Over the last week, some surprising (or not) activities have been taking place.
As soon as the British rolled out of the JSS (Joint Security Station) in Basra, the Mahdi Army took up residence, displacing the police that may have been Badr Brigade or simply highly infiltrated with Sadr's Mahdis. According the Christian Science Monitor, a series of assassinations in the south have included a police chief and governor from Diwanyah on August 18, 2007 and the Governor of Muthanna on August 20, Four of Al Sistani's aides have been killed since June.
Not that these attacks are new by any means. It is simply that the wind down of the Sunni insurgency and Al Qaeda attacks, along with the bold assassination of elected officials, has started the media looking back at an area that has been ignored as "pacified" under the British. As CSM notes, these southern provinces are "economically vital" since they include Iraq's major oil and natural gas fields, the southern ports for import and export of goods and energy resources and several provinces that are part of the agrarian belts that provide Iraq with its food from cattle to wheat fields.
Even as the Shi'ites have sought to present a "united" front to gain and keep control of the Iraqi parliament, the southern half of Iraq has been contested by various Shi'ite groups since the overthrow of Saddam's regime. Not only is it economically important, but it has the largest population base. This is an important factor in deciding the political make up and control of the government of Iraq.
A recent report indicated that Mugtada al Sadr had ordered his men to "go dark" and get off the streets. Most reports believe it is because of the recent clashes with the Badr Brigade in Karbala giving his group a bad name with the Shi'ites. Sadr was busy saying it was some "rogue elements" of the Sadrists who did the brush up with the Badrs. That isn't necessarily true. Sadr has been trying to make political in roads into the Najaf since 2003 starting with the assassination of al Khoei on the steps of a mosque.
Al Khoei was a member of the rival Shi'ite sect of the al Hakim family run SCIRI. The senior Al Hakim was sought by Saddam Hussein's regime for years because the Badr Brigades, the military wing of SCIRI, had sided with the Iranians during the Iraq-Iran war. Largely in an attempt to over-throw Saddam's repressive government, but this divide left many nationalist Iraqis with a grudge against these Shi'ites. Al Hakim and the Badr Brigades were forced to retreat to Iran where they were armed, trained and financed by the IRGC. This group kept its contacts within the Shi'ite community and was one of the main instigators for the Shi'ite uprising after Desert Storm that was eventually violently repressed by Saddam's henchmen. The "No Fly" Zones were instigated to keep Saddam's forces on the ground, essentially to reduce their ability to slaughter the Shia from the air. However, bad blood between some Shi'ites and the United States still exists over their perceived abandonment.
Al Hakim and the Badr Brigades retreated into Iran once again for protection, support and training while maintaining their contacts inside Iraq. This is one of the reasons that SCIRI was able to return to Iraq post 2003 invasion and quickly spin up a political movement accompanied by a militia. They had already existed for over twenty years. Currently, SCIRI is being run by Al Hakim's son who is a recognized cleric. Reports indicate that the elder al Hakim has been ill, but it may be an attempt to put a younger face on the organization in order to combat the relatively young al Sadr's popularity, keeping in mind that more than half of Iraq's population is under the age of 30.
Al Hakim's PR includes attempts to make him as "heroic" as Sadr by pointing out he acted as a "lookout" for his father as early as the age of seven when the elder al Hakim would sneak back into Iraq. They have also focused attention on the younger Hakim's education as a cleric, starting with speaking in the mosque at age nine. In some respects, the struggle between al Hakim and Sadr boils down to educated "nobility" and uneducated "peasant".
Al Hakim and SCIRI are associated with the Shi'ite school of jurisprudence in Qom, Iran. This city has been known as the university of major Shi'ite thought for centuries, but is more recently known for having produced the Iranian Islamic Revolution and clerics, like Ayatollah Khomeini, who believed that "rightly guided" governance should come from religion and the religious supreme council of clerics.
Al Sadr and his father, on the other hand, remained in Iraq and attempted to guide the Shi'ite population through a "quietist" approach. During the Iran-Iraq war, many Shi'ite had tried to escape the constant bombing of their towns and villages near the southern Iraq-Iran border. They moved to interior cities in central Iraq like Baghdad where the generally poor, less educated and agriculturally based Shi'ites found themselves relegated to ghettos. Even more so after the Shi'ite uprising post Desert Storm where Shi'ites were branded as "traitors" because certain groups had sided with the Iranians. Saddam organized many "re-locations" of the Shi'ites into these ghettos where he could control them through place and resources.
