Monday, October 08, 2007

The Cat Herder and the Nine Lives of the UIA

In July, I noted that, despite the serious tensions pulling apart the Shia political bloc (organized under the "UIA umbrella" at the behest, and under the guidance, of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani), Sistani had thus far been able to hold the coalition together. Contrary to the periodic rumors of Sistani's political demise, he has managed to exert influence over a highly unstable situation in order to achieve the preservation of his long term goal: insuring permanent Shiite political dominance in Iraq and, relatedly, preventing the dilution of Shiite political power that would result from an all out conflict between the various factions (with the competition between the Sadrist current and SIIC representing the most unstable fault line).

As the pressure has mounted at various times (a pressure that both Cernig and I believe will ultimately lead to the collapse of Shiite unity, though we have differed on the timeline), Sistani has managed to step in and send each party to their respective corners for a cool-off period. Lately, that "pressure" had seemed to reach critical mass, and by all appearances, Sistani had - at last - lost his ability to compel unity.

But then, true to form, Swopa observed the familiar outline of the pattern: Iraq's senior Shiite leaders were summoned to Najaf for a sitdown with Sistani a couple weeks back. The results manifested late last week:
Iraq's two most powerful Shi'ite leaders have signed their first written agreement, pledging to prevent bloodshed by working together to avoid confrontation, Iraqi officials said on Saturday.

Supporters of fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) are locked in a violent struggle for control of the towns and cities in Iraq's predominantly Shi'ite south.

Political analysts fear the struggle for dominance in the southern regions, where U.S. forces have little or no presence, will intensify ahead provincial elections expected next year.

"Sayyed Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr have agreed on the necessity of preserving and respecting Iraqi blood under any condition," said the agreement signed by Hakim and Sadr and seen by Reuters on Saturday.
This most recent example of Sistani's influence prompted a curious response from Captain Ed:
Sadr appears to have capitulated to the SIIC in this instance. Over the summer, his Mahdi Army started a gunfight with the Badr Brigades during a Shi'ite holiday and pilgrimage, killing dozens. Shortly afterwards, Hakim outmaneuvered Sadr with an alliance between the SIIC, Nouri al-Maliki, and the Kurds. The alliance strengthened Maliki after Sadr withdrew his deputies from Maliki's ruling coalition, leaving Sadr more isolated than ever before, even among Shi'ites.

Sadr is a survivor, as we have learned over the last four years. He knows when to hold 'em, and he knows when to fold 'em. It looks like he's made another pragmatic calculation, but even Sadr can't hide the fact that he's taking his faction ever backwards. At one time, he played kingmaker to Maliki. Now he has to fight for scraps from Hakim's table and only has indirect influence over the government. Surviving may be a form of success, but Sadr could have played his hand so much more effectively -- and it won't be long before his underlings start to realize it, if they haven't already.
I think Captain Ed is overplaying the "Sadr capitulated and now is doomed" angle (although his commenters were much farther off base: claiming that the deal was a result of the Surge (?), that it was further evidence of Shiite/Sunni reconciliation (it's the opposite), and that Sadr's Iranian allies would be upset (no mention of SIIC/Dawa Iranian ties)). The "death of Sadr" has actually been a frequent refrain for many Iraq war boosters. This was supposedly the case around the time of the Sadrist uprising in the Spring of 2004 (he has only grown in power and popularity since). After that, his political bloc was reportedly going to be marginalized via the elections (it wasn't, and his bloc became the lever of power within the UIA). In recent months, there has been a steady drumbeat of dubious rumors of Sadr's flight(s) to Tehran, allegedly in fear of the Surge (with the implication that Sadr's nationalist cred would be irreparably tarnished, which it hasn't).

Now that Sistani has managed to unite the fragmenting UIA again, the same voices are spinning it as a case of Sadr's diminishment. This despite the fact that Sadr remains more popular with Iraq's Shiite population than either Hakim or Maliki, and that the more likely explanation is the oft-arrived at (and then forgotten) realization that each Shiite faction needs the other. The Sadr-based analysis also fails to account for a series of developments that likely enhanced the spirit of cooperation amongst the warring Shiite factions, and reacquainted each with the other's intrinsic "value": the Anbar Salvation project. As I noted last week, the UIA has become increasingly vocal in its opposition to the US plan to arm, fund and train former Sunni insurgents in Anbar province and beyond. In fact, some Shiite politicians have even gone as far as to declare political "reconciliation" a dead letter.

The Shiites are fearful that the Bush administration is tilting too heavily in favor of the Sunnis - in order to counter Iran, and to keep its own indigenous options open. In fact, there is concern that the Bush team might eventually undertake an all out abandonment of the UIA in favor of "friendlier" Sunni allies. This fear has prompted the Maliki government to cut a $100 million arms deal with China, amongst other "base covering" maneuvers. With the increasingly cozy relationship between the US and Sunni elements burgeoning, Sistani's message of Shiite unity took on an added air of wisdom no doubt.

And so the Shiites are hunkering down, not because Sadr has been weakened and forced to crawl back to the UIA, but because there are common enemies to be dealt with first, and intra-Shiite fighting will leave each faction weakened and vulnerable. Thus, rather than an encouraging sign of Shiite/Sunni rapprochement, this Shiite accord is born out of the need to consolidate ranks in light of the likelihood of a reinvigorated conflict. At least for now. As Swopa snarked:
It appears that the main question remaining in Iraq is whether the Team Shiite coalition willl collapse from sheer exhaustion before the U.S. occupation does, or vice versa.
Indeed, a Grand Ayatollah's work is never done.

(cross-posted at American Footprints)

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