JACOB DERR - 16 JANUARY 2012
Colin Powell says he did not tell President George W. Bush that Iraq was like a precious crystal, and that if the United States broke it, the Bush Administration would have to buy it: “I never did it. [Thomas Friedman] did it…But what I did say…is that once you break it, you are going to own it, and we’re going to be responsible for 26 million people standing there looking at us. And it’s going to suck up a good 40 to 50 percent of the Army for years. And it’s going to take all the oxygen out of the political environment.” Whether or not he claimed directly that the United States would own the situation, it was clear that the United States was responsible for establishing structures of government on a society divided by sectarian differences and that had been driven into the ground with regard to the economy, religious tolerance, and human rights by the rule of Saddam Hussein.
But the U.S. mission in Iraq has ended, perhaps for reasons of both political necessity (the economy has political valence with Americans; foreign interventionism does not) and because the balance of state sovereignty and U.S. control could not be struck. This time there isn’t any mission accomplished banner, but it does fulfill a campaign promise made by President Obama, and the last U.S. troops fighting in the region were home by Christmas Day.
But if the toppling of Saddam’s regime was the first act of the war and the easing of sectarian tensions and founding of a new national government was the second act, that still leaves us with the third act yet to be written. What happens when the United States leaves a country the leadership of which could fall into turmoil? It remains to be seen whether the individual internalization of democratic ideals has happened, and whether this, combined with the formalized institutions the U.S. has left behind, is enough to protect the people of Iraq.
There are multiple axes to this problem, and this article examines three players who will be important in the coming year. The first is the government run by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia. The second is the Sadrist movement run by Muqtada al-Sadr, who have, as a group of people, been consistently defined over the past 30 years only by their propensity to “break rank” and do what is little expected of them. Finally, there has been a serious uptick in attacks on behalf of Iraqi Sunnis, some of them claimed by the Al Qaeda organization in Iraq, whose failures in 2006 and 2007 helped set the stage for the winning policies of David Petraeus.
The Third Act
Even as the last troops crossed into Kuwait, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was beginning to fray, and the end of the yarn was exposed. Al-Maliki, the secretary-general of the Shia Dawa party that came into power after the Iraqi Transitional Government, rules over a coalition government made up of Shia who, for decades under Saddam Hussein, were second class citizens. It was hoped that his government, made up in part of ethnic Kurds as well as Shia, would govern the country without resorting to sectarian lines.
Within 24 hours of the United States’ last troops crossing into Kuwait, however, al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi on charges of terrorism. Al-Hashimi is the highest ranking Sunni member of the Iraqi government, and al-Maliki doubled down on this action by placing Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leader of the Sunni Iraqiya bloc, on an extended leave on December 21. These actions may be Al-Maliki following the law, asserting his control over a country he was just given full permission to run without U.S. interference. Or it may be that he’s just asserting control, with his coalition, over the country’s affairs, running roughshod over the Sunni minority that used to be in power.
Both foreign observers and Iraqi citizens think it’s the latter. David Ignatius refers to him as “the underground man,” and warns that when the Coalition Provisional Authority failed to establish a political culture within the country before knocking out the dictator, “those likely to triumph are…the survivors, the backroom plotters, the people left standing when the regime-changers pack up their bags and go home.” He suspects this is just such a backroom plot by a man disinterested in unity. The Iraqiya party suspects so as well, patently refusing negotiations until al-Maliki steps down. They’re not only saying that negotiations can’t resume, but that al-Maliki needs to step down so that a “national reconciliation” can happen.
The Shia in Iraq are just now coming into power in a meaningful way, and it remains to be seen if al-Maliki and those he has surrounded himself with have the democratic credentials to safeguard the liberties of the people and strengthen the resolve of the country. It is also far too early to assess the impact of the power vacuum left by the United States with regards to protecting the country from outside influences. Iran is a Shia theocracy that has had an interconnected history with Iraq, albeit very rarely a history that has involved respecting the sovereignty of its neighbor. The history of Iraqi Shia is itself complex, and the Badr organization and Quds force in Iran, while at times on the side of Iraqi Shia, have not always come to their aid, as in attempts at uprising following the conflict in Kuwait. At a little less than a month since the U.S. left the country, this is clearly an ongoing situation.
