Thursday, May 01, 2008

Toll the Bell for the Polls, Part II

In Part I of this series, I discussed the primary objective behind the stepped-up assault on the Sadrist movement in Iraq; an assault that has already resulted in a predicted spike of US casualties (51 in April) and an unthinkable level of suffering for the Iraqi people (liberation never felt so good!). Not to mention the implementation of a corrolary policy of walling off, separating and collectively punishing densely populated neighborhoods of Baghdad. Brandon Friedman has a good summary of the uptick in violence (as well as a collection of experts tut-tutting the anti-war crowd for refusing to concede that the Surge had resulted in victory, the end):

On the Iraqi side, 925 people were killed in Sadr City in April alone. Most of these were civilians. As Sadr City is six square miles in size, that represents roughly 150 deaths per square mile in that section of Baghdad during the month.

As argued in Part I, this is what we hope to gain in exchange for all this death and destruction:

So what, then, would count as victory? The answer drains most meaning out of the word: disrupt the political and military wings of the Sadrist movement...enough that Iran's main ally in Iraq, ISCI...can prevail in upcoming elections (only). In other words, the US will be aiding and assisting in the undermining of the democratic process that it supposedly invaded Iraq to promote as an example throughout the region...

The Sadrist current represents too large a social phenomenon to actually defeat or eradicate, but short term disruption is feasible. Why, then, is the goal of weakening the Sadrists in the short term, and helping ISCI ahead of the upcoming elections, so important to the Bush administration? There are at least three reasons:

1. Sadr opposes a prolonged US occupation/permanent bases. The Bush administration obviously values those objectives highly and is in a scramble to come to an agreement on a long-term security/status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government. In pursuit of this, the Bush team wants as much ostensible legal and popular legitimacy buttressing this agreement as possible (even if in appearances only). Keeping Sadr down now, and increasing Maliki's mandate (at least de jure if not de facto), is vital.

2. Sadr opposes heavy foreign involvement in the oil sector. What, did you really think this had nothing to do with oil?

The third prong is more controversial:

3. Sadr opposes the fragmenting of the Iraqi state into semi-autonomous sub-regions.

I say "controversial," because I'm not convinced yet that this is important for the Bush administration. At the very least, though, the Bush administration would be willing to endorse such a plan in return for cooperation from ISCI and Iran (who both favor such a break-up of the state - actually ISCI is the only non-Kurdish group pushing for fragmentation). Which reminds me, the pivot here is that ISCI is more amenable on all three fronts, and so ISCI is the horse we're backing with all the firepower in our arsenal. Despite ISCI's obvious ties to Iran.

Speaking of Iran, their relationships with ISCI and the Sadrists, respectively, are germane to recent developments. ISCI (whose political wing and militia were formed, funded, trained and indoctrinated in Iran by the Iranian regime) is Iran's main proxy in Iraq. Yet the Iranians have also been willing, at times, to fund and arm the Sadrists for at least a couple of reasons: First, the Iranians recognized early on that the Sadrists were too powerful to simply ignore, dismiss or quash, so the better to cultivate influence and goodwill. Second, the Sadrist foot soldiers could provide a useful lever against the US presence in Iraq when necessary.

That being said, Iran does have a strong interest in ensuring the same outcome in upcoming elections as that sought by the Bush administration: namely, a big ISCI/Dawa victory and a poor showing by the Sadrists. That's because the Sadrist movement's political agenda/rhetoric (nationalistic, at times anti-Persian and staunchly opposed to the creation of a Shiite super region) is more hindrance than benefit to the Iranians - as opposed to the Sadrists' capacity to field an anti-American militia which can still come in handy.

Thus, Iran would be reluctant to sever ties with the Sadrists completely or cooperate in their annihilation (that's a pretty big chip to simply discard). And, again, Iran likely realizes that vanquishing such a large movement is very difficult to pull off. Further, participation in such a massive purge/massacre might spark a severe Shiite nationalist backlash (endangering Iran's position in the Shiite south). But short term disruption is feasible and, at the moment, very desirable.

So with US and Iranian objectives in a rare moment of alignment, reports like these begin popping up:

Iran voiced support on Monday for Iraq's prime minister in a crackdown on a Shi'ite militia but blamed U.S. forces for civilian deaths in the fighting.

The Islamic Republic also said the United States, its old foe, had requested a new round of talks on improving security in Iraq and Tehran was considering it. [...]

Analysts say Tehran and Washington, despite their mutual accusations, may still have a shared interest in a stable Iraq.

And then the counterpunch:

Sadr spokesman Salah al-Obeidi (al-Ubaydi) in Najaf bitterly attacked Iran, accusing it of seeking to share with the US in influence over Iraq. He pointed to the Iranian's regime's failure to condemn the long-term mutual security agreement being crafted by the Bush administration and the al-Maliki government. Al-Obeidi's angry denunciation suggests that Iran is backing PM Nuri al-Maliki and his current chief ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim against the Sadr Movement of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Note how the long-term security agreement issue comes up in this context. Today, more interesting - though underreported - news regarding maneuvers related to the recent shock! on the part of the Iraqi government at the discovery that Iran has been funding Shiite militias (ISCI was particularly scandalized). Most major outlets, like the New York Times, are reporting that the Iraqi government is sending a contingent to forcefully confront Iran on its aid to the Sadrist current. The truth, however, lies elsewhere:

We have it on the excellent authority of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq itself (ISCI, formerly SCIRI, aka just the "Supreme Council") that its leader Abdulaziz al-Hakim took a phone call from President Bush yesterday afternoon, after receiving a visit from ambassador Crocker and special ambassador Satterfield. And following the meeting and the phone call he convened a meeting of United Iraqi Alliance (the Shiite bloc that once included Sadrists and Fadhila, but now includes only the Supreme Council and the Dawa Party), which he also heads. (As RoadstoIraq, which first called attention to these events, noted: "Bush-Hakim are up to something").

Then this morning the New York Times reports that a delegation of senior Dawa and Supreme Council people was sent yesterday to Tehran for talks. The delegation included Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme council. (Interestingly, the NYT didn't identify Hadi al-Ameri as head of the Badr Organization, merely calling him a "senior member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite party in Mr Maliki's coalition.")

So: Bush calls Hakim; Hakim convenes the Shiite coalition; and a delegation including the Badr Organization head is sent to Tehran. And the NYT this morning, leaving out the Bush phone-call and the resulting UIA meeting, spins the events like this: "American officials supported the trip, but portrayed it as the brainchild of Mr Maliki." [emphasis added]

Brainchild? The last time we heard about Maliki birthing his own ideas was when US and Iraqi forces carried out an assault on Basra that was long planned for by US military officials. But I digress. What stands out is the identity of the members of the Iraqi government team: ISCI members, Dawa members and other individuals identified as close to the Iranians. Are we really to believe that ISCI is going to Tehran to draw a line in the sand in a stand-off with its long-time and primary benefactor? I'm guessing, no.

This looks more like coordination and cooperation with respect to the shared objective of ensuring strong showings for ISCI/Dawa at the expense of the Sadrists in the next round of elections. With Bush and Crocker in on the discussions, I'd guess the long-term security arrangement and the Bush administration's acquiescence with respect to (if not active support for) the Shiite super region as the underlying quid pro quo. In exchange, Iran would continue to look the other way as Sadr City burns, while tightening the spigot on its support for the Sadrists.

At least that's my take.

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