:

...[I]t would not be surprising if the dextrous politicians of ISCI, PUK and KDP were once more able to have it their way. “Rolling elections” has already been mentioned – perhaps the perfect euphemism in a context where the dominant US-sponsored Iraqi factions want to have elections in a few selected areas, but not everywhere? [my emphasis]

Recent events seem to be fleshing out that euphemism. When ISCI dropped its veto of the regional elections law a couple days after Cheney's visit, and when the anti-Sadrist offensive began a few days later, there seemed to be a connection - a quid pro quo of sorts. The overriding goal of the offensive (and the lever to get ISCI to withdraw its veto) was to weaken the Sadrists ahead of the election so that ISCI would be able to maintain its foothold in the Shiite south (which is of particular importance to the soft-partition plan).

The offensive didn't go as planned, however, leaving Bush administration officials scrambling to distance itself from the affair: at first denying any knowledge of the anti-Sadrist campaign, and then claiming advanced warning but not authorship. Enter Phase 2 of Operation Rolling Elections (which itself is only one part of the long term strategy of political realignment as explained by Badger):

Iraq's major Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties have closed ranks to force anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to disband his Mahdi Army militia or leave politics, lawmakers and officials involved in the effort said Sunday.

Such a bold move risks a violent backlash by al-Sadr's Shiite militia. But if it succeeds it could cause a major realignment of Iraq's political landscape.

The first step will be adding language to a draft election bill banning parties that operate militias from fielding candidates in provincial balloting this fall, the officials and lawmakers said. The government intends to send the draft to parliament within days and hopes to win approval within weeks.

Let's clarify a few things here: First of all, the law - in practice - would not ban all "parties that operate militias from fielding candidates in provincial balloting this fall." If it were applied so even-handedly, then ISCI, the Kurdish parties, the Awakenings/CLC movement (to name a few) would all be banned as well (although those groups would have the makings of a plausible defense given that many of their militia members - though not all...yet - have been in some way incorporated into official Iraqi armed forces).

Since those parties are pushing most stridently for this law, we can assume their immunity has been secured. In effect, the law would target the Sadrists and the Sadrists alone. Democracy, as they say, is on the march. As I have been warning, however, this approach is fraught with danger as the Sadrists are quite capable of fighting back which could, again, jeopardize recent gains in anti-coalition violence.

Nor is Sadr out of countermoves of a less martial quality. Swopa took note of the recent chess:

Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr offered on Monday to disband his militia if the highest Shi'ite religious authority demand it, a shock announcement at a time when the group is the focus of an upsurge in fighting.

It was the first time Sadr has offered to dissolve the Mehdi Army militia, whose black-masked fighters have been principle actors throughout Iraq's five-year-old war and the main foes of U.S. and Iraqi forces in widespread battles over recent weeks.

The news came on the day Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who launched a crackdown on the militia late last month, ordered the Mehdi Army to disband or Sadr's followers would be excluded from Iraqi political life.

Senior Sadr aide Hassan Zargani said Sadr would seek rulings from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, as well as senior Shi'ite clergy based in Iran, on whether to dissolve the Mehdi Army, and would obey their orders. [emphasis borrowed from Swopa]

Swopa raises some interesting ideas:

Reuters is wrong in the story above where they say this is the first time Sadr has ostentatiously placed his militia's fate in Sistani's lap -- Moqtada made similar promises during previous conflicts. In those cases, the grand ayatollah (reluctantly or not) ultimately had Sadr's back, forcing compromise in the name of Shiite unity.

Is Mookie expecting the same sort of bail-out now, or is he just trying to tie the Maliki/ISCI government more tightly around Sistani's neck before open warfare breaks out?

If parliamentary action is inevitable, then this is about the best play Sadr could make if a bit risky (but then, so is being shut out of the political sphere entirely). Either Sistani will side with Sadr and thus Sadr will have serious religious backing in his bid to preserve JAM (we'd also be able to test the extent to which SCIRI's switch to ISCI was anything other than window dressing given their ostensible realignment to Sistani over Khamenei), or Sadr will have pushed Sistani into the unenviable position of siding with the unpopular Green Zone government - as well as the occupation forces - in their bid to disband a popular, nationalist, anti-occupation militia.

Something to think about as Sadr is busy burnishing his religious credentials ahead of a possible move to carve out a bigger piece of the pie in terms of religious influence.

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