Even today, many nationalist Sunni refer to the Shi'ites and the Iraqi government, dominated by the Shi'ites, as "Persians". This also has some ancient historical reference once noted by Zarqawi in his famous letter to Zawahiri outlining his plans to start a civil war by attacking the Shi'ites. According to history, during Suleiman's failed attempt to subjugate Europe, as he was preparing to storm the gates of Vienna, a Shi'ite uprising in Baghdad forced him to return and defend his Empire and throne from "usurpers and traitors". These "usurpers and traitors" were none other than the Persian based Shi'ites attempting to re-take control after decades out of power. These power struggles continued to erupt even throughout the period of the relatively stable Ottoman Empire that regularly dispatched Turkish troops to put down rebellions and has lent to the over all divide in Sunni-Shia Islamic relations and now regional tensions.
Sadr's father worked quietly on the streets to organize the Shia, provide food and medical care as best as he could for the beleaguered Shi'ites in the ghettos. As is known today, besides the mass killings of any suspect Shi'ites, these groups were also less likely to be provided benefits, receive assistance from the government, receive jobs or be given the opportunity for higher education. Even as members of the Ba'athist party Shi'ites were hardly trusted.
In 1999, Sadr's father was murdered by Saddam for an alleged conspiracy to assassinate Saddam. Many believe this occurred in front Muqtada and that he was forced to swear allegiance to Saddam. The repression and murder of Shi'ites continued, though at a much slower pace by the end of the 1990's. In contrast, because the Sunni tribes had remained relatively loyal to Saddam and had acted as "lookouts" in the desert to the southwest, a desert once considered "impassable" until Desert Storm, the Sunni tribes were left unmolested and largely autonomous in their areas. Something else that lent to the current divide of Sunni and Shia. Many Shia believe that the Sunni as a larger body were complicit in their repression.
Muqtada al Sadr continued his father's "quietism" approach in leading their group, but was sidelined during the last few years prior to the 2003 invasion due to his incomplete education as a "cleric". His education, also taking place in Qom, was interrupted by the Sadr run in with Saddam. He continued some studies in Najaf, the rival "university" city for Shi'ite jurisprudence, though that was not completed either. This split education explains some of his schizophrenic tendencies between nationalism and Iranian politico/religious influence. The Najaf school of thought tends towards a more conservative approach to mixing politics and religion. This school of thought believes, while society should be guided more closely by religion and clerics, clerics should refrain from most government positions to protect themselves against corrupting influences of power and money.
In 2003, prior to the Iraq invasion, the United States sought out local actors that they believed could influence a large section of the Iraqi population to "stand down" and avoid fight US forces. These attempts met with various degrees of success, but also has lent to the current political situation. One of the groups that was approached was the Iranian based SCIRI and Badr Brigades (now touting itself as a political movement and not a militia). Its long connections with the Shia in the south made it an excellent partner. The draw backs, of course, were that they were closely associated with the Iranian regime.
Juan Cole believes that the difference between Badr and Sadr are that Sadr is a nationalist and the Badr Brigades are too infiltrated by Iranians. While recognizing the infiltration of Iranians into the Sadr movement, he believes that this difference is one of the main factors splitting the Shi'ite population. However, Cole also makes an assumption that is partially based on an over confident belief in absolute Iranian control of any part of these organizations:
Since some observers don't get this right, I just want to underline that these assassinations have been strikes against Iranian influence in Iraq, by nativists probably at least loosely connected to the Sadr Movement. Likewise, if an EFP was used in the bombing, it is unlikely to have come from Iran, since Tehran has no interest in knocking off its own clients (SIIC and Badr), and, indeed, would go out of its way to protect them.
This would only be correct if their was an armory controlled by Iranians slowly divvying out supplies on an operational basis. That is not how these mines come into Iraq nor how they are distributed. Once it is inside Iraq, the control of these devices is much less rigorous and may be why certain Sunni insurgent groups were able to obtain them, making the US believe that the Iranians were purposefully providing these resources to both groups in a proxy war. Thus, making any statement that these devices could not have come from Iran patently false. Secondly, Tehran would continence assassinations of any persons that they might feel are contaminated or ineffective.
Both the Sadrists and SCIRI have accepted varying degrees of support from Iran. Leaders of both organizations have made routine trips to Iran to seek that support and possibly argue their case against the other before the powers providing that support. Al Hakim was briefly detained on a return trip from Iran under the suspicion that his convoy was carrying arms to the Shi'ite militia. Sadr is believed to be currently in Iran and has made several other trips over the past two years. Cole's assertions that the recent assassinations of SCIRI/Badr officials is largely an attempt to decrease Iranian influence in the Shi'ite area rings patently hollow in the face of Sadr's continuing association with Iranians within his organization, the Iranian support he receives and these trips to avoid prosecution during operational increases against his Mahdi Army.
