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Patrick Cockburn: Shia Schism

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    Shia Schism A New Struggle is Beginning in Iraq By PATRICK COCKBURN http://groups.yahoo.com/group/libertyunderground/ The old war was primarily between the
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 8, 2008
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      Shia Schism
      A New Struggle is Beginning in Iraq
      By PATRICK COCKBURN
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/libertyunderground/


      The old war was primarily between the Sunni community -- which
      contested the American occupation -- and an Iraqi government
      dominated by the Shia in alliance with the Kurds. That conflict has
      not ended. But the most important battles likely to be waged in Iraq
      this year will be within the Shia community. They pit the US-backed
      Iraqi government against the supporters of the radical cleric
      Muqtada al-Sadr, who represents the impoverished Shia masses of
      Iraq. `The Shia are the majority in Iraq and the Sadrists are a
      majority of this majority,' a former Shia minister told me. `They
      make up 30 to 40 per cent of the total Iraqi population.' The
      population of Iraq is 27 million: on this ex-minister's calculation,
      up to ten million of them support Muqtada.

      The result of underestimating the fighting power and popular support
      of the Sadrists was demonstrated at the end of March in the battle
      for Basra, which was unexpectedly launched by Nouri al-Maliki with
      his sudden announcement that he was going to end militia rule in the
      city, Iraq's second largest. He left the Green Zone in Baghdad to
      take command, provoking derisive references among Iraqi politicians
      to `General Maliki'. He demanded that militiamen hand over their
      weapons in three days and promise to reject violence for good; he
      threatened to crush them if they did not. George Bush called it `a
      defining moment' for the new Iraq.

      For once Bush may be right; though, as when he stood beneath the
      triumphant slogan `Mission Accomplished' in 2003, he may not
      understand the seriousness of the fight he is getting into. The Shia
      community is splitting apart after five years of solidarity. It is a
      split not just between the government and the militias but between
      rich and poor. Maliki's main supporters -- his own Dawa party has a
      small base -- are the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and its
      Badr militia. ISCI draws its support primarily from the established
      Shia clergy, the merchants and the Shia middle class. But ever since
      ISCI was founded in Iran in 1982 at an early stage in the Iraq-Iran
      war the party has always lacked popular backing. It won an unsavory
      reputation for interrogating and torturing Iraqi prisoners: this did
      not stop it becoming a firm ally of the US occupation after the fall
      of Saddam Hussein.

      Muqtada has long tried to avoid an all-out military confrontation
      with his Shia rivals while they still have the support of the US. On
      April 7 he even said he would dissolve the Mehdi Army if asked to do
      so by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other leading Shia clerics in
      Iran. There is less to this promise than meets the eye. It is easy
      enough for Iraqi militias to disband, take their weapons with them,
      and reassemble the following morning.

      The new conflict has another aspect: it is also a proxy struggle
      between the US and Iran. This has been going on ever since the
      American invasion. But, for all Washington's attempts to prove
      otherwise, the Sunni insurgency was primarily supported by the Sunni
      Arab states to the west of Iraq. The Sadrists have traditionally
      been highly suspicious of the Iranians. From the beginning, Muqtada
      was the only Shia leader who has always opposed the US occupation.
      His militiamen fought two furious battles with US Marines for the
      Shia holy city of Najaf in April and August 2004. They suffered
      heavy casualties, but survived; and Muqtada became politically
      stronger. In public he said he was shifting from military to
      political resistance. But, in confronting the US, he is forced to
      look to Iranian political and military support. `The Iranians cannot
      afford to see Muqtada eliminated or seriously weakened,' says
      Ghassan Attiyah, an Iraqi political scientist. In Iran's battle with
      the US for influence over the Iraqi Shia, Muqtada plays too
      important a role for Iran to see him crushed.

      Confrontation, and even war, with Iran is politically easier to sell
      in the US than support for the continuing war inside Iraq. The
      Democratic Party may want to withdraw troops from Iraq but its
      leaders try to outdo each other in condemning Iran. General David
      Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, has been blaming Iran as the
      hidden hand behind the latest fighting in Baghdad and Basra. He dID
      the same when he appeared before Congress on April 8 to give
      evidence about why, over the last few months, Iraq has become more
      and not less violent. He had a lot of explaining to do. With US
      television showing armed men in the streets, burned-out vehicles and
      smoke rising over Baghdad and Basra, his claims about the success of
      the `surge' looked much less convincing than they did at the end of
      last year.Petraeus says that the number of American soldiers in Iraq
      should not be reduced below the level they were at before the surge
      started -- which makes his claims of military success look dubious.
      The 3.2 million Iraqis, one in nine of the population, who fled to
      Syria, Jordan and elsewhere in Iraq, have not been coming home
      because they think it is too dangerous for them to do so; they are
      right.

      I drove around central Baghdad just before the latest round of
      fighting between the Americans and the Iraqi army against the Mehdi
      Army. It was a little easier to travel than a year earlier. In the
      mixed Yarmouk district of the city on the west bank of the Tigris
      River, the hospital used to be run by the Mehdi Army; Sunni were
      terrified to go there. Now the militiaman have left and Sunni are
      going to the hospital again. At an intersection half a mile away
      there used to be a Sunni-controlled checkpoint: any Shia who was
      detected at it was killed on the spot and their bodies left lying
      beside the road. Now the checkpoint has gone. I visited al-Kindi
      Street, full of doctors' offices and coffee shops: now, once more,
      there are people in the street.

      But the revival of city life is never necessarily lasting: things, I
      thought, could change within hours. I remembered Beirut during the
      Lebanese civil wars in the 1970s and 1980s: there would be lulls in
      the fighting for weeks or months on end and Hamra Street in the
      centre of Ras Beirut would once again be filled with bustling
      shoppers and the beaches would be crowded. The Lebanese would say
      dolefully that nothing was solved and the fighting would begin
      sooner or later: they were always right. In the case of Baghdad this
      March the lull ended sooner than expected. I had taken a look at the
      luxury shops in the al-Mansur district -- many were open -- but a
      few days later a friend was walking there when several four-wheel
      drives with darkened windows appeared. He assumed they were carrying
      senior government officials -- but then the windows were rolled down
      and Mehdi Army militiamen opened fire, killing one policeman and
      wounding two others.

      I spent a night in al-Khadamiyah, an ancient Shia district centred
      on a Shia shrine surrounded by shops selling gold jewellery and
      cheap restaurants for pilgrims. Some Shia friends suggested I come
      with them to the shrine; if anybody asked who I was, they advised me
      to say I was a Turk. This seemed a dangerous idea: we gave it up as
      we approached the shrine and saw the tight security. We went to see
      Ayatollah Hussein al-Sadr, a relative of Muqtada of moderate views,
      who was giving his blessings to Shia dignitaries, and we spent the
      night in a hotel which is, in effect, his guesthouse. There were
      plenty of soldiers and police in the streets but I would not have
      stayed if I had not been under the protection of the Ayatollah.

      Again the appearance of calm was deceptive. Two weeks later American
      helicopters were bombarding Mehdi Army positions in al-Khadamiyah.
      Fighting between ISCI and the Sadrists has been increasing over the
      past year but local turf wars had never previously spilled over into
      all of Shia Iraq. As the Iraqi army started to advance in Basra at
      the end of March it became clear that Maliki's offensive was
      targeted solely against the Mehdi Army. It did not touch the other
      two main militias in Basra, the Badr Organisation and Fadhila, a
      Sadrist splinter group powerful in the oilfields. Iraqis were not
      persuaded by Maliki's argument that his aim was to eliminate
      criminal gangs in Basra. Banditry is obviously rife: a businessman
      friend told me that, to move a container from Umm Qasr port near
      Basra to Arbil in northern Iraq, he had recently paid $500 in
      transport fees and $3000 in bribes. Given that government officials
      in Baghdad seldom do anything without a bribe, Maliki's claim that
      he would end criminality in Basra was never going to be convincing.

      That air of fantasy surrounded all Maliki's demands. The government
      had about 15,000 troops and the same number of policemen in Basra,
      but they were never going to penetrate the narrow alleyways in the
      sprawling slums in the north and west of the city. In most cases
      they did not even try. Muqtada's forces responded, as they have in
      the past when facing a single attack, by spreading the battle to
      Baghdad and every other Shia city and town where their forces are
      strong. Local Sadrists were soon telling Iraqi police and soldiers
      at checkpoints in and around Sadr City -- often referred to as a
      district of Baghdad though in reality a twin city with a population
      of two million -- to get out and go home. Instead of militiamen
      handing over their weapons to the Iraqi security forces, Iraqis
      found they were watching television pictures of Iraqi police
      surrendering their weapons -- and receiving a sprig of olive and a
      Koran in return -- from clerics supporting Muqtada.

      There were other humiliations for the government. For months the
      main Iraqi spokesman for the surge -- its official Iraqi name is the
      Baghdad Security Plan -- has been Tahsin al-Shaikhly. He regularly
      appeared on television to claim that security was improving,
      electricity supplies becoming more plentiful and life in Baghdad
      generally getting easier. Two days after Maliki's offensive began,
      al-Shaikhly was kidnapped. According to eyewitnesses, the
      kidnappers -- al-Shaikhly himself tells a slightly different story --
      were uniformed Iraqi police commandos driving a dozen Toyota Land
      Cruisers. They shot dead al-Shaikhly's three bodyguards, set fire to
      his house and took him to a safe house from which he was allowed to
      telephone a television station in order to call on Maliki not to
      attack the Mehdi Army.

      Why did the Iraqi army fail? Training a new army has been at the
      centre of British and American policy for the last four years. At
      checkpoints in Baghdad these days, Iraqi soldiers now look better
      armed; they use modern communications equipment and wear bullet-
      proof vests. A few years ago Iraqi soldiers were driving around
      Baghdad in ageing white pick-up trucks that were previously used to
      carry cabbages and cauliflowers to market; now they have second-hand
      American Humvees. Well-paid by Iraqi standards, and backed up by US
      air power, the army was expected to give a better account of itself.
      Yet, in gun battles in towns and cities across southern Iraq, the
      army either failed to fight or was driven back by the militiamen.

      Four days into Maliki's offensive, the Mehdi Army controlled three-
      quarters of Basra and half of Baghdad. To prevent a complete rout,
      American helicopters and attack aircraft started to take an
      increasing part in the fighting. The isolated British soldiers at
      Basra airport -- 4,100 were stationed there -- fired their artillery
      in support of beleaguered Iraqi army units. A curfew in Baghdad
      caused resentment because people had been taken by surprise by the
      outbreak and had not, as they usually do when they see a crisis
      coming, stocked up on food and supplies.

      As the Iraqi army began to fail the Americans moved quickly to prop
      it up. Air controllers to marshal air strikes were sent to Iraqi
      army units. A team of senior American advisers was sent to Basra.
      This may explain why Muqtada agreed to a ceasefire. The Mehdi Army
      had already shown it could fight off the Iraqi army and police, but
      the Americans might be a different matter. Even so, the short war
      between Muqtada and the government was revealing as to who really
      holds power in Iraq. A delegation of Shia leaders went to Iran. They
      talked to Muqtada in the holy city of Qom, and to General Qassem
      Sulaymani, the head of the Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary
      Guard, who oversees Iranian involvement in Iraq. He has long been an
      American bĂȘte noir and last year US special forces tried to kidnap
      him during an official visit to the Kurdish president. Maliki seems
      to have been told of the agreement only after it was reached, but
      its terms were that the Mehdi Army would not give up its arms, the
      government offensive would stop and militia members would no longer
      be arrested without warrants. The Americans, who normally react
      furiously to any sign of Iranian interference in Iraq, said nothing
      about the fact that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were
      negotiating peace terms between the government and