Friday, March 28, 2008

Sadr's revolt, and the myths of the 'surge'.


American bombers have struck the central city of Hilla, killing sixty people, aside from their bombing raids in Basra and Sadr City. It's worth considering two things in light of this. The first is the ascendancy of the Sadrist movement, described by Patrick Cockburn in his recent book on Sadr, (and with surprising foresight by Juan Cole in 2003), and its likely future direction. Much of Cockburn's book is given over to a discussion of the Sadr family and its prominence in pre-occupation Iraq in resisting Saddam. I've discussed some of this background here, but Cockburn has compiled the best and most accessible account I have yet seen, see I will draw on it. The second is the so-called 'surge', which is actually a collection of separate politico-military strategies, ranging from bribery to suppression, and its supposed 'success'. In connection with the latter, the latest edition of the quarterly US government report Measuring Stability and Security in the New Iraq was published this month. Unsurprisingly, it is cautiously optimistic because the rate of attacks on US troops has remained fairly steady since September 2007, having fallen back to the rates that persisted in 2004. I might mention that no one thought the 2004 rates were ideal, and it was in just that year that people started to realise that the US could lose the whole thing. The declining rate of attacks is an artefact of a lull in the war - they didn't decline while the US was aggressively attacking in the previous period of the 'surge' and in like operations in 2006-7. However, there's quite a bit of spin deployed to heighten the sense of success. While attacks have reduced to their 2004 level, civilian deaths are shown only from early 2006 to February 2008. So, reported civilian deaths have fallen from their extraordinary peaks during the worst of the 'surge', but they remain at roughly the level they were at in January 2006 - which was already stupendously high. The same deal with US military and 'Iraqi forces' deaths - they've declined to slightly below their early 2006 level, which was very high. Similarly, sectarian deaths have fallen back to their January 2006 level, which was already high. The recent US actions have finally reduced the carnage by the exact amount that the surge increased them. As a matter of fact, then, it would seem that the 'surge' operations dramatically increased the level of deaths, and naturally raised the rate of resistance attacks, and only a separate set of political developments taking real effect since mid-2007 has brought the rate of carnage down.

But it is not that simple. One of the main factors responsible for the slow-down in the carnage since mid-2007 was the ceasefire by Sadr's forces, which was announced on 31 August 2007. Previously, Sadr's movement had been responsible for a great number of attacks in Baghdad and southern cities. As Cockburn points out, the fact that the ceasefire was maintained indicated that, for the first time, Sadr was getting some measure of control over his organisation. The ceasefire was declared because, under pressure from the US, Maliki informed Sadr that he was 'obliged' to fight him even though he relied on Sadr's movement in the Council of Representatives. Hundreds were arrested in a night's work, and forces loyal to the US started rampaging through Shia neighbourhoods, shooting up households with the backing of US helicopters. Bush had announced his 'surge' by warning of "Shia extremists" just as hostile to the US as 'Al Qaeda', while foreign policy intellectuals referred to a "Shia crescent" uniting Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, and potentially destabilising Saudi Arabia. With 'Iraqi forces', US army, Kurdish peshmerga and Badr Organisation fighters surrounding the potential kingmaker on all sides, Sadr decided that he would not resist. The story, of course, is that there was going to be a general clampdown on armed militias - but both peshmerga and Badr corps were incorporated into the security services and so didn't have to dissolve themselves. Another part of the story was that Sadr was an Iranian stooge and went into hiding in Iran when 20,000 extra American supermen showed up. Cockburn is very informative on this point. You would be hard-pressed to find any Iraqi nationalist who is not contemptuous of the 'Iranians' (ie, any Iraqi who might be supported by Iran's government), and the Sadrists are explicitly hostile to Iran's influence. Iran has actually been supportive of Sadr's rivals, particularly the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) people. As for weaponry - well, you figure it out. Have anti-colonial movements never used IEDs before? Does it take an Iranian to know what to do with weedkiller to make an explosive? The argument was nonsensical.