Nationalist Iraq v. Tehran supported Shi'ites may be one factor in the dissension between the Shi'ite factions, however, it is more likely a raw play for power between two rival parties that see the Iraqi south as the new power base of Iraq. It may also be a product of Muqtada's belief and those of his followers, the Shi'ite who remained in Iraq, suffered more and are due more for their pain than those that fled to Iran.
Cole bases his theory on Sadr's nationalist tendencies on some of Sadr's speeches that include tirades against both the United States and Iran. However, Sadr has not been adverse to accepting Iranian money, arms or political support. Some believe that this internal split between the Iranian and Nationalist groups inside the Sadr movement is part of the reason Sadr has called a ceasefire and stand down of the Mahdi Army in an attempt to root out "rogue" elements which may have Iranian influence and are continuing attacks against Sadr's explicit orders. In fact, a Sadr spokesman implied this was the case in the Karbala shoot out that killed fifty and wounded hundreds more. The history of the Sadr-Badr conflict would imply otherwise.
Beyond the struggle for control of Basra, Sadr has been attempting to extend his influence and control over many areas outside of Sadr city. In August 2004, Sadr's Mahdi army took control of the Imam Ali mosque in An-Najaf. The United States stepped in decimating the Mahdi Army and surrounding the mosque. At its tensest moment, Al Sistani negotiated a deal for the Mahdi to lay down their arms and be escorted peacefully out of the city by a large parade of civilians who were able to blend in with the civilians and remain covered until they escaped. Sadr retreated into his stronghold of Sadr city inside Baghdad and escaped possible destruction.
During the negotiations, the schizophrenic nature of Sadr's organization was apparent. Sadr has several close advisers from Iran. During the the Najaf incident, different spokesmen from within Sadr's organization made opposing statements about whether negotiations were underway, whether they would lay down their arms and numerous other statements, some made within an hour of each other. At the same time, some analysts wondered at the coincidence that Sadr's uprising took place in the middle of the Fallujah uprising. This gave rise to the opinion that Sadr may have been working with the Sunni insurgents that had already been infiltrated and co-opted by Al Qaeda. Fallujah had been a Ba'athist strong hold under Saddam. Many active and retired officers from the Republican Guard lived in the city.
Later, in 2005 during the run up to Iraq national elections, the Badr and Sadr organizations traded blows in several cities, particularly An Najaf, burning down and raiding political offices, assassinations and firefights between militias. The control of Najaf has important implications for the Shi'ite population. It is not only a religious center with political power, it is a populace area with geographical connections to Baghdad.
Sadr has routinely stated that he does not support a federalist Iraq with multiple states. If the south breaks away into a separate state with SCIRI, DAWA and Badr organizations in control, the Shi'ite in Baghdad and other northern provinces will become minorities in largely Sunni controlled states. This includes Baghdad where, despite Shi'ite control of multiple districts and the sectarian cleansing of Sunnis, Shi'ites remain the minority.
Aside from the potential marginalization of Shi'ite in the north, Sadr may oppose this break up because it breaks the Shi'ite body politic into geographical sections that may lead to some loss of control over the central Iraq parliament. Elections are set up based on a representative block model that allows "blocks" of officials to be elected by party instead of individual politicians elected on their own merits that could specifically represent a much smaller district and constituency. If the southern provinces take advantage of constitutional law and join together in a separate state and the south remains largely a Badr/SCIRI/DAWA stronghold, even if Sadr has some presence there, SCIRI/Badr/DAWA will become the largest block in the Iraq parliament and Sadr's organization will become the minority with most of his representatives being elected out of Sadr city and some surrounding suburbs. This will further erode Sadr's presence in parliament where he currently enjoys thirty seats and several ministries.
Sadr must also fear that the Shi'ite in the Baghdad and the northern, Sunni held provinces, will become pawns between the other three major groups: Kurdish North, Sunni West and the Shia South. The final issue is that, after the repressions of Saddam's regime, the perceived and real complicity of Sunni in these activities and the complicity of Sunnis in the last four years of killing Shi'ite, Sadrists reject any possibility of being, once again, directly ruled by a Sunni majority. Whether that is in the form of a central government or any smaller governing body, whether a neighborhood, district, city, province or federal state, it doesn't matter to the Shi'ite.
