Skip to comments.Losing the Shia
Posted on 08/19/2004 3:13:09 PM PDT by Tailgunner Joe
Any semblance of a ceasefire evaporated today as fierce fighting erupted around the Shrine of Imam Ali, Shii Islam's holiest site. Even if Iraqi forces lead the charge into the Shrine of Imam Ali, Iraqi Shia will blame the U.S. for any damage. Even if a peaceful solution is found, the U.S. will have lost out.
It didn't have to be this way. Sadr was not initially popular among Iraqi Shia. Many Iraqis consider him responsible for the April 10, 2003 murder of Shia cleric Majid al-Khoei. Many Iraqi Shia ridiculed Sadr's October 10, 2003 declaration of a parallel government with himself as president. In both Sadr City and in Najaf, local residents resented the abuse and the arrogance of Sadr's Brown Shirts. When I attended a meeting of Najaf notables in February 2004, their major complaint was the Coalition's failure to rein in Muqtada's gangs. As recently as May 2004, vigilantes in Najaf took to assassinating Muqtada's followers. Sadr's initial support hemorrhaged when the young cleric failed to deliver on promises. In Iraq, money talks and initially Sadr had little.
But, thanks to Iran, that changed. The evidence is overwhelming. Even the State Department now acknowledges Iran's financial support for Sadr's Mahdi army. The only figures who today deny Iranian material support for Sadr are academics and pundits who have neither been to Iraq since its liberation nor bothered to conduct field research. Simple translation of Arabic articles provides as much informed comment as al-Jazeera.
Sadr launched his uprising in April 2004. His resort to violence had much to do with his failure to build a constituency through legitimate political activity. Former Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer can be faulted with many mistakes, but unwillingness to take on Sadr was not among them. Indeed, had the National Security Council listened to Bremer's advice, Coalition forces would have arrested Sadr long before he could organize his well-planned, well-coordinated April uprising.
With little demonstrable public support, al-Sadr's April uprising fizzled out. But, four months later, resistance remains fierce. What's changed has less to do with Sadr than with blowback from ill-advised and poorly thought-out strategy. In October 2003, the White House launched a major reorganization of its Iraq-policy team. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice became titular head of the Iraq Stabilization Group, but her deputy (and former mentor) Robert Blackwill, who is well known for his slash-and-burn management style, became chief for political transition. His influence on Iraq policy was quickly felt in both Baghdad and in Washington.
There was surprise in both Baghdad and Washington when, on November 11, 2003, Bremer missed a planned meeting with the Polish prime minister to return to Washington. The reason for the hasty departure became apparent within days, when Bremer announced a date for the return of Iraq's sovereignty. The impetus for the transfer did not come from Baghdad but from the National Security Council, which had, ironically, overruled in February 2003 Pentagon plans for an immediate transfer of sovereignty upon liberation.
The transfer of sovereignty was long overdue. But other policies implemented in the wake of Blackwill's accession have severely eroded Iraqi trust in the United States. Demography is important: Arab Shia are the majority in Iraq. Kurds account for nearly a quarter of the population. Ten percent of the Kurdish population, and perhaps half the Turkmen population, are Shia as well. Only 15 to 20 percent of the population is Arab Sunni. Whereas President Bush repeatedly promised that the U.S. sought democracy in Iraq, the British government, U.S. State Department, and the National Security Council project the opposite to an Iraqi audience.
Iraqis were not blind to high-level discussions of a "Sunni strategy." They interpreted the Sunni strategy to mean that Washington would not live up to its rhetoric of democracy, and instead return the Sunni minority to what many former Baathists and the Saudi and Jordanian governments felt was the Sunni community's birthright. They saw British officials divert money from reconstruction in Kirkuk to projects in Hawija, a violent Arab Sunni town about an hour's drive away. The State Department's Iraq coordinator made little secret of his desire to implement a far-reaching Sunni strategy. Iraqis interpreted Bremer's decision to televise his April 23 speech announcing a rollback of de-Baathification as proof that Washington was pandering to Iraq's Sunni population. "He insists the policy wasn't changed, but why else would he televise the announcement?" an Iraqi asked me the following day. The reversal may have had less to do with Bremer's personal beliefs than with orders from Washington. Regardless, the decision to reverse de-Baathification in effect traded the goodwill of Iraq's 14 million Shia and six million Kurds for the sake of, at most, 40,000 high-level Baathists. Realism isn't always so realistic. Sometimes values matter. Perhaps Paul Wolfowitz wasn't wrong after all.
