Friday, May 23, 2008

Thanks, But We Can Take It From Here

Reacting to the story that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is beginning to take a more militant stand in opposition to the US occupation, Kevin Drum asks, "Why now?" I briefly mentioned some of the possible motivations in my post on the Sistani story (as did Cernig and Matt Duss), but Juan Cole offers a good summary of some of the more compelling speculation.

To reiterate (as Cole himself does), this is only plausible speculation and there is no way to know Sistani's motivations for sure. What is known for sure, however, is that Sistani's shift on this topic (or, perhaps, willingness to vocalize an unchanged position) is a severe setback to those that envision a 100 year presence in Iraq - complete with massive permanent bases, theme parks and luxury hotels:

So, the questions are, "why" and "why now?"

I can only speculate, since Sistani isn't issuing communiques that would explain what is on his mind. But let us look at the context.

First, Sistani was under a lot of pressure from his Shiite followers to denounce the US siege, blockade and aerial bombing of the civilian district of Sadr City in East Baghdad, which went on for weeks. People were actually lacking in food. And, apartment buildings were incinerated. The full horror of the siege was carefully kept from the American public, but the Shiites of Iraq knew about it all right. I think that the brutality of the US intervention against the Shiite masses, and the risk that his silence would produce a backlash against him in favor of Muqtada al-Sadr, may have helped impel Sistani toward this militancy. Aerial bombardment of civilian areas as a tactic has increased significantly this spring.

Americans tend to dismiss the aerial bombardments, in which civilians are often killed, as the cost of doing business in a war zone. But many Iraqis really, really mind these killings and you can only imagine what Sistani thinks of them. Likewise, while the incident of the US soldier using the Qur'an for firing practice only happened recently and wouldn't be the impetus for Sistani's new militancy, such desecrations have occurred before and the hatred of Islam by US military figures like Gen. Boykin is well known.

This is an extremely important point, and one that I have tried to make in the past. It is much easier to rationalize the "regrettable necessity" of collateral damage from a safe distance. Somehow, the arguments are less persuasive when your friends, loved ones and neighbors are the collateral. And no, that's not an Arab thing either.

Another point made by Cole has to do with the paucity of coverage regarding the actual levels of violence attendant to the Sadr City assault. The fantasy being for many Americans that if it doesn't show up in the American media, it didn't happen. You can see the adjunt to this outlook in the reaction to many news stories from Abu Ghraib to the recent Koran desecration story.

There is actual anger from war supporters at the media for reporting these events, with claims that reporting by the Western media sows hostility to the US presence. One problem: the Iraqi people, um, know what's happening in Sadr City, Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq even if it doesn't appear on a CNN scroll. The US military, after all, had to formally apologize to a Sunni tribe for the Koran desecration. How did that Sunni tribe find out? Wolf Blitzer? Obviously no. Yet some claim that CNN acted against the best interests of our troops in Iraq by letting Americans know what the Iraqis already knew.

But I digress:

Second, as Steve Chapman points out, the American Right is clearly trying to get up a war on Iran by rather fantastically painting it as a "threat". Sistani is an Iranian, born in Mashhad in 1930, who resided there until late 1951. He does not like the Khomeinist system of government. But since Sistani has seen what Bush's tender mercies have done to Iraq, he must be alarmed by the idea that Washington might bestow the same "liberation" on his native land. Obviously, the US is in a worse position to attack Iran if it lacks Iraq as a base, and one way of forestalling Cheney's mad bombers would be to try to force the US out of Iraq.

Third, PM Nuri al-Maliki has several times expressed the conviction that the Iraqi army could handle Iraq by the end of 2008. If he is telling Sistani that, and Sistani believes it, then the Grand Ayatollah may feel that there is increasingly no down side to multinational forces leaving Iraq. Al-Maliki's campaigns in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul were probably intended as a demonstration that the Iraqi army can handle the country on its own. The intrepid Leila Fadil reports from Basra that al-Maliki has in fact achieved greater security and trade in Iraq's ports through his Assault of the Knights operation. When al-Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim feel strong enough domestically, their first order of business will be to vastly reduce American military influence. They represent the Islamic Mission (Da`wa) Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (founded by Ayatollah Khomeini), after all. There is likely a limit to this marriage of convenience.

Sistani also follows American politics, and he knows that the US is transitioning away from Bush, so he may see an opportunity to push the new administration in a different direction.

While Sistani's shift is a big story, it shouldn't exactly be a startling revelation. Sistani, and the clerical establishment in Najaf, as well as our putative allies (ISCI and Dawa), will eventually want us to leave when they feel secure in their own new-found position of hegemony. What did you expect? Their religious, cultural and political traditions aren't amenable to long term interference and occupation by Western powers (not many cultures are, in fact).

Just think, some people actually thought Chalabi was going to swoop in, take control of Iraq, normalize relations with Israel, build a pipeline from Iraq to Haifa and open up the country to a Western capitalist free for all. Did I mention, some of those people were actually intimately involved in the selling, planning and implementation of the Iraq war. Heh.

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