Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Doctor, Heal Thyself!

I'm normally a big fan of the Abu Muquwama site and its authors, but this recent post from Dr. iRak left me scratching my head. The good Dr. seems unduly impressed with some recent statements made by the Government of Iraq (or "GoI" as he terms it) scolding Iran for supplying aid and armaments to Shiite militias. The supposed smoking gun evidence in the present case is a cache of Iranian made weapons (allegedly set aside for the Sadrists) found in the Basra area.

However, given the nature of Iran's longstanding involvement with certain Shiite Iraqi factions, these "official" statements are more like Claude Raines-styled shock than revelation. From the article cited by Dr. iRak:

The U.S. military official suggested that the "thousands" of munitions uncovered in Basra, and the idea that they were being used by extremists allegedly trained by Iran, had been an eye-opener for Iraq's leaders. "Our discussion is now matched by their understanding," he said. "This is the beginning of a change of public discussion among senior Iraqis." [emphasis added]

Uh huh: Iraq's leaders stunned by the discovery that Iran is funding and training Iraqi Shiite groups. Funny that, considering one of the main factions in the GoI, ISCI, is just about a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian government. You think that assessment is hyperbolic? Some background: ISCI is comprised of Iraqis that fled mostly to Iran during the 1980s and 1990s. While in Iran, the party (then called SCIRI) and its Badr Corp. militia were formed, funded, armed and indoctrinated by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp. and other regime elements. In fact, some ISCI members fought on Iran's side in the Iran/Iraq war, and many still draw pensions from the IRGC, despite the fact that those members returned to Iraq en masse after the Baath regime was toppled.

So is one to assume that ISCI is surprised to find the Iranians arming and training Iraqi Shiites? And that they're now demanding that Iran stop funding and arming...groups like ISCI? Not exactly. Once again, the discussion of Iranian involvement is fixed like a laser on the Sadrist current while the far more extensive ties to our putative allies like ISCI are ignored.

Given this reality, it is more likely that the GoI is pursuing two primary goals by making these statements: First and foremost, placating Bush administration officials concerned about the GoI's ties to Iran (or at least providing the Bush administration with useful PR fodder to counter critics that point out that state of affairs). Second, though to a lesser degree, trying to corner the market on Iranian money and weapons (not cut the supply off completely).

Nevertheless, Dr. iRak sees significance behind the facade of Kabuki make-up:

This stance by the GoI serves several purposes simultaneously. First, it can be understood in classic "good cop, bad cop" terms. The United Stats [sic] is playing the saber-rattling bad cop, appearing to threaten war with Iran over new evidence of lethal assistance to JAM "special groups." The then steps in and says "we agree," but we think that things should be resolved diplomatically, thus playing the good cop holding the Americans back. Good coercive diplomacy . . . if it works.

I suppose, but only in a limited sense. The GoI (meaning ISCI/Dawa) might be playing a little hardball with the Iranian government over its providing support to the Sadrists, but their bluff and bluster can only go so far. Their ties to Iran are too deep to sever over this issue, and such isolation would leave them at the mercy of the Americans alone. That's a heck of a leap to take. More from Dr. iRak:

Second, increasing anti-Iranian rhetoric may help the Maliki government appeal to Sunni leaders and thereby forge cross-sectarian cooperation on other sticky issues.

Not likely. Again, making a public display of opposition to the fact that Iran is supporting the Sadrists isn't goint to fool Iraqi Sunnis. Most have a well developed, if not exaggerated, knowledge about the endurance of ties between Iran and ISCI, as well as Iran and Maliki's Dawa party. The GoI statements are mostly for American audiences, with the locals not being as susceptible to such propaganda.

There are elements in this last bit from Dr. iRak that I agree with, though there are also some dubious presumptions:

Finally, emphasizing Iranian involvement provides a useful public "explanation" for the difficulty U.S. and Iraqi forces have had, thus far, in quelling violence in Sadr City. Blame it on Iran, not Sadr/JAM. Why go this route? Because it allows the United States to maintain the fiction that it is only the "special groups" that are fighting the coalition instead of rank-and-file JAM, thus preserving the illusion that the Sadr "freeze" declared last August--a major (perhaps the major) reason for declining violence during the later part of the "surge" period in 2007--has not collapsed. [...]

At the same time, Iranian involvement allows U.S. officials to deflect blame for the fighting from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, whom they are counting on to sustain a frayed but officially intact truce he called in August for his Mahdi Army militia. Though privately many soldiers here say the Mahdi militia is involved in the current fighting, publicly, the allegation is that "special groups" who have broken away from Sadr and receive training and aid from Iran are causing the troubles.

As discussed previously on this Site, I concur that the "special groups" fiction can be useful. I'm just not so sure the current strategy looks to take advantage of the "special groups" formulation. Presently, US and Iraqi forces are not seeking to "quell violence" in Sadr City and Basra - they're initiating it. That's an enormous difference. Further, the main purpose of the anti-Sadrist operations is to weaken that movement ahead of regional elections this fall (which only makes the enormous loss of innocent civilian life in Sadr City that much more horrific).

Thus, keeping this fiction in play is less important than previously, when the Bush administration was contemplating more normalized relations with the Sadrists. After all, do we really expect Sadr to sustain a cease fire while missles, bombs and tank shells rain down upon his constituents? The "special groups" fiction wouldn't help him to save face amidst such carnage. Nor would a cease fire halt the onslaught.

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