As Good as Post on Iraq as You’ll Read

From Dr. I-Rack at Abu Muqawama. He details good news, lingering bad news, and potential deal breakers.

On the positive side violence against US forces is down to 2004 levels however:

1. The right metric for violence? Attack levels are now down to March 2004 levels, but overall Iraqi civilian casualty numbers over the past few months (perhaps a better gauge of stability) are still at late 2005/early 2006 levels. That is a big improvement over late 2006/early 2007, but Iraq remains a very dangerous place.

Maliki has won some short term tactical victories against Sadr (it would appear) and according to the good Dr. may have a moment’s opening with the Sunnis. But Maliki is not interested in dealing with the Sunnis, integrating the Awakening Sons of Iraq into the army or any such thing. Maliki sees his role as the protection of the Shia particularly the traditional Shia order. Down the road the question is how long can the ISCI (which wants federal Shia regionalization in the South) and Maliki (who wants to become a strongman dictator) link up last? Seems to me some potential tension points there.

As with other operations, some networks of the Mahdi Army clearly have been hit, but also some have not. Plenty have escaped, the balloon was squeezed and people went elsewhere. Sadr is moving towards revolution from below via the poor outreach social organization of the movement.

And more importantly the tactical wins to the degree they happened were dependent (as Dr. points out) due to US airstrikes and logistics.

To invoke Biden for a second, this still does not get at the heart of the lack of a political deal. Just seems like different militias (some the government, some not) moving pieces on a chessboard and some short term reduction in violence (though again far too high for civilians).

To wit:

3. Electing to fight. There is a real danger of violent intra-sectarian competition in the lead-up to, or immediate aftermath of, the provincial elections. For obvious reasons, considerable attention has been paid to intra-Shia fights in recent months between Dawa/ISCI and OMS/JAM, and this could generate more strife as the ascendant but still unpopular Dawa/ISCI compete with OMS/JAM’s residual “street” power. Less noted in the media is the risk for intra-Sunni clashes between tribal and Awakening forces and “Green Zone” Sunni groups (Tawafoq/IIP) in the lead up to elections or in their aftermath if either side feels like they were cheated out of their rightful share of power.

So to bring this back to US political discourse, when Andrew Sullivan (and a reader who sends in the comment he responds to) says that McCain was as right in 2007 as Obama was in 2002, this doesn’t quite work.

Because this is still conflating correctness relative to military tactics (McCain) with overall strategic correctness (Obama). I could even quibble with the McCain was right tactically given the real reductions had to do with the flipping of the Sunni tribes (which started before the surge and is not tied to the surge), the separation of the populations/ethnic cleansing of Baghdad (again prior the surge), etc, but I’ll just give him that for the purposes of the argument.

The reader’s comment states:

The fact remains: he [McCain] was right about the surge. Not necessarily about what to do next, or what our long-term goals in Iraq should be, but about the need to reduce violence and reach a minimum level of stability before we could expect any political progress.

Everything following the but seems on the surface to make logical sense. But I think what Iraq has shown overall is that the US has no influence over the politics and the assumption that the US working to create some local deals, reduce violence, security does not translate (at least hasn’t yet) into political progress. I actually think it won’t and is structurally set up not to. In a weird way (and disturbing because obviously I don’t want this) I actually think there won’t be political “progress” or rather end-game status/new equilibrium until there is more violence. Horrifically much more violence.

The only other option being that Maliki does in fact become a dictator in which case we’ve changed a Sunni dictator for perhaps a slightly less villainous Shia one. Though by most accounts Maliki would give Hussein a good run for his money on levels of paranoia. [Though in the Iraqi context, what I would label paranoia might from that vantage point be better termed intelligence].

I should put my cards out on the table and state that I think the country known as Iraq is gone and is not coming back. All Petraeus’ horses and all his men are not putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

In that sense, McCain and his support of the surge may not have been right nor wrong but merely sideways to the central issue: there’s no endgame. The reader admits nearly as much but I don’t think takes that insight to its conclusion. Namely if there is no sense of where to go next and any ability to influence such a plan, how then does reduction in violence lead to a place no one really has any idea about? Made worse insofar as McCain publicly upholds the idea of a unified pan-ethnic state that is an ally in the war on terror.

[And this is not to downplay the reduction in violence, though if the gains in violence reduction are more to with the US army, then obviously withdrawing troops a la Baker-Hamilton would have reduced probably more violence against US soldiers as there would be a lot less of them].

