P. Cockburn on Iraq

From a reporter who actually is in Iraq and sees many different angles than that of the pre-approved US Army tours given to the US media, a very lucid analysis of the current state of play in Iraq.  Much subtler than say this fluff piece by Andrew Sullivan which has got so many holes below the water line tough to know where to begin (did I mention he is supposedly one of the “critical” voices in the blogosphere on the topic?).

On the one hand, Cockburn notes that Maliki’s government is stronger than it has been probably ever.  This is leading to claims of “the surge is working” “victory is at hand if only the Democrats don’t cut and run” for the umpteenth trillion time from the right.  Strong enough however (contra McCain-Bush) that they have rejected a Security of Forces Agreement for the time being (due to in part Iranian pressure).


The government’s position looks stronger than it is because its opponents are waiting for the Americans to leave or draw  down their forces.

The Provincial Elections are a major sticking point and likely won’t take place in October.  Kirkuk is outstanding.  One of the Sunni Iraqi parties has rejoined the government so that Maliki and crew can help break the (Sunni competitors) Sons of Iraq who likely would knock the older Sunni parties out of power if the elections were actually free.  Same with Maliki and the ISCI in relation to Sadr (hence the crackdown on his militia).

And even if it succeeds, what would be “victory”:

Their aim seems to be to be eliminate their domestic Iraqi  opponents while they still have the backing of American firepower. It is a  brutal plan but it might come off. Maliki could become the Iraqi version of  Vladimir Putin in Russia. Like Putin, Maliki controls the state machine, a  large if unreliable army and benefits from the high price of oil so he has  control of over $40 billion in unspent reserves. Iraqis do not trust their  own government but, like Russians when Putin first came to power in  1999, they are desperately war weary. Many people will support anybody  who provides peace and security. But the analogy should not be carried  too far. Putin’s enemies were fictional or in distant Chechnya, while Maliki’s  opponents are real, dangerous and close by.

And even were that to happen, there is the issue of Iran:

An increase in Iranian influence in Iraq has been  inevitable since 2003. Once the US had decided to overthrow Saddam  Hussein the beneficiaries were always going to be the Shia religious  parties, because they represented the majority of Iraqis, and they would  be supported by Iran. Many of America’s problems in Iraq over the last five  years have happened because Washington believed it could prevent or  dilute the triumph of Iran and the Shia in Iraq.

As Joe Biden had said repeatedly there are three ways this ends:

1)Total Slaughter/Exodus of the Sunnis (reduction of their population to complete servitude, minority status)

2)A return of a Dictator.  That is the Maliki cum Putin scenario.

3)Break/Federalization of the Country.

The scenario Cockburn outlines where the US follows to the T the history of the British in Iraq and attempts to create permanent bases with a puppet government would certainly end the same way the British occupation of Iraq did–in ignominious defeat, as well as the overthrow of the puppet government and the installation of a new anti-British (i.e. anti-American in this case) regime.  In the short term that seems off the table as Maliki seems to have effectively pushed back on the deal.  McCain and Bush still want it, Obama doesn’t.  And more importantly the vast majority of the Iraqi population doesn’t either.

As Cockburn points out the only reason the American occupation continues is because the Shia and Sunni are fighting a low-grade civil war as well as intra-Shia and intra-Sunni wars.  The US policy of arming and training the Iraqi forces, the Sons of Iraq, and the new attempt to create Sons of Iraq Shia-style in former Mahdi Army strongholds, is what allows the occupation to continue but only further weakens the hold of the central government, tenuous at best, and prevents a large scale political endgame.  The Surge and attendant tactics works at cross purposes to the stated goal and strategy of Iraq.  Even in this best case scenario, the return is to a strongman dictator.  In which case why have spent so much time, blood, and money to get another dictator in power? Unless it is so that dictator (like Saddam a la 1985 becomes back to being “our son of a bitch.”  And so foreign oil companies can reap the benefits, Disaster Capitalism style, of pillaging the oil in Iraq leaving the country (minus some power elites) destitute and war torn.

Sadr Ceasefire? (w/Update)

Moqtada al Sadr has called for his fighters off the street in exchange for amnesty for his captured folk and the end of US/Iraqi Gov’t raids on his militia.