Actions speak louder than words, though. On March 31, Sunni terrorists ambushed four U.S. contractors in Fallujah and mutilated their bodies. Bremer swore revenge, and U.S. Marines besieged the city. But senior Iraqi Sunni politicians such as State Department favorite Adnan Pachachi complained. "The whole thing smacks of an act of vengeance," he told The Independent on April 12. Pachachi elaborated in comments to the United Arab Emirates-based al-Arabiya television: "It was not right to punish all the people of Fallujah, and we consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal." Perhaps uncomfortable with images of death and destruction, U.S. policy abruptly shifted course.
The Marines, against their better judgment (according to their own situation reports), lifted the siege. They appointed a Baathist general to lead the new Fallujah Brigade. Violence throughout the country skyrocketed. While the U.S. military lifted its siege of Fallujah and empowered elements that, only days before, sought to kill Americans, Blackwill instructed his political transition team to target Ahmad Chalabi, a leading Shia politicians. In late April, the White House discussed a seven-page single-spaced National Security Council options paper entitled "Marginalizing Chalabi." The paper came out of Blackwill's Iraq shop. I wrote a number of options papers while in government. Assignment for drafting comes after Cabinet officials or their deputies have made a decision. The purpose of the paper is to outline different options to implement the decision.
The raid on Chalabi's compound and subsequent espionage allegations appear related to the memorandum's recommendations. Journalists lapped up and repeated unnamed intelligence sources' accusations, none of which have turned out to have had a basis in fact. No Pentagon official, for example, has been polygraphed, despite a New York Times story to the contrary. The CIA and State Department can chalk up a point in the bureaucratic war, but the cost of their victory inside Iraq was immense. Regardless of ethnic or sectarian background, Iraqis juxtaposed the rewards of attacking Americans with the perils of alliance. Family matters: Iraqi Shia associate Chalabi with his family's long-standing support for the Kazimiya Shrine, Iraq's third holiest. Perception matters: Regardless of whether they liked Chalabi as an individual or agreed with his politics, Iraqi Shia interpreted Blackwill's decision to humiliate Chalabi as a slap at their entire community.
If the National Security Council wants to put their hope in Ayad Allawi, they will be sorely disappointed. Allawi is a former Baathist. His close association with the Central Intelligence Agency, Britain's MI6, and Jordanian intelligence have not helped him among a Shia population in which he has little if any constituency. The Kurds also distrust Allawi, who, in 14 months of Coalition rule failed to engage in any serious way with the Sunni community. Najaf ends Allawi's honeymoon. The CIA may sing his praises to the president, but Langley's assets seldom make good leaders. They certainly don't make good democrats.
There is little goodwill left in Iraq. The United States government has managed to squander it. Bush may be sincere about his desire for democracy, but to Iraqis, family matters. Iraqis associate the president with his father, who is notorious among Iraqi Shia for his failure to support their March 1991 uprising. Saddam Hussein subsequently massacred tens of thousands of participants, and their families. Iraq is famous for its majestic date palms which sometimes stretch 50 or 60 feet. But, around Karbala, they are only ten- or 15-feet high because the Iraqi president ordered groves bulldozed in the wake of the uprising. Iraqis see these young trees as a constant reminder not to trust American rhetoric.
The recent siege of Najaf reinforces the Shia belief that the U.S. government is anti-Shia. In recent days, I've spoken to a number of Iraqis from Najaf, Samawa, and Diwaniya. They are disgusted. "The U.S. pulled out of Fallujah because they worried about killing Sunnis, but I guess they don't have that worry about Shia," one explained. While it is true officials in the interim Iraqi government support the siege on Najaf, Iraqi Shia see this as a further sign of hypocrisy. After all, the same officials begged the Americans to stop the "massacre" in Fallujah. On April 12, 2004, al-Wifaq, the newspaper of Ayad Allawi's own political party, quoted Allawi citing the siege of Fallujah as one of the reasons for his resignation as head of the Governing Council's security committee.
While I do not support empowering the Mahdi army, Iraqis do contrast the U.S. willingness to deputize former Baathists in Fallujah with what they view as a relentless assault on the historically disposed Shia in Najaf. Pronouncements such as an August 16 statement from Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, Muqtada al-Sadr's Iran-based mentor, that the U.S. wants to restore Baathism simply adds fuel to the fire.
Today, Iraqi Shia flock to Muqtada al-Sadr not because of who he is, but because they feel they have no choice. Scarred by their abandonment in 1991 and prone to conspiracy, Iraqi Shia interpret Blackwill's policy as an unmitigated disaster for democracy. They juxtapose the U.S. responses to Fallujah and Najaf. They see Washington reward former Baathists and punish the victims of their 35-year dictatorship. Implementing re-Baathification meant not only rehiring high-level Baathists who had informed on their students and colleagues but, as the Los Angeles Times reported on May 14, also firing the non-Baathists who replaced them. The Iraqi Shia see betrayal and, frankly, they should. The crowds rallying to Muqtada al-Sadr represent not endorsement of his ideas, but rather Blackwill's blowback and the bankruptcy of traditional State Department pro-Sunni bias.
