Wednesday, December 05, 2007

This Time Sadr Is, Like, Soooo Dead

The last time we checked in with Captain Ed (in early October), he (in a post representative of a particular tic found amongst many Iraq war boosters) was proclaiming that the declared truce between Moqtada al-Sadr's forces and those of his main Shiite rival (SIIC and it's Badr militia) signified a marked decline in Sadr's standing. Sadr, according to the Cap'n, had been dealt a blow that would likely prove fatal as his supporters caught on to his diminished position. Since then, however, Sadr has shown a stubborn reluctance to go quietly into that starry desert night.

Now, some two months later, Captain Ed is continuing his Sadr bedside vigil - poring over the charts in search of the much anticipated, though elusive, cause of death. If the American media suffers from a tendency to spin any new development as good for Republicans and bad for Democrats, Captain Ed provides an Iraqi political analog finding Sadr's demise in every new twist and turn. In this episode, Captain Ed focuses on a recent fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemning sectarian violence amongst Iraqis, and comes away with the conclusion, yet again, that this means the end of Sadr:

In this case, [Sistani's fatwa] has directly attacked Sadr's legitimacy as the leader of a Shi'ite militia that had routinely attacked Sunnis, until Sadr got caught up in an intrasect war with the Badr Brigade. Sistani essentially told Iraq's Shi'ites that Sadr's organization not only has no reason to exist, but its existence offends Islam.
In reality, Sistani's declaration did no such thing. Rather than offering a direct rebuke of Sadr, as Captain Ed claims, the statement is reminiscent of previous calls for calm and forbearance issued by Sistani - calls that have largely gone unheeded. Which brings me to another dubious claim put forth by the good Captain:

Sistani's fatwas have tremendous influence in Iraq, perhaps partly because he uses them so infrequently.

This is both an exaggeration and an understatement. On the one hand, if one of the Shiite groups/leaders incurred the full wrath of Sistani, it would greatly undermine that Shiite group's/leader's position (such a frontal assault would entail Sistani actually naming names, not dealing in abstractions that can be colored the preferred hue by distant observers as in the present example). Thus, none of the big Shiite players (Dawa, SIIC, Sadr, Fadhilla) want to openly cross Sistani, and to that extent, his public statements do carry clout.

On the other hand, Sistani's many appeals for peace and stability have mostly been ignored, swept aside by the exigencies of armed conflict and a self-perpetuating cycle of revenge. There is only so far such generalized calls for peace will go in a war zone. For Captain Ed, though, not only does Sistani's statement represent an anti-Sadr edict that will command strict adherence from the Shiite population, but it is also the linchpin for political reconciliation.

If we want to see ground-up reconciliation, this provides a major impetus towards it. With the Sunni tribes turning towards the US and Iraqi government for an opportunity to build a new Iraqi nation, this serves as a huge endorsement from the Shi'ites of that risk. Sistani has welcomed the Sunnis back to the nation after the sectarian strife that nearly tore it apart. The calming effects of Sistani's fatwa should encourage more political progress as it further marginalizes the extremists of Sadr's faction in the National Assembly and pushes moderates to the leadership.
There is much to dismantle in that paragraph alone. First, the "Sunni tribes" are not "turning towards" the Iraqi government in any meaningful sense. There is a de facto cease fire in Anbar province (and some other areas) whereby the US is funding, arming and supporting Sunni elements in their effort to purge the Sunni extremists that don the moniker "al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)." At the same time, those Sunni groups are being given space to secure their own areas with less interference from outside forces (both US and Iraqi government).

However, these tribes have shown little inclination to support, let alone accept, the current Shiite dominated Iraqi government. And that same Shiite dominated government has shown even less inclination to either incorporate these Sunni militias into the official security forces, provide additional funding for more training of Sunni militias in the area, bestow any financial reward on the Sunni leaders or even deliver the full amount of already budgeted funds for Anbar. Not exactly the love-fest that Captain Ed claims.

Even Sistani himself is not as committed to the cause as Captain Ed would have it. Yes, on some level, Sistani would like the violence to wane and stability to take hold. But Sistani wants that on Sistani's terms. His overriding goal is to ensure that Shiite political parties dominate Iraq for the forseeable future, and beyond. Sistani might be willing to issue fatwas condemning sectarian violence, but he has been less enthusiastic about blessing political gestures aimed at mollifying Sunni concerns (such as easing de-Baathification or amending the Constitution). In essence, his position is that the fighting should stop, but the political gains achieved by the Shiite parties maintained. Not exactly a recipe for reconciliation.

At their root, the myriad conflicts and civil wars plaguing Iraq have not persisted because of the absence of an extra 30,000 US soldiers, the lack of an anti-AQI alliance between US forces and Sunni elements or the dearth of condemnations of sectarian violence from Sistani and other religious leaders. The conflicts have proven intractable because there is a bitter competition for the resources of the State, control of the State and the right to determine the character and parameters of that State going forward (amongst other animating principles). Absent political/economic accords that satisfy enough of the warring groups along those lines (and others), a hundred fatwas will not pave the way for lasting peace.

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