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Disentangling the key players in Iraq

To make better sense of what is going on currently in Iraq, we need to identify the major players. Everyone is by now is familiar with the Shia-Sunni religious divide in Islam, one of those hair-splitting and absurd enmities between sects that plague religions. The extreme devotion of each of these groups to their particular form of religion, and their willingness to see members of the ‘other’ side as an enemy, is typical of the insanity of the tribal mentality. We now see a process by which militant members of each group are seeking to drive wedges between them even deeper to the extent of eliminating mixed-residence regions. Already it is reported that 10 of the 23 mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad have become exclusively Shia. So the Sunni faction of the insurgency is fighting the US while at the same time attacking the rival Shia, or defending the Sunnis from the Shia, depending on your point of view.

But a complicating factor that is emerging is that there is an important split within the Shia group that makes this into a three-way conflict.

One of the major Shia political groupings is the SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) which has its own armed militia called the Badr Brigade. The SCIRI group, led by cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has long been affiliated with Iran and, according to A. K. Gupta writing in Z Magazine (February 2007), is conspiring to form a Shia ‘super-region’ in southern Iraq adjoining Iran, where the major oil reserves are concentrated. When Saddam Hussein was in power, SCIRI leaders spent their years in exile in Iran and were recognized as the Iraqi government-in-exile by Iranian clerics. Also, the Badr brigade was formed and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The other major Shia group is the more publicized (at least in the US) one led by the cleric Muqtada al Sadr and which also has its own armed militia called the Mehdi Army. This group has historically not been close to Iran and in fact has opposed increased Iranian influence in Iraq. Furthermore, Sadr has great credibility in Iraq as a nationalist. As Patrick Cockburn writes, Muqtada’s father and two brothers were fierce opponents of Saddam Hussein and were murdered by him because they were perceived as threats, and while many other Iraqi leaders left for exile, Muqtada al Sadr stayed behind. Like his father, he was angry at the US because the economic sanctions on Iraq by the US had brought ruin to the people of his country. All these factors give him an immense nationalistic credibility.

So given that the US considers Iran part of the ‘axis of evil’ and is currently making warlike noises against it, if the US had to choose between allying itself with the Iranian-backed SCIRI and the nationalist Sadr group, you would think that it would support Sadr. But you would be wrong. Every indication is that an important part of the surge strategy is to crush Sadr politically to the extent of even killing him, and destroying his Mehdi army militarily. Why? Because as a fierce nationalist who opposes all foreign occupation, including that of the US, he represents a more immediate threat to US. His group in the Iraqi parliament has managed to get almost half of that body to sign a petition calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. Since, as I have argued before, the US is clearly intent on occupying Iraq permanently, Sadr and all he represents has to be destroyed, since it seems hard to co-opt him to be fully subservient to US interests.

So what has emerged is a de facto alliance between the US and the Badr brigade against the Mehdi army. The Badr brigade has deeply infiltrated the Iraqi military and police forces under the patronage of the Interior Minister and are operating ‘death squads’ that operate with impunity, carrying out attacks on Sunnis and the followers of Sadr, with the US giving them political and even military cover.

So as part of the current offensive, we can expect to see a full-fledged assault on Sadr’s stronghold in what is known as ‘Sadr City’ in Baghdad, an enclave of about 2 million people. What happens then depends on the response of the Mehdi army. On two previous occasions in 2003 and 2004 when the US army went into Sadr City, the Mehdi army directly confronted it and received heavy losses. Since then, the militias seem to have learned the lesson that it is better to fight the US indirectly. The next time the US confronts the Mehdi army in Sadr city (which is likely to happen very soon or some reports indicate is already underway) what is likely to happen is that the Mehdi army will melt away and not offer much direct resistance. Sadr himself, expecting to be targeted for killing has reportedly gone into hiding.This would result in a lull in the level of violence but it is unlikely to be permanent as long as the basic instability exists in the political structure of that country.

Another strategy being adopted is for the militia members to sign up to join the Iraqi security forces that the US is creating and training and arming. That way, they can gain access to weapons and supplies and intelligence as well. But this results in the Iraqi military not serving the government (shaky though it is) but advancing the interests of whatever sectarian groups make up its caadres.

As a result, the security forces are not seen by the population at large as protecting the people but as extensions of the death squads that are terrorizing the population. It has also led to criminals and thugs getting access to the Iraqi security forces and acting with increasing impunity such as this case where they force their way into people’s hopes, brutalize them, and take their valuables.

So in a nutshell, the US strategy seems to be to ally itself with one faction of the Shias (the SCIRI and its Badr Brigades) to try and crush both the Sunni insurgency and the Shia opposition led by Muqtada al Sadr and his militia, the Mehdi army. Meanwhile, the US is taking an increasingly confrontational tone with Iran, which is the very sponsor of the US allies in Iraq, and it is not clear to what extent the US’s other allies in the region (Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan all of whom are Sunni) will tolerate the assault on their Sunni kinsfolk in Iraq. Bush seems to be trying to appease them by playing up the threat posed by the Shia Iranians

It seems as if the US is succumbing to the danger that befalls all occupying armies when they stay too long and that is getting more and more entangled in local politics, forging short-term alliances of convenience and getting mixed up in shifting regional conflicts.

This is the mess that the US finds itself in, all of which will likely lead to long-term complications.

POST SCRIPT: Another Johnny Cash classic

This song Sunday morning coming down has some wonderful lyrics.

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