Leading the Masses
But it remains to be seen whether al-Maliki’s party represents Iraq—and what Iraq is represented by his political rivals. Muqtada al-Sadr, the third leader of a section of Shias who broke from the Dawa party years ago, still has a flock to lead.
The Sadrists’ existence plays out strategically, with the party appealing at different times to different strategies of resistance against the rule of Saddam Hussein, the intervention of U.S. troops, and the government of al-Maliki. Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr or “Sadr I” as he has come to be known was one of the founding members of the Dawa party. He set about creating the foundations for an Islamist party in Iraqi governance, which attracted the ire of the Ba’athists under Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and then Saddam Hussein. While at the same time lending support to armed insurgents threatening Ba’athist control and national stability, Baqir broke with the leadership of Dawa, who replaced him with Abu Al-Qassim Al-Khoei and pursued a strategy of political nonintervention. The Iranian revolution strengthened the resolve of the Sadrists, but their action was short-lived. Iran did not come to the aid of Baqir’s action, and his remaining adherents in Dawa were targeted by Saddam Hussein. He was captured in 1980 and was likely tortured before being killed. “’Sayyid Mohammed Baqir chose death,’ recalls his son Jafar al-sadr, ‘after he had seen that his friends abandoned him and Iran let him down despite his support for it.’”
Baqir’s cousin Mohammad Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, or Sadr II, was initially thought by Ba’athists to be working on their behalf to both control their followers and ingratiate themselves with Saddam Hussein’s leadership. Sadiq spent several years exercising conciliatory gestures in public, and only indirectly in his speeches criticizing government rule and warning his followers that their resistance was strong. He wanted to cultivate something stronger than a militant resistance, and “aimed for a Shia cultural revival in which it was important what you saw at the cinema and the music you listened to. He wanted to establish an Islamic popular base strong enough to stand up to a murderous and tyrannical regime.” Crucially, Sadiq’s appeal was strong with the young hopeless Shia already mentioned who were growing up with drastically reduced future prospects and no opportunity for meaningful advancement because of Saddam’s crackdowns and U.N. sanctions that filtered down to the people, as detailed by Denis Halliday when he resigned as U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq in 1998. Sadiq could not keep his opposition quiet forever, though, and Saddam’s administration became much warier of him. His defiance of their orders to return to the party ensured his death, which happened as he was leaving a mosque in Najaf in 1999. The blast also killed his two oldest sons.
So it fell to his youngest son, Muqtada, to continue his father’s work. There was no great shift in ideology or strategy by Muqtada, but his strategic skills have very likely kept him alive when so many of his contemporaries have been killed. Accordingly, he remained largely quiet until Saddam was toppled by U.S. forces in 2003, and remained ready to step into the void and fight for the Shia in Iraq. He stood in opposition to the CPA and the Iraqi Governing Council, which was populated by figures such as Baqir al-Hakim who had been out of Iraqi politics for many years. Muqtada’s Mahdi Army fought the CPA in Najaf in 2004 at the same time as Sunni uprisings in Fallujah and, although he lost many men, Muqtada “emerged the winner because he had challenged the U.S.-led occupation, held off their greatly superior army for weeks, and survived without making concessions that would have weakened him permanently.” His power and influence became obvious to those in Iraq, though he fled to Iran at the time of the U.S. surge in a strategic calculation that he would be killed and his movement shattered. He spent his time abroad calling for the U.S. to leave Iraq, and threatened to reopen conflict using his Mahdi Army if the timetable set by the Obama administration was not respected. He returned to Iraq in 2011, and has re-entered politics with vigor and with support from a substantial number of Iraqi citizens.
When al-Maliki took action against Vice President al-Hashimi, it was not just other Sunnis, but al-Sadr as well, who called for new elections for the country. This is the most public challenge to al-Maliki from within his own coalition, and it has added fuel to the fires of those who worry that al-Sadr is attempting, like Hezbollah, to create a “state within a state” using local governance, outreach, and spirituality until he can take power more forcefully in Iraq.
But perhaps the main issue regarding al-Sadr is just what isn’t known. No one can say with any certainty what he will do, and yet what he does is vital to the future of Iraq. The Sadrists have historically marched to the beat of their own drum without regard for the mainstream opinions of other Shias.  Moreover, Sadrism is a bastion of hope and opportunity for young people whose stations in life and future prospects were destroyed in a matter of years if not months during the late 1980s and early 1990s. As the U.S. leaves 8 years after coming to Iraq, jobs are still scarce and even basic necessities for life, like electricity, are not being delivered. He has won concessions on oil deals signed by al-Maliki, and it remains unclear whether his power in this regard stems from respect or fear. Anyone who guesses correctly what he does next will have a better handle on the future of the entire political machine. Anyone who underestimates him or finds him an outcast or inconsequential figure does so at their own peril.
Why Do You Live Here?
That reconciliation Iraqiya’s spokesmen were referring to might be harder than they expect. Baghdad in the past few weeks has looked unnervingly like Baghdad in 2006 and 2007, the years when the crystal looked like it might be broken beyond repair. Most of the attacks have targeted Shiite civilians, presumably as retaliation for the actions of the central government, and over a hundred have died so far, but some attacks have been against Sunni Iraqis. The Salafist Sunnis of the al-Qaeda organization in Iraq have taken responsibility for some bomb blasts on December 27th and during the second week in January, but others are clearly about religious violence more than the global war that characterizes al-Qaeda’s efforts abroad.
The al-Qaeda organization in Iraq, or AQI, previously arose in 2004 to capitalize on the chaos after the toppling of the Ba’athist regime. Led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi until his death in 2006, the group’s actions were done as much by outside elements as by Iraqi citizens. The group attempted to use terror to incite sectarian violence, hoping the situation would deteriorate past the point of democratic engagement and that the U.S. would eventually have to admit defeat. However, the group overplayed its hand largely and the Iraqi citizenry turned against the group because of the pervasiveness of terror attacks in the region. By 2008, the group was mostly neutralized as a political entity. The idea that they might have arisen again is both somewhat expected and potentially disastrous. Their previous goals likely still stand, which means the line between their attacks against Shias (and, potentially, Sunnis) and sectarian attacks by one of the other of the groups will be very difficult to ascertain.
Perhaps more terrifying than the attacks themselves is the culture that underlies such attacks. An Associated Press story detailing Iraqi Sunnis who are leaving their previously mixed neighborhoods begins with an eerie question: “Why do you live here?” If the Iraqi government can’t manage to ensure the safety of its civilians in their neighborhoods in Baghdad, it doesn’t bode well for the future safety of its democracy.
January 18 will mark one month since the U.S. left Iraq, and we still have little idea what the country is going to look like moving forward. But if we were to surmise the future using the present, we aren’t looking forward to a united Iraq. The U.S.’s efforts at reestablishing democracy after demolishing not just the Ba’ath party leadership but all semblances of democratic institutions in 2003 have not held up without the presence of our forces—at least thus far. “All our politicians represent the political aims of foreign countries,” says taxi driver Mustafa Ahmed as reported by Dahr Jamail for al-Jazeera. The western powers are likely to look elsewhere for issues to pursue; we won’t be leaning on the Iraqi government now that we’re gone. It will be the responsibility of the Iraqi elements themselves to find the original purpose of their constitution, which was to find other ways to politically apportion political authority so as to make religion and personal interest a non-issue in voting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the parties are prepared for that right now. Laments Ahmed, “I don’t know if the sectarian violence will return, but the Iraqi people understand the situation and the biggest loser is the Iraqi citizen.”
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