Here is part of his statement (courtesy BBC):

“Because of the religious responsibility, and to stop Iraqi blood being shed, and to maintain the unity of Iraq and to put an end to this sedition that the occupiers and their followers want to spread among the Iraqi people, we call for an end to armed appearances in Basra and all other provinces.

“Anyone carrying a weapon and targeting government institutions will not be one of us.”

If you caught that dig, the sedition of the occupiers followers means that the Shia Iraqi Government of Nuri al-Maliki and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, whose Badr Corps is de facto the Iraqi Army.

What I have not seen anyone comment upon is that this ceasefire offer is conditional in its formulation. What if Maliki and Crew do not proclaim an amnesty, release some prisoners, and cease their raids? Will the JAM (Jaish-al Mahdi, Mahdi Army) then re-break the truce and return to attack mode?

There is some discrepancy whether the US Army was given a heads up by Maliki that this attack was coming, but either because the Iraqi Army was unable to defeat the Mahdi Army (either in Sadr City in E. Baghdad or in Basra), the US was called in with air strikes. Air strikes. In a country said Army is occupying. Meaning civilians are now dead.

Spencer Ackerman posted a letter a friend of his in Baghdad. This unnamed person predicts quite accurately what is unfolding as of today (my emphasis):

That said, it looks like the cease-fire’s mostly holding, because if it truly disintegrates things in Baghdad will be A LOT worse (much more street fighting, a lot more EFPs and rocket attacks, etc.). I think it all depends on whether the Basra fighting drags on for a while or wraps up.

My complete guess is that it will wrap up sooner rather than later, because the militias will make the same decision Sunni insurgents made over and over again, and just fade into the crowd after putting up some resistance. Their power in the south is as much political as military; I don’t necessarily think that Maliki planting a flag in the center of town will really change things in the long-term. So I guess I’m anticipating something close to the “best-case scenario” — which, this being Iraq, pretty much means that a lot of people will die and things won’t change, as opposed to a lot of people dying just to make things worse than they were before. That said, I think I’m more optimistic about this than a lot of people.

That is the clearest description of the realty of Iraq I’ve read ever I think. All these groups have to do is wait out the US Army and be able to defeat the Iraqi Army (or at least not be defeated by them).

Update I: Speaking of Ackerman, here he is on the LiberalOasis Radio Show discussing foreign policy. They discuss his very good article on the Obama Doctrine and McCain as Bush-Plus.

Listen to one of his final point. The reason foreign fighters (aka al-Qaeda in Iraq) enter Iraq is that they are shown photos of Abu Ghraib and the American occupation.

Update II:  If you want to see how this story of Sadr’s call for a ceasefire gets interpreted/spun on the we’re winning in Iraq right, this piece from Ed Morissey.  A couple of corrections to Ed’s piece.  1)The British leaving did not create a power vacuum in Basra–the British never controlled Basra.  For a year or more they were holed up taking mortar fire on their base.   2)While Captain Ed clearly grasps the intra-Shia nature of the conflict, his pro-war outlook keeps him blinded to the fact that Sadr is playing it cagey as always (lying low) and that the Iraqi Army is really fighting for the pro-Iranian Badr Corps not al-Maliki’s central government.  3)The ceasefire has been called only because the US had to get involved via air strikes (i.e. the Iraqi Army can’t beat the Mahdi Army without the US).  Every time the US has to send in air attacks to defeat the Mahdi Army backing Maliki, Maliki is further seen as a tool of the occupation and loses legitimacy.  Remember for Shia theology, the image of the persecuted, holy warrior is the most important source of legitimacy.

Reports of Sadr’s imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated every year of this conflict by compatriots of Ed’s.  I wouldn’t so easily count him out.

G. Porter on Basra

Very smart piece. In Asian Times.