The reason for Sadr's influence in the 'New Iraq' is not to be found in Iranian influence. It is in his background, and that of his family in resistance to Saddam. Its survival in the face of the dictatorship's onslaught against communist and secular opponents, as well as Shi'ite ones, was remarkable. Against more quietist strains in Shia politics, the Sadr family emphasised activism, and that approach has characterised Sadr's response to the occupation and the formation of the grassroots Mahdi Army. This apparently came as quite a surprise to the US government. After Ahmed Chalabi and the INC were unable to account for half of $4m given to them in 2002, the CIA and State Department started to mistrust them and look for allies in the Shi'ite religious movements. You may remember that it was around that time that naifs started to wonder why the wonderful and humane democrats of the INC were being frozen out of war preparations. They negotiated with the Dawa Party and with the SCIRI, and only the former had any real base in Iraq. The Sadr current, which better off Shia saw as a kind of Islamic Bolshevism, had been completely overlooked. Sadr was immediately hostile to the SCIRI current, which he saw as representing Iranian interests rather than those of Iraqis, and which he argued had not helped Iraqis in the 1991 intifada despite al-Bakir calling for an uprising. He opposed the occupation, noting that "The smaller devil has gone but the bigger devil has come". How prescient. The Mahdi Army was being created while the Badr corps already had up to 8,000 armed fighters. It was a volunteer army, made up of amateur enthusiasts from the poorest parts of Iraq, and it graduated its first battalion in Basra on 6 October 2003. This army displayed its strength during the siege of Najaf in 2004, which made the US army wary of taking the Mahdi on in direct combat ever after. Even now, they rely on Iraqi confederates to do the fighting for them. Paul Bremer had been foolish enough to think that by arresting the 'rabble rouser' he so hated and shutting down the Sadrist newspaper, he would end that part of the emerging resistance. No such luck evidently.

Aside from fighting the occupation, part of the allure of Sadr's movement was its puritan zeal. In areas controlled by the Sadrists, prostitution was targeted, dress codes imposed, 'Islamic mores' enforced, and so on. However, it is not clear how much the leadership actually controlled the organisation. Cockburn says that Sadr has been 'riding a tiger', with several areas totally out of control. Though the Mahdi Army was responsible for some of the soaring sectarian violence that was reported in the years 2005-7, it was often indicated in reporting that Sadr himself did not condone this. This is confirmed in Cockburn's account, which shows that Sadr thought of his movement as being penetrated by spies and criminal networks. In fact, Sadr had stressed the nationalist aspect of his programme and took the opportunity supplied by the Sunni resistance split with the small but deadly 'Al Qaeda' auxiliary to re-emphasise this. Opposition to 'outsiders' was congruent with hostility to the occupiers. But it was not until the clashes with SIIC militias were brought to an end with the ceasefire in late August 2007 that deaths from sectarian clashes declined - suggesting that a great deal of the sectarian warfare was intra-Shiite as well as intra-Sunni.

Sadr's movement is currently able to handle the 'Iraqi forces', evidently. That is why the occupiers are probably going to have to 'surge' again, and probably bring the British troops into the fight. But the US army shows no sign of being willing to take on the Mahdi Army in direct combat at the moment. Only the strategy of Blitzkrieg avails itself. But at the same time, the Sadrists have not been able to form alliances with Sunni movements. Only if the Sunnis currently working alongside the occupiers to take out 'Al Qaeda' do go on the general strike that they are threatening is there a possibility of this. In addition, the sectarian actions often participated in by Mahdi fighters are hard to reverse, especially the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from homes in Shi'ite areas. The burdens of surival as Iraqi society collapses, as professionals in health and education and vital infrastructural areas flee, as key services degenerate and vital social safety nets disappear, tends towards increasing viciousness, clientelism, patrimonialism and sectarian competition as much as it does toward nationalism and liberation. Sadr's revolt is crucial, and its outcome will tell us a great deal about Iraq's future.