Iran Failing in Iraq?

Image here. Iraqi Army unit with American soldiers.

Vali Nasr pens a very interesting piece today in the Washington Post here.  He argues that Iran has taken a major hit in Iraq with the offensive by Maliki against the Mahdi Army.


Iran wants U.S. forces to leave Iraq and assumes that a friendly Shiite government would then protect Iran’s interests. Tehran has looked to Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards‘ Quds Force, to manage its strategy of supporting Shiite unity and resisting American occupation. But these efforts do not go hand in hand. The first means supporting stability and state-building and working with Iraq’s government; the second involves building violent militias that undermine government authority.

For Nasr these two were in tension with voices like anti-Ahmadinejad/Revolutionary Guards Ali Larijani and Tehran Mayor Mohammed Qalibaf (likely next president of Iran) were calling for full support of the Iraqi government and the end of supporting rogue elements of the Mahdi Army.  Or not so rogue elements of the Mahdi Army according to some reports.

This points out how useless the American policy of ratcheting up pressure with Iran via Iraq has been.  The clear and obvious alliance was always pro-Shia government (not Sadr) between the two countries.

I think Vasr may overestimate the degree to which Sadr has lost out (I’ve learned never to underestimate that guy) and how this might give the US leverage to negotiate with Iran (from a position of strength–which would be fine by me, I’m for negotiations and ending this ludicrously and dangerously ignorant policy of Iranian isolation) but this sounds correct to me:

Iran still has considerable influence in Iraq. It may reconstitute the Mahdi Army and pick up the fight against America, using special groups of the type suspected in the Baghdad car bombing Tuesday. It may also try to use nationalist opposition to the U.S.-Iraq “status of forces” agreement to its advantage. But Tehran will find it difficult to regain lost turf in Baghdad or Basra, or to go back to happily supporting Shiites both at the center and in the militias. It will have to choose whether it is with the state or the sub-state actors.

As much as I have criticized Bush & Co. (rightly) for their wrongheaded position vis a vis Iran, there is also the revolutionary-expansionist wing of Iran that is a serious part of the problem (equally wanting to ratchet up for their own political ideology), the response to which I’ve always thought is that if they think they are so smart and can handle Iraq, give it to them and watch it be their Poland or Vietnam or whatever analogy you prefer.

On the other hand, there is still a fundamental inconsistency not mentioned by Nasr regarding the Maliki government.  How can the central government be strong via parties that seek regional autonomy?  Unless the government is a function of the achievement of power via militias.  The Maliki and SIIC militias may be better in terms of market reforms, women not being forced as much into Islamist garb/oppression, but there still remains the question of why the US should be inserting itself into an intra-Shia theocratic fight.  But if it does for God’s sake, make common cause with the elements of Iran that want to support this militia (over Sadr).  What you can’t have, and which we do, is the Maliki/SIIC position while maintaining the anti-Iran position thereby failing to see the parties within Iran jockeying for power and neutralizing the US ability to empower elements more to its liking.

Though of course I am forgetting, Israel’s truce with Hamas is a victory for Iran and now come to think of it, I’m an appeaser.  So you probably shouldn’t listen to what I have to say on the matter.

Published in: on June 19, 2008 at 6:19 pm  Comments (2)  
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Iraq Update

About that success/turning the corner/victory within reach, a little snag (or two):

BAGHDAD, June 13 — The Bush administration’s Iraq policy suffered two major setbacks Friday when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly rejected key U.S. terms for an ongoing military presence and anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for a new militia offensive against U.S. forces.

Power and credibility is gained in Iraq through opposing the US.  Maliki’s pro-US position was untenable once it was clear Bush was trying to ram through a long term base.  This will likely push Maliki even closer to Iran as Iran will be the one propping this government up.

The moves by two of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leaders underscore how the presence of U.S. troops has become a central issue for Iraqi politicians as they position themselves for provincial elections later this year. Iraqis across the political spectrum have grown intolerant of the U.S. presence, but the dominant Shiite parties — including Maliki’s Dawa party — are especially fearful of an electoral challenge from new, grass-roots groups.

Hey they are starting to look like a sovereign entity after all (Victory Achieved!!!).