The only winner will be Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran today is among our chief strategic and ideological threats. The Iraqi Shia were not Iran's natural allies. It is unfortunate that we have chosen to drive Iraq's Shia into Iran's suffocating embrace.
Wait, I thought the Iranian Shia were just on the verge of throwing over their mullahs. We've been told that here, and hyped over it. And I'm wondering if it's all hype about the 2nd Iranian revolution, with special interests trying to pull U.S. troops in there. What do you guys think?
yikes, Rubin once again has the knives out for the State Dept meddlers ... isnt it too late though to reverse course on CPA and Fallujah decisions?
He seems to be saying that because we didnt crush fallujah, we cant crush najaf ...but in fact, our response in both cases has been equally careful and slow.
The consensus from not just the interim Govt and the Iraqi national conference was for al-Sadr to dissolve the mahdi army. najaf is just an impelmentation of that policy.
> Even if a peaceful solution is found,
> the U.S. will have lost out.
Is this a trick question?
We're supposed to choose between:
- they hate us, and al-Sadr is still creating chaos, vs.
- they hate us, and al-Sadr is the latest celestial virgin?
Is not the answer clear?
Arabs have a fine time hating their rulers, who are generally awful ...
unfortunately, now 'we' are the rulers of Iraq.
we had a honeymoon of about 10 minutes, and ever since then, it's been a constant whine about how we are not doing what we should do ... certain aspects of the culture are nearly ungovernable. Despote the difficulties, we have made tremendous progress in making Iraq a future democracy...
The big picture that is being missed is that though iraqis lack some security, they do not lack freedom like they did.
they want a democratic government..
Rubin worries about the double-standard of treating the Shia challenge worse than we treated the baathist sunni challenge.
The way out is expressed in my commentary on Rubin's essay in my blog - FIRST NAJAF, THEN FALLUJAH.
Is not the answer clear?
Bomb, get rid of all Iranian nuclear facilities, take over and permenantly secure their oil fields by whatever walls, etc. necessary, refuse entry to the U.S. by any Middle Eastern Arab by all means necessary, and let them keep killing each other for Allah in the rest of the country.
We can't babysit millions of Muslim Iraqis and the idea of babysitting more millions of Iranians is ridiculous. This isn't Japan, 1945. The media was on our side and the Japanese were far more reasonable than the Muslims. Islamists could make one long for Shintoists.
Plus there's only so many National Guards troops besides the regular armed forces, and why should we waste American personnel babysitting perpetual - and murderous - adolescents? Go in, secure what we have to, and let the loonies have the rest. Buy their Western produced oil from them at a fair price, but no oil-for-food U.N. scams.
America used to export only Christian missionaries to transform the heathen. The modern version is the U.S. soldier trying to get Muslims to believe in democracy. The War on Terrorism means knocking out the enemy leaders and their WOMD, wherever they are. Paying for holding a political revival for the whole Middle East because they're too stupid to do it for themselves would be very costly in more ways than one. Whoever told us that the Iraqi people would love to Saddam overthrown probably came from the same school that wants us to overthrow the Iranian mullahs next.
Nothing personal at all, and now I'll < rant off.:)
Yup, it's darn holy. Waves of holy just roll off the thing....
Iraqis are Arabs but the Iranians are Persians and Persians are not of the same mentality as Arabs. Not everyone in Iran wants the overthrow of the mullahs --- but the mullahs are also divided. People from Iran have told me that no one back there likes the way things are, under those hideous chadors many of the women are fashionably dressed and resent having to wear the chador on the streets. They listen to western music and want freedom.
I know the Iranians are Persian, and if you read any of their websites you can see how much they despise the Arabs. None the less, would they, like so many Iraqi Arabs hate having foreigners on their land, even those Iranians who want to be liberated from their oppresive leadership? If Viet Nam was a quagmire, the Middle East is a giant swamp filled with quicksand. And we should not be manipulated into anything more by false information.
BTTT for complete digestion later...
That's one reason people have to liberate themselves. Probably the best policy for Islam is containment and isolation but you're right, the minute we liberate them, they would turn on us --- nation building doesn't work. Islam is successful only because it encourages Muslims to move into other countries, if they ever have to stay home and live with Islam, they would lose their desire for it.