This may also explain the "cleansing" of Shi'ite districts in Baghdad and surrounding areas of any Sunni. Not only was this in response to the suicide attacks, but also a political move to place these areas firmly within the political grasp of the Shi'ite groups such as Sadr's movement. This is one reason that Sadr's statements insisting that he wants a unified and reconciled Iraq seem suspect. He may, indeed, want to preserve the Iraqi geographic landscape and come to some sort of ecumenical agreement with the Sunni, but only if it fits within his plans for a Shia dominated government where the Sunni are the beggars at the table.
Sadr has played on Shi'ite fears that the Sunni will regain control of the government. Early appraisals of the Sunni insurgency painted the fight as an attempt to regain that control, but political realities insist that a Sunni dominance is all but impossible. What the Sunni have been fighting for may be simple survival and not be completely relegated to the back of the new Iraq train.
Al Sistani supports Shi'ite dominance as well, if somewhat more moderately. It is why he has worked very hard to keep the Sadrists and SCIRI/Badr organizations relatively calm to maintain the United Iraqi Alliance and its seats in parliament. But, above the three major groups', Sunni, Kurds and Shia, the UIA alliance has been shaken the internal fighting among the parties. The argument about creating a federalist Iraq or maintaining central power keeps the UIA from making any progress with the other political parties towards any other reconciliation or appropriate governmental development, including the oil law, the status of Kirkuk (the second largest oil producing fields in Iraq contested by the Sunni and Kurds), reconstruction or reconciliation.
For the SCIRI/DAWA/Badr, federalization of the seven major provinces of southern Iraq would provide them, not only with a huge political base to always be a major player in parliament, but also in control of the main ports of entry as well as energy and agricultural wealth of Iraq. They are willing to accept a limited loss of control over other provinces where they may be forced to share power with Sunni, Kurds and other Shi'ites to consolidate this power base in the south.
Sadr is not willing to give this up without a fight. The Mahdi army has been infiltrating police and army brigades in the south, particularly Basra, for years. The continuing efforts of US forces with the Sunni tribes in Anbar and surrounding regions, driving out Al Qaeda, re-enforcing the Sunni and protecting them from further incursions by the Shi'ite while simultaneously decreasing the treat to the Shi'ite from Sunni nationalists and Al Qaeda, is placing the tension back on the fractures within the Shi'ite parties.
Many have noted that "time" is not on the side of the United States to bring Iraq under control. Time constraints are also being placed on the Shi'ite parties to sort out their differences and manage into the next stage of a stable, Shi'ite dominated government. Maliki, a compromise candidate who achieved his position through final agreement with the Sadrists, has turned out to be, if not weak, then not strong enough to overcome the many schisms among the different sects as well as within his own party.
Sadr recognized this and has made many attempts to weaken the government and flex his power by having his cabinet members and parliamentarians suspend their cooperation with the government. If he can force the government to collapse prior to any referendum by the southern provinces to create a federal state, he may be able to stop it completely. Sadr's popularity has grown since he first made the scene in 2004. His strong anti-American, nationalist stance along with the Mahdi Army's popularity for protecting the Shi'ite has expanded his power base. If new national elections are held before statehood is voted in, Sadr may be able to control more than thirty seats in parliament even if he maintains his position within the UIA. The UIA will have to recognize Sadr as a real power player this time instead of an upstart that needed to be placated.
He also holds the UIA captive. If he breaks away and forms his own party, the UIA or remaining parties will have to make more compromises to form any sort of coalition to govern. The Kurds and the Sunni could take advantage of this split to form a coalition government with many smaller parties that would make the main Shi'ite party a minority and weaken Shi'ite power over all. This keeps Sadr moving along in the traces of the UIA even while fiercely contesting SCIRI's control.
Sadr's other problem is also directly related to the peace process and its success. The Mahdi Army will no longer be needed as a security force and their mafia like tendencies to exploit people, control resources and general over all corruption may spell a spiraling discontent with his organization. Some speculate that concern over this possible discontent is one of the reasons that Sadr has called his forces in for "six months". It does not mean that they will lose control of their areas or cease their criminal activities, but it does mean a less visible organization as a target for military or political action. Less visible also means that any public complaints will dwindle as his forces use "quieter" means to enforce their position.
The SCIRI/Badr organizations are also pressed for time and suffers from a reputation of corruption and criminal activity. As the insurgency dies down, the need or demand for a separate Shi'ite state may also wane, though not disappear all together. However, the Iraq constitution demands that two thirds (2/3) of the population from all provinces must approve the referendum for statehood. As peace and security descend and Sadr consolidates his power, there's a possibility that statehood will not make the needed votes.
Many focus on the greater Sunni, Shia and Kurd divide with emphasis on oil revenue sharing as the main problem hindering political progress. This may not even be half of the problem. The fight for political supremacy and the future control of Iraq among the Shi'ite will decide whether this government survives and the insurgency is totally quailed. Once that is settled, Iraq may be able to implement many of the other necessary plans such as reducing corruption, insuring non-sectarian governance and providing Iraqis with a sense of real justice.
