(Updated) Al-Maliki Casts His Vote & The Real ‘Byproduct of the Success of the Surge’

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ANTI-AMERICAN DEMONSTRATORS IN BAGHDAD

Although it at first may seem like a strange way to look at the latest round of bloodshed in Iraq, it’s all about Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki casting the first vote in that country’s much anticipated provincial elections.

The result is a troubling new chapter in the Forever War: Basra city and parts of Baghdad are under siege, the seven-month ceasefire called by Moqtada al-Sadr is history and Iraq has entered a perilous new phase that no amount of bribing by General Petraeus’s paymasters or speechifying by George Bush can change as U.S. troops get sucked into a maw that the White House and Pentagon were instrumental in creating in giving the prime minister no-strings-attached support.

Al-Maliki’s stalled offensive, which would have collapsed without U.S. air and ground intervention and eventually will, is all about politics, not national reconciliation. For Bush to call it “a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq” on top of the Pentagon’s contention that it is a “byproduct of the success of the Surge” is laughable in an Orwellian sort of way.

Here’s the real deal:

Provincial elections, one of the few Bush administration benchmarks for measuring Iraqi progress that have not been discarded as utterly unrealistic, are to be held on October 1.

The Madhi Army of Al-Sadr, the anti-America Shiite cleric, holds the keys to Basra and has since the British Army ceded its role as American helpmate because the number of casualties it was taking had become a public-relations nightmare for the Labor government back in London.

Al-Maliki desperately needs Basra, the oil-rich province on the porous border with Iraq, but the British are cowering in their barracks and there is no American military presence, hence the botched offensive on Basra city, the second largest in Iraq, where the 30,000-man Iraqi army and security forces find themselves surrounded by the Madhi Army, which has set up checkpoints and is now controlling access to the city.

Al-Sadr’s gunmen are thugs, but so are the gunmen belonging to the Badr Organization, the militia affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which is joined at the hip with the prime minister.

Iran not only has a dog in this race, it has all the dogs in the form of close ties with Al-Maliki, Al-Sadr and ISCI, which makes Washington’s breast beating over the meddlesome Tehran regime so tiresome.

Herewith a roundup of reactions to the latest developments.

Juan Cole opines at Informed Comment:

“My reading is that the US faced a dilemma in Iraq. It needed to have new provincial elections in an attempt to mollify the Sunni Arabs, especially in Sunni-majority provinces like Diyala, which has nevertheless been ruled by the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI]. But if they have provincial elections, their chief ally, the Islamic Supreme Council, might well lose southern provinces to the Sadr Movement. In turn, the Sadrists are demanding a timetable for US withdrawal, whereas ISCI wants US troops to remain. So the setting of October, 2008, as the date for provincial elections provoked this crisis.”

Fred Kaplan, like me a card-carry member of the There Are No Good Guys school, writes at Slate that:

“Maliki’s official reason for the offensive, simply to bring order, has some plausibility . . . The current fighting in Basra is a struggle for power and resources between warlords. It’s hard to say which faction is more alluring or less likely to fall under Iranian sway. Neither seems the sort of ally in freedom and democracy that our president conjures in his daydreams.

“It’s not a case of good vs. evil. It’s just another crevice in the widening earthquake called Iraq.”

Ed Morrissey gives Al-Maliki a big wet kiss at Hot Air and blames it all on the Brits:

“The fighting in Basra now was inevitable at some point. Baghdad couldn’t allow a major city like Basra to operate outside its control forever. Instead of an orderly transition from Coalition to Iraqi security control, as is happening in the West, the Maliki government now has to take Basra by force — while the rump of British power sits in its bases, unable to contribute at all to security any longer. Whether Maliki decided to do this next week or next year, the fight in Basra had to happen at some point in order to apply the rule of law throughout Iraq.

“That’s why this isn’t a collapse of the American surge, but a demonstration of the folly of premature withdrawal. The lack of fortitude on Iraq left a vacuum that created bigger problems and more serious fighting than tenacity did. Had we listened to the war’s critics in 2005 and 2006, gangsters would have swallowed the entirety of Iraq, and we would have a second Somalia in southwest Asia.”

While Fester has Al-Maliki’s measure in a Newshoggers analysis:

“One of his big problems is that the Sadrists will beat him politically and can go even with him on the corruption and distribution of spoils. So he has to take down Sadr or at least massively rejigger the political equation. And this offensive is his attempt to do so, and it has two interesting option trees. The first is that it actually works in defeating and seizing (intact) the Basra oil export profit center. . . . The other option tree is far more interesting.

“Let us assume that this is a deliberate provocation exercise.

“In this scenario the Iraqi Army attack into Basra’s Mahdi neighborhoods does not go well, but it provokes a national Sadrist response which starts a strategic countdown clock. This count down clock includes increased Sadrist/JAM actions against Iraqi government and US Forces such as rocket/mortar attacks on the Green Zone, and attacks against the oil export infrastructure.”

Photograph by Shehab Ahmed/EPA

8 Comments

  1. Shaun,

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis on this issue. I get so tired of the standard “good guys/bad terrorists” analysis in the media. There will be no hope for stopping this madness if our leaders refuse to see things as they really are and acknowledge the major problems that we are causing because of our unconditional and open ended military support of al-Maliki's government.

