Tuesday, April 08, 2008

I Wish I Was Special

Kevin Drum elevated a comment that I made on his site to an update of the post in question, so I wanted to clarify my argument since it was a little vague. The subject of Drum's post has to do with a clever bit of wording that was adopted by Petraeus/Crocker around the time that Moqtada al-Sadr declared his cease fire - specifically, use of the term "Special Groups" in relation to certain segments of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia (aka JAM).

First, some background (which is relevant to a back and forth I had with avedis in comments to this post). Realizing the opportunity presented by Sadr's self-imposed cease-fire, Petraeus/Crocker made several good faith gestures (including later making a point of praising Sadr's efforts publicly and referring to Sadr by the honorific, "Sayyed" - used to denote direct lineage to the Prophet Mohammed). In connection with this charm offensive, Petraeus/Crocker began differentiating between the core of JAM, and those splinter factions that were designated as "Special Groups."

The Special Groups were then loaded up with all of the sins of JAM - both real and imagined. The Special Groups were accused of being tools of Iran, and were deemed responsible for the ethnic cleansing and criminal conduct perpetrated by some JAM members. In the process, JAM-central was redeemed.

There was a seed of truth to each of those claims, and Sadr himself was concerned about rogue factions that were improperly coopting the JAM name, and other JAM members whose discipline was fraying such that they were tainting the legitimacy and moral foundation of the overall program. In a limited sense, Sadr was willing to countenance some "culling" of these fringe elements through US military and Iraqi government operations (read: Badr) in order to consolidate control and to bring JAM in line with the ideological and religious undergirdings of the movement.

In this way, Petraeus/Crocker offered Sadr a face saving avenue to begin probing the normalization of relations. For a time, Sadr could afford to maintain the cease fire despite the assaults because those actions ostensibly targeted groups that were no longer considered legitimate JAM members, and so no response was necessary. As I have been warning for months, however, the US military and Iraqi government forces began cutting into the core of JAM - as well as arresting and detaining non-militia members of the Sadrist current. Petraeus/Crocker continued to praise Sayyed al-Sadr and maintain the fiction of targeting only the Special Groups, but the actions were speaking louder than the increasingly hollow words.

Pressure began mounting steadily from within the Sadrist movement for Moqtada to lift the cease fire and retaliate. Initially, he called off the cease fire as it relates to ISCI (whose Iranian trained Badr Corp militia had been relentlessly harrassing JAM, both in its capacity as officially recognized Iraqi Security Forces and as a stand alone militia). Eventually, Sadr declared that the cease fire did not preclude actions against any party; if in self-defense. Thus, following the recent Basra offensive, all hell broke loose - at least for a short time.

Back to Kevin Drum, who passes along this bit from Thomas Ricks' liveblogging of the Petraeus/Crocker testimony:

Later in his prepared statement, Crocker makes real news. In the wake of the Basra operation, he reveals, Moqtada al-Sadr's main militia, Jayash al-Mahdi, seems to have linked back up with the so-called "Special Groups," or splinter elements of the militia.

I hadn't seen that before. As Crocker says in his statement, that is "a dangerous development."

K-Drum, logically, states that it should come as no surprise that JAM is re-linking with the Special Groups considering the tendency to unite in the face of a common enemy and agrees that it is a "dangerous development." That is quite possibly the case, though I have my doubts.

Regardless, I find Crocker's assertion itself, not the underlying truth, to be the "dangerous development." What that signals to me is that Petraeus/Crocker are dropping the Special Groups pretense and are no longer probing a conciliatory track with Sadr. Petraeus/Crocker will resume pre-cease fire attempts to tar the entire Sadrist current with assorted sins - again, real and imagined. That, to me, looks like the rhetorical groundwork for a full-on confrontation, moreso than even the overly aggressive culling actions described above. A lifting of the cease-fire would be the logical next step if Crocker's choice of words is as significant as I fear.

Hold on to your hats.

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