Wednesday, April 09, 2008

You Were Fighting as a Soldier on Their Side

Reidar Visser has an interesting, and at times counterfactual, piece up about the recent fighting in Basra and the related issues of Iranian infiltration of the political scene. Some key takeaways from Visser's analysis: First, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are not exactly dominated by ISCI (though ISCI has carved out substantial "fiefdoms" within the ISF). Perhaps more importantly, there is potential friction between Maliki and ISCI over the issue of federalization - with ISCI favoring a near fragmented Iraq while Maliki favors a stonger centralized state, even opposing the creation of the Shiite super region in the south.

While this is true in terms of the parties' respective ideological foundations, it has long been my contention that Maliki has been forced by his dependence on ISCI and the Kurdish parties to acquiesce to their shared agenda of federalization and de-centralization. Functionally, the underlying ideological differences could end up mattering little if Maliki remains tied to ISCI and the Kurds. In this, we are doing Maliki no favors by acting to suppress the nationalist elements (such as the Sadrists) that are most vehemently opposed to the federalization/de-centralization program.

Further, Visser contends that Maliki is less beholden to Iran than ISCI, and as evidence, Visser points out that the ISF under Maliki's leadership have taken action against some groups that are considered staunch Iranian allies - in the recent Basra crackdown and before. While Visser claims that Maliki is still intent on maintaining "independence vis-a-vis ISCI and Iran," again, we are not helping that cause by knocking the legs out of the other Iraqi groups that share Maliki's stance. To the extent that Maliki must rely on ISCI, his preferences might not matter as much. Ironically, increased US/Iraqi military pressure on the Sadrist current may have pushed Moqtada closer to Iran which, in turn, could have given Iran even more influence - now with a reliable ally on both sides of the centralization divide:

...[T]he conclusion of a ceasefire on Iranian soil shows that Tehran’s ability to influence the other end of the spectrum – the traditionally Iraqi nationalist Sadrist movement – may now be stronger than ever before, quite possibly the result of Muqtada’s relocation to Iran at the beginning of “the surge”, when he may have felt cornered by US policy.

Visser's conclusions are worth considering - as is the zinger he slips in at the end about our choice of allies in Iraq:

To the US, the best way of rectifying these problems would be to abandon the current policy of unquestioningly going after whomever Maliki defines as a terrorist. Instead Washington could emulate the Iranians: talk to as many Shiite factions as possible, which could be done simply by supporting free and fair local elections in October without giving in to very predictable schemes by Maliki and ISCI to exclude or obstruct the Sadrists and other undesirable competitors. Unfortunately, however, Washington appears headed in a different direction. The Bush administration fails to acknowledge that Iranian influences in Iraq operate through several channels, including some of Washington's best friends. In reality, the Iraqi nationalist component of Maliki’s government is wafer-thin, and unless this problem at the Green-Zone level is addressed and anti-Iranian currents among the Shiites are better represented, no amount of bottom-up progress, “breathing room” or American material support in the provinces will be sufficient to achieve national reconciliation.

In sum, the Iraqi system is locked at the top level. The artificial constellation of the so-called “moderate coalition” under Maliki is to a large extent the result of a weaponry-focused American misreading of the many channels of Iranian influence. This was best summed up by Ryan Crocker’s comments in the US Senate on 8 April: in an attempt at playing down the significance of Mahmud Amadinejad’s popularity in Iraqi government circles, Crocker referred to the staunch anti-Iranian attitude of the Iraqi Shiites during the Iran-Iraq War. What Crocker failed to mention was that his own administration’s main Shiite partner in Iraq [ISCI] is the only sizeable Shiite party that fought on the Iranian side. [emphasis added - that's gotta sting]

Looking at the big picture, it seems that the Bush administration places a greater emphasis on the prospect of securing permanent military bases and beneficial terms for foreign investment in the oil sector (which ISCI and the Kurds appear willing to dangle) than it does for limiting Iran's influence (which we would better achieve by propping up or at least not weakening nationalist elements including, even, the Sadrist current). At least that's one interpretation.

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