Friday, April 4, 2008

Basra Aftermath: Prelude to The Coming Storm

As Moqtada al Sadr continues trying to engage in peaceful democratic action (proclaiming ceasefires, calling for demonstrations), Washington, Maliki, and Hakim seem intent on provoking decisive fighting. This is a dangerous gamble to consolidate control before 1) Iraqi provincial elections in which Moqtada may do very well and 2) the end of Bush’s time in office. The plan evidently remains in place despite the initial reverse suffered in Basra (see the detailed March 31 discussion here for the opposite viewpoint - that Moqtada lost in Basra). The longer it continues without clear success, the more impressive Moqtada will appear to be, the more angry his forces under attack will become, and the better Moqtada’s long-term political chances.

Maliki is taking an offensive stance. First, he has begun purging the army of pro-Sadr soldiers, replacing them with Badr Corps militiamen; where will the “thousands” of suddenly unemployed soldiers turn now? (Hint: what did the Sunni soldiers do after they were fired by the US in 2003?) Second, he has promised to continue his campaign against “criminal gangs,” a thinly veiled threat directed at Moqtada’s faction. Third, the Iraqi army made a show of force that provoked renewed fighting in Basra.

Four days after the alleged “radical” Moqtada agreed to a ceasefire in Basra, the U.S. is also on the offensive, bombing the city, killing civilians. In another apparent attack on Moqtada’s militia, a U.S. helicopter fired on the city of Hilla, killing policemen and wounding civilians, following an attack on U.S. troops (?) curiously wearing civilian clothes. Given Iraqi security conditions, why wouldn’t a local militia attack armed civilian strangers? In Baghdad itself, U.S. forces are raiding Sadr City, which is essentially under siege in a collective punishment strategy that is becoming reminiscent of the criminal Israeli treatment of Gaza.

The attacks on Moqtada’s forces seem more than sufficient to anger and inspire resistance but well short of what would be required to compel submission. If Washington’s goal is truly to pacify Iraq under consolidated control, time before the Bush Administration leaves office seems very short; if the goal is just to keep the lid on until next January, then the time seems very long indeed and the tactic of dribbling gasoline on the flames seems a curious one.

In any case, the Iraqi situation appears to be approaching a critical point, with the government warning that it will use force to disarm Sadr’s militia if he does not comply by the April 8 deadline, Sadr calling for a demonstration on April 9 and demanding that the newly enlisted Badr Corps militiamen be removed from the Iraqi army.

Given the rising military power of the Sunnis in the absence of integration into the government, Kurdish standoffishness, and apparent hardening of intra-Shi'ite hostility, the longer term prospects for Iraqi sociopolitical stability look dim as well. As I discussed earlier in reference to the Islamic world as a whole, to classify all non-state actors in a society that lacks a modern state structure as illegitimate and define them as enemies is simply illogical. First, it is not obvious that they have any less legitimacy than an unrepresentative state. Second, the more they are denied access to the official political system, the more they will strive to thrive outside it.

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