  2. My admiration , Shaun, for trying to organze this mess in outline form.

    As for myself, this strikes me as much more complicated and multi-layered. I don't think the US has the slghtest clue what new hornet's nest it just put its
    military boot into, while disregarding the 'no military solution' maxim.

    Ayatollah Sistani has said that his 'no' to repeated requests that he put out a fatwah against US troops won't last forever.
    That adds a new wrinkle on the story. especially in light of the fact that alSadr aspires to become an Ayatollah himself (this would happen in Iran).

    It looks like a power struggle for oil: Bush and alMaliki against alSadr.

    I wonder if AlQueda (forgotten for the moment) will take advantage of the situation.

    There are many such wrinkles., too many for my tired old brain to take in all at one go.

  3. from swimming freestyle:

    “Iraq is a sovereign state, or so we claim. Why would U.S. forces assist the sovereign Iraqi government and Iraqi Army in their attempts to squash internal, anti-government insurgents?

    We don't have a horse in this race. Wouldn't it be in our national interest to allow Iraq to settle it's own internal power struggles?”
    from http://swimmingfreestyle.typepad.com

  4. I have heard and read a number of smart, nuanced descriptions of the ever-developing problems facing Iraq, yet in the six years since the build-up to this war I have not come across any serious commentator who could lay out a persuasive case setting forth actions (internal and/or external) that would likely lead to a desirable resolution, or even anything approaching a tolerably less dangerous level of stability.

    The demographics (religious, ethnic, factional, regional), the desperation, the power vacuum, the oil, the US legacy, the ubiquitous weaponry (market-traded and improvised), the opportunistic neighbors (state and stateless), …

    Whatever policy this country adopts, it must be based on an open-eyed appraisal of all these factors and more, instead of the wishful thinking that has guided us until this point.

  5. Shuan – great post.

    We went into Iraq to establish Democracy (well – after finding those WMD's). So guess what – In a majority Shiite country, a majority of the Shiites want Moqtada al-Sadr to lead them, rather than Maliki – who did not even live in Iraq for 23 years prior to deposing Saddam Hussein. This is clearly a case where we will reap what we have sown.

    aba23 – There is an answer. Not a great one, but better than any alternative. It's called “majority rule”. The reason why this war never ends, is that the Bush/Cheney administration specifically and the American people generally do not want to admit that the face of “majority rule”, and “regime change” and “victory” in Iraq is the face of Moqtada al-Sadr. We will leave Iraq when Moqtada al-Sadr takes over, and not before.

    A realistic “End State” scenario is an “accommodated” (or if you prefer “co-opted” or “bought-out”) Moqtada al-Sadr, or someone just like him. A popular theocrat, elected into leadership in Iraq, still railing at the “Great Satan” from his bully pulpit to maintain his popular support, but behind the scenes working with the US at the precise intersection of US interest in a stable Iraq, and his lofty personal ambition for power on a world stage. This scenario would work for Iraq and would work for us.

    Unfrtunately, this scenario does not work for the legacy of George W. Bush. So it cannot happen until we have a new president. Hopefully then it will not be too late.

  6. DWSUWF, I don't disagree that they may be heading that way, but I don't see the result as anything that could be called a “resolution” in the near term (and I really don't see what the appropriate US role would be).

    You write, “This scenario would work for Iraq….”

    But only if by “Iraq” you mean (certain factions of) the majority Shi'ia population who continue to nurse axes to be ground for the foreseeable future, and if by “work” you mean they arrive at the answer to the question of who will wield power.

    But the political viability of majority rule only works where all parties substantially buy into the power structure. This can only happen where the rule of law is mightier than the rule of force–for that is the only way minorities will believe they will be treated with fairness and thus accept their subordinated role.

    A look around the world will show that representational democracy has a very mixed record, and the determining factors do not look promising in Iraq. It seems to me unreasonable to expect anything approaching a stable democracy to emerge out of a fractured, disgruntled, well-armed populace living in a country of artificial borders with negligible centralized institutional authority, disproportionate allocation of (globally strategic) resources, and unrestrained interfering meddlers.

  7. 23,
    They are not going to turn into a Jeffersonian democracy no matter what happens. The best we can expect at this point is some semblance of stability, with some semblance of respect for minority sects, and some semblance of popular electoral ratification of the leadership so we can bring our troops home. I don't see how we get there from here with Maliki, who is unpopular and cannot stay in power without US Military support. Al-Sadr is popular and is going to be running the place eventually if he is not killed first. It is a question of whether we let it happen through elections, and try to manage his worst instincts behind the scenes with money and muscle – or – fight him, and have no leverage with him at all.

  8. Again, I'm not disagreeing with your assessment that Sadr is probably the savviest “politician” in the area; it seems to me he's played his hand better than any other would-be leader over the last five years. (And I agree that Maliki is little more than a place-holder.) That said, I'm far from optimistic that the best-outcome semblances you mention (stability, minority rights, political ratification) are likely to flow from Sadr's rise, with or without the US's behind-the-scenes attempts at “managing” him (a problematic concept in itself).

    By the way, there's an interesting thread on Crooked Timber on Sadr's intentions and the Mahdi Army's potency in light of the recent Basra events.

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