And this fascinating tid bit:

Salah al-Obaidi, Sadr’s chief spokesman, said the order was essentially a full-scale reorganization of the Mahdi Army, transforming it from a militia into a permanent peaceful organization with a small armed wing of several hundred or so members. He said the cease-fire for the rest of the movement would remain in force.

As always sadr seems to be ahead of everybody else.

Published in: on June 14, 2008 at 10:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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Iraq Blogging From Corn Islands

I had been hoping to do some political blogging and today is the day–and I have the sand fly bites on my foot to prove my dedication to the task.  They don´t call this the Mosquito Coast for nutin.  Particularly in the Wet season.

So it´s been awhile since I´ve written on Iraq and there has been some important news in interim. 

The biggest news is that Iran brokered a ceasefire in Baghdad (mostly Sadr City) allowing the government forces of Maliki into Mahdi Army strongholds.  Though they had multiple days before the entry to hide weapons and or escape.

Also the government forces attacked seemingly more on their own Mosul attempting to get the last remnants of (so-called) al Qaeda in Iraq.

On the former point, for yet the upteenth million time, hardline right elements are proclaiming success and the death knell of Sadr, 6 more months and the corner while yet be turned, and the government they´ve been waiting for is coming.

This line will be used as a measure of whether Obama is honest about ¨facts¨or in the thrall of the anti-war American hating terroist loving left.

Here´s the problem, for the millionth time.  Tactical military success in Iraq has not in 6 years lead to political achievement.  Because there is no structural possibility at the current time with massive numbers of US troops in the country for a political reconciliation and/or more likely in my mind a final battle to settle the score.

When the US invaded Iraq the second time, the entire police state went underground leaving a massive vacuum that was filled by militias.  The militias run the country.  In fact Iraq as such no longer exists.  There are simply fiefdoms like Basra, Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk.  The militias have names like the Sons of Iraq, The Mahdi Army, The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the Peshmerga (the 2 Kurdish militias), Fadhila (strongest in Basra) and Salafi jiahdist elements (AQI).  Plus a whole host of other smaller outfits, some criminal, some religious. 

Both candidates for president still see this thing through the lens of a state as if a state of Iraq actually existed and/or the central government was an actual organ of said state.  McCain ignorantly thinks that this government (which is really just a militia or two) is going to win.  Obama wants to put pressure on it as an excuse to drawdown troops.  When in fact no such government exists. 

Pay no attention in other words to the man behind the curtain.  There is no great and all powerful Oz.  The govenrment does not supersede the militas.  The militas are the primary reality and the government and its security forces to the degree they exist do so to further the aims of the militias not the other way around.  If we had a Ven Diagram of the situation, the militias would be the largest circle with the government inside of that larger circle. 

So you see then immediately how McCain and the right´s line about increased success means nothing.  Because to echo Joe Biden there is goal, strategy, and tactics.  This like the surge is of the third variety.  It is unsustainable because there is no regional and/or national political context in which to hold these military victories.  As always they are just squeezing a balloon.  The air simply goes elsewhere. 

Take Sadr.  Sadr knows that the real battlefield is not physical (military only mindset) but ideological. He can and has and will continue to trade the former for the latter.  He will give up ground in order to achieve greater cred on the street (where the real power in the Arab world lies). 

The US for yet another time has failed to learn its lesson of supporting an exile aristocratic political outfit over the street people power poverty movements of the Arab world.  We choose Fatah over Hamas.  The latter wins in a straight up fight and is then isolated by the US gaining greater cred in the process.  US supports the Sunni businessmen of Lebanon, who lose to Hezbollah (get routed).  Now we choose Maliki and SIIC (Iranian creations) against Sadr.  Why choosing one Shia milita over another in US national security interest is beyond me but there it is.  But if we are going to choose a side (while simultaneously arming their enemies) why choose yet again the outsider group that immediately will receive the US touch of death.  The only reason in the prior fights the SIIC-Badr Corops managed whatever non-losses they could pull off had to do with American firepower.  Unlike the Fatah-Lebanese examples, this time the army is being trained by the US and not the Jordanians.  Oh and the Iranians (but hush hush about that Iran is the enemy in Iraq remember). 

But what kind of success is one Shia theocracy over another?  Only if you follow the propaganda that the one Shia theocratic milita is the legitimate government and the other isn´t. 

In sum:  When you hear success from the victory in Iraq crowd remember they mean military success and nothing else. 

