Thursday, February 16, 2006

Baghdad Surprise

In the Bush administration’s zeal to "democratize" Iraq and stop the growing body count of coalition soldiers, even former foes like the militant Islamist Moktada al-Sadr have been brought into the political fold. But, as Lee Harris points out, al-Sadr is no democrat, nor any ally of the US. And his ultimate ambitions may be disastrous for US goals in the region.

al-Sadr fomented a series of bloody, but short-lived uprisings early in the occupation. But he was allowed to enter Iraqi politics, probably because refusing him only guaranteed more violence. His rise to a powerbroker’s position in the new world of Iraqi politics is nothing short of breath taking. In recent weeks, al-Sadr engineered the election of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister.

Both al-Jaafari's re-election and Sadr's role in bringing it about came as something of a shock, both inside Iraq and outside. Most Iraqis felt that it was "time for a change," as we Americans say whenever we vote out of office a man who has proven incompetent to govern, as al-Jaafari has proven himself over the last year. But the assumption was that the change would be in the direction of a man more decisive and unifying than al-Jaafari, for example, the economist Adel Abdul Mahdi.

In fact, underneath the surface, there has been a profound and radical change. Though al-Jaafari continues to hold on to the title of Prime Minister, he is aware that his one-vote victory was entirely dependent on the political cunning of Moktada al-Sadr. As Robert F. Worth reported in his article in The New York Times: "Mr. Sadr's followers now control the largest bloc of seats -- 32 out of 130 -- within the Shiite alliance. They decided to vote for Mr. Jaafari after he promised to help implement their political program," according to a spokesman for the Sadr movement who is also a sitting member of parliament.

Expressed like this, the bargain between al-Jaafari and Sadr's followers would appear to be simply a case of political horse-trading. "We'll support your guy, if your guy supports our programs." Yet I fear that there is far more going on here than normal parliamentary politicking, and let me explain why.

Recall that al-Sadr has strong ties to Syria, and is generally considered Tehran’s man in Baghdad, and you see the very bad direction in which this all is leading.

Sadr not only controls the largest bloc within the Shiite alliance; he is also the head of a paramilitary organization, the Mahdi army. In this respect, his position is identical to that of Hitler, before he came to power. Hitler, on the one hand, had the Nazi party, a tight-knit organization that was happy to use the parliamentary system in order to bring about the destruction of the Weimar Republic, and thus to end the parliamentary system itself. On the other hand, Hitler also commanded his own paramilitary organization, the famous "brown-shirts" of the SA, whose membership, at its height, may have included between three to four million young German toughs, whose usefulness to the success of the Nazi Party Hitler himself repeatedly stressed. They were invaluable in their ability to intimidate and threaten anyone who seriously opposed the Nazi party.

Comparisons between Sadr and Hitler, though meant in terms of political machinations, as opposed to world threat, distract from the point. Neither al-Sadr, nor Saddam before him, are particularly comparable to Hitler since neither command the resources of 1930’s Germany, which at its 1980’s high-point (not to mention its 2002 condition of degraded mess) Iraq never even came close to. Iraqis aren’t as smart as early twentieth century Germans, make nothing of their own, and (formerly) possessed an army singularly lacking in any distinction save gross incompetence. Still, the point remains that al-Sadr is amassing, steadily, a dismaying amount of power in the new Iraqi government. Even worse, al-Sadr has also learned that violence against American forces has no consequence.

… Sadr did not spend a single hour in jail and, after leading two violent rebellions, was permitted to continue amassing the kind of "black market" power that is associated with his Mahdi militia -- a power that is all the more disturbing because no one can be sure when it is being exercised. For example, no one knows how far Sadr's followers have been able to infiltrate Iraq's police and military establishments, nor can anyone say to what extent Sadr's followers are behind various bombings and assassinations.

In addition, Sadr is seeking to find a unifying theme that can transcend the divisions within Iraq, both tribal and sectarian; and this unifying theme is anti-Americanism -- a creed that may be shared by both Sunnis and Shiites, and that is also capable of forging strong bonds with nations like Iran and Syria, as well as millions of Muslims across the globe. Here again, like Hitler, Sadr appreciates the fact that there is no better way to unite a divided people than to give them a common enemy -- and that common enemy is us. Indeed, all populist demagogues have always been aware of this fact, and they all have exploited the marvelous unifying powers that hatred of a common enemy is capable of providing their people.

Uniting the Shiites and Sunnis is probably less al-Sadr’s intention that continuing to consolidate power in Baghdad. The hatred between the two sects is so vehement and intransigent that peace between them seems unlikely, no matter who holds the reigns of power. Besides, the Shiites control all the critical oil-rich parts of the nation. As soon as the US and its allies are gone, they can excise the Sunnis at their leisure. And they know it. In the Middle East, people measure scores by the century, and the Sunnis in Iraq have it coming.

The goal for al-Sadr is to gain control of the Shiite dominated areas of Iraq for use by his masters in Tehran. They may not want direct annexation, but they certainly look forward to a vassal state on their border, and control over all that Iraqi oil. al-Sadr seems capable of pulling it off, right under America’s nose.

Al-Sadr, by throwing his support, at a critical juncture, to the weakest and most ineffectual candidate for the most important position in the government of Iraq, has thereby achieved a bloodless political coup that has virtually made him the most powerful figure in Iraq. He who makes a Prime Minister can also unmake him -- and this is a lesson that al-Jaafari's one-vote victory has made perfectly clear to him, and to every other player in the political game. The path is now open for al-Sadr's legal seizure of power -- the same path that brought Hitler and the Nazi Party control over the fate of Germany. All Sadr needs is patience and cunning -- and it appears that he lacks neither of these qualities.

Washington has already realized that the invasion of Iraq may have seriously restrained American options in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If the US tries to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, expect a wave of suicide bombers to assail US forces in Iraq. Guess who will be directing that attack?


At 4:19 PM , Blogger Dennis Dale said...

Good post. I find myself little reassured by the fact that the rising Shi'ites in Iraq haven't the organizational abilities of the Nazis; an Islamic republic, a fractured state, or outright chaos hardly promise either stability in the region or in the global oil market, not to mention the possible creation of a terrorist haven.
The Ba'athists were Iraq's Nazi party and the lesser evil we should have preferred, in light of the fact that we would always be strong enough to dissuade them from any expansionist tendencies.


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