The argument over whether the surge has been working is beginning to brew again with many politicians moving towards a more "centrist" view of whether the surge is working. Two recent reports have been released that seem contrary to the administration and Pentagon's assertion that the surge is working. One sights the report that 1,800 Iraqis have died in the month of August. Another report from the GOA indicates that the Iraqi government has failed to fully meet fifteen of eighteen benchmarks. Contrary to these two reports, public opinion on the status of the war has risen by several percentage points. This is what has moved some politicians to be less insistent on immediate withdrawal and willing to work around a longer time table.
While Kevin Drum and many others point to the 1,800 deaths and the "rising" death toll among Iraqis, asking where the numbers are that support this belief in a "working surge", it's not really hard to figure out. The big bogeyman that the US public has been concerned about has been Al Qaeda in Iraq and its potential to have a safe haven there if the US withdrew. With the appearance of a Sunni/US alliance to rid Iraq of al Qaeda, the over all decrease in attacks from such insurgents and the decrease in deaths among US forces, the general public is naturally inclined to believe that the surge is working. Whether more or less Iraqis died in the "pacification" moves the public very little. The public has held a belief for sometime that the Iraqis can kill each other all they want as long as they don't support Al Qaeda and stop killing US forces.
From my perspective, neither report changes that central dynamic. Neither do I find them indicative of a "working surge". For instance, I know that 400 of these deaths may be attributed to the one huge attack against the Yazidi in northern Iraq. The army believes it is a result of Al Qaeda while the media seemed to indicate it might have been a sectarian attack. Both are probably correct. Sunni and Yazidi have been trading blows in the area after a young woman was stoned by her family for converting and attempting to marry outside the group. This led to reprisals between Yazidi and Sunni including the abduction and murder of approximately twenty Yazidi who were pulled from a bus. Al Qaeda, being forced out of Baghdad and surrounding provinces have obviously sought refuge in the north and picked up operations there. They have a tendency to ride the tail coats of various conflicts both internationally, nationally and locally.
Secondly, some of the continued killings are not simply the result of cross sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shia or Sunni and Kurd, but are also the result of criminal activity and internal conflicts as noted above within the Shi'ite population. This internal conflict will only become a concern to me if it results in a very hot and public war outside of the limited actions of assassination. I am also not sure that this struggle between these two rival groups is completely bad. The divide among the Shia may weaken the current government, but also serves to weaken some of the control between these two political and military wings. Anything that pits the two Iranian backed forces against each other can actually serve to strengthen the central government and reduce Iranian influence, both current and future.
Either of these groups may be more willing to compromise with either the Sunni or the Kurds or even both in order to consolidate their power in government.
In regards to the GAO report, after looking over it briefly, it is apparent that the point of the report was to show the worst case scenario for the current political condition. Some points indicated as "failed" have actually made some progress, it is simply not what some would like. Not merely that it didn't stand up to US standards, but that some of the resolutions have been uniquely Iraqi. That does not bother me at all. In fact, it is a cause for some hope. I don't expect that the Iraq government will either bow down to the US government completely nor that we should abandon Iraq because it does not look or feel more like the US.
Some of the benchmark's indicated as "failed" should be viewed with a jaundiced eye for this very reason. They should also be suspect since many of these actions are in progress even if they hadn't been fully met by the time of the report. It would be important to know, for empirical data, over what period of time was the information in the GOA report captured? It may have been released at the end of August, but it doesn't necessarily stand to reason that it collected data through that period to base this analysis on. As in all wars, sometimes the wheels move slow, but often the changes on the ground out pace the official distribution of information.
I also don't believe that the failure to meet all of these benchmarks in seven months is really a "failure". Based on the slow, but apparent progress against the various insurgencies, getting the Iraq government "straightened out" will take a considerable amount of time. Given the patience that I have given over the military part of the war, I am not inclined to throw Maliki nor Iraq under the bus. In fact, I expect that, as the Sunni offensive decreases, so will the Shi'ite infighting become more apparent and keep the Iraq central government moving slow. As in US politics, sometimes a slow moving, ineffective government is better than a government that believes it is fully mandated by the population to do what they want against any one who isn't part of the larger group.
On another note, any time Katy Couric or Angela Jolie feel its safe enough travel there some dynamic must have changed.
Finally, I continue to support our efforts there because I don't believe we should concede one iota of sand to either Al Qaeda, the Iranians or any other group that is contrary to our continued safety.