Published in: on June 10, 2008 at 10:49 am  Comments (2)  
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Sadr renews ceasefire

Huge news out of Iraq today. Moqtada al Sadr–head of the Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army–has renewed the ceasefire (hudna in Arabic) that he put in place six months ago.

The cleric, whose forces have frequently clashed with the Americans in the past, had sealed envelopes distributed to Friday preachers in Shia mosques with instructions that they should be opened and read at Friday prayers.

In the statement read out from the pulpits Mr Sadr ordered the Mehdi Army to continue suspending all military activities for a further six months until August.

The aim, it said, was to give the movement an opportunity to retrieve what it called its ideological position.

What this ceassation of hostilities allows is for Sadr to prune the movement of what he calls rogue elements.  He is by far the cagiest politician in Iraq and while this move may be seen (and probably will on the right perhaps not without some reason) as a fear of taking on the US Army in surge mode and therefore as weakened, Sadr knows that the real power lies in the street not with the Parliament.  He can bide his time and wait out until the Americans start the inevitable draw down of forces.

Published in: on February 22, 2008 at 10:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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Moqtada an Ayatollah?

As a seminarian myself, I find this story totally fascinating.

Moqtada al Sadr is quietly studying hard (it would appear) to attain the title of Ayatollah, the highest in the Shia clerical universe.

Like a modern day Shia version of St. Cyril of Alexandria (who to gain doctrinal victories in Christianity threatened to cut off the grain trade to Rome and used mobs not unlike the Mahdi Army to enforce his position):

Al-Sadr’s objectives — described to The Associated Press by close aides — are part of increasingly bitter Shiite-on-Shiite battles for control of Iraq’s southern oil fields, the lucrative pilgrim trade to Shiite holy cities and the nation’s strategic Persian Gulf outlet. The endgame among Iraq’s majority Shiites also means long-term influence over Iraqi political and financial affairs as the Pentagon and its allies look to scale down their military presence in the coming year.


It also would give him fresh clout to challenge his top rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which looks to Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as its highest religious authority and has its own armed wing, the Badr Brigade, which have been largely absorbed into Iraqi security forces. Al-Sadr often stresses his Iraqi and Arab roots and rejects suggestions that he is beholden to Persian Iran, the world’s Shiite heavyweight and the benefactor of many Shiite politicians. As an ayatollah, his views and fatwas, or religious edicts, would resonate with even more authority as the battles heat up for sway over Iraq’s Shiite heartland.

I find it amazing that the US (secular military) establishment has focused and invested so heavily in a central and useless democratic parliamentary government in Baghdad.  Too British (parliament).  Too Western (constitutional).

And meanwhile the cagiest politician, with the most power in all likelihood in Iraq, is studying in seminary as a way to gain real power in the streets.  That’s the difference between a meritocratic, scientific industrial order (orange-central gov’t/US occupation) and a mythic theocratic poor-based, militant order (blue/Sadrist faction).

Significantly, the aides said, the main focus of al-Sadr’s studies has been the Shiite doctrine known in Arabic as “wilayet al-faqeeh,” which supports the right of clerical rule. The concept was adopted Iran‘s Khomeini, but carries little support among Iraq’s Shiite religious hierarchy.

Which accords with the right-wing Islamist (though anti-US) vibe of the movement.  a la Hezbollah.  The defining characteristic (from Ali Eteraz) of right-wing Islamism is an un-democratic, non-transparent, guardian council or clerical rule.

Which is interesting because while Sadr is the most Arab and Iraqi of the Shia he is the one it would seem most thinking along the lines of Khomenei.  The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council has changed its allegiance from Iran (where it was founded) to Supreme Ayatollah Sistani.  Sistani Iraqi though educated (fled to) Iran does not support Khomenei’s version of Islamism.

So the weird situation where the SIIC, which is militarily and politically much closer to Iran but theologically is not is up against the Sadrists, much less allied with Iran culturally, diplomatically, or militarily and yet is closer theologically & politically (in terms of theoretical structure but not actual alliance).

The real fight for control of Shia-stan has always loomed as that between SIIC (upper-class, pro-Iranian and pro-American) and the Sadrists (lower class, anti-American, less pro-Iranian, at least anti-Persian hegemony though still pro-Shia).

The British are pulling out of Basra.  The South is ready to explode in violence.  It is unclear how long Sadr’s ceasefire with the US Army with last.

Published in: on December 13, 2007 at 7:09 pm  Comments (2)  
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