(A) Key quotation:

Revealing the contradictions built into the US position in Iraq, even as it was blaming Iran for the alleged renegade units of the Mahdi Army, the US was using the Badr Organization, the military arm of the ISCI, to carry out raids against the Mahdi Army. The Badr Organization and the ISCI had always been and remained the most pro-Iranian political-military forces in Iraq, having been established, trained and funded by the IRGC from Shi’ite exiles in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war…

But the Badr Organization had become the indispensable element of the Iraqi government’s security forces, who could be counted on to oppose the Mahdi Army in the south. And in a further ironic twist, it was the leaders of the ISCI and of the Nuri al-Maliki government, which depended on Iranian support, who insisted last summer and autumn that the US should credit Iran with having prevailed on Muqtada to agree to a ceasefire. The close collaboration of the US command with these pro-Iranian groups against Muqtada appears to be the main reason for the State Department’s endorsement of that argument last December.

Porter refers to two pillars of Petraeus’ strategy–one being the self-imposed ceasefire (hudna) by Sadr and his Mahdi Army. The other he does not mention but it is clearly the Sunni Awakening Movement. Unfortunately that second pillar is a tad wobbly at the present moment as well.

To be fair and balanced on this one, the US contradictions are certainly in place–and they go deeper than Gareth mentions. The US’ two main Iraqi allies–the Kurds and the SIIC are both in favor or regional autonomous zones which works against the stated goal of US policy (unified Iraq). Sadr (whose anti-occupation, anti-American) is actually in favor of an unified country and strong central government (another US plank).

And the SIIC is attacking now because the Mahdi Army would win in a coming new set of provincial elections in the South most likely.  So the US is supporting an Iranian-backed militia to destroy a party so that free and fair elections don’t take place–though again the official policy is democracy for the country.  How’s that for democracy promotion?

So all that is certainly the case. But what is also clear is that Iran has been playing both sides (5 dimensional chess game they play) in the Shia fight. That way they can continue influence however it eventually shakes out between Sadr and Hakim and their respective crews.

Oh and by the way, the Mahdi Army (unsurprisingly) is beating the Iraqi Army. If the British couldn’t get rid of the militias in the South, if the US couldn’t dislodge the insurgency in Iraq (eventually they just bought them off–see story above on how we are late in our payments….not smart), and the Israelis couldn’t destroy Hezbollah–how the hell is the Iraqi Army going to de-legitimate and destroy the Mahdi Army?

The Sadrists simultaneously win power on the streets through strength/resistance and by being viewed as being persecuted by unjust ruler (Maliki seen as US stooge).  This has deep resonance in Shia Islam which is built around the martyrdom and persecution of Imam Husayn.  (Recall that Moqtada’s father was murdered by Saddam and his thugs).

Shia Theocracy in the Iraqi South

My prediction based on the value memes going into the Second Iraqi War was that the country would more or less divide into three regions/ethnic groupings that would break down as following:

Kurds in North: strong/smart authoritarian one-party state (a compromise of the two feudal previously in-fighting Kurdish clans: Barzanis and Talabanis). Healthy blue pushing into orange.

Sunnis in West. Tribal (red) warlordism. [Didn’t predict the rise of a terrorist blue Sunni Salafism]

Shia in South. Powerful on-coming theocratic blue (Shia Rising).

For proof of the last, see the following evidence:

Religious vigilantes have killed at least 40 women this year in the southern Iraqi city of Basra because of how they dressed, their mutilated bodies found with notes warning against “violating Islamic teachings,” the police chief said Sunday. Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf blamed sectarian groups that he said were trying to impose a strict interpretation of Islam. They dispatch patrols of motorbikes or unlicensed cars with tinted windows to accost women not wearing traditional dress and head scarves, he added.

Basra, recall in the South is labeled one of the “safe” zones of the country, given that since it is totally Shia, not Shia-Sunni civil war there. Basra is also the home of the major port/oil fields of Iraq (80% of total oil capacity) and is currently a war zone between three Shia (blue) factions: Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (pro-American and pro-Iranian);  The Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr (currently in cease-fire with US Army, generally anti-American occupation, and more nationalist/less pro-Iranian than SIIC); The Islamic Virtue Party (Fadhila), a split off of the Sadrist movement.

For fascinating video of this fight in Basra, here (via Democracy Now).  The oil money is grafted by the millions.  The city is run by militias, organized gangs, mafia style.

And now the rise of pathological blue in S. Iraq.  Shia Talibanization.

Note:  [On the use of Spiral Dynamics as a theory with colors, see here].

Published in: on December 11, 2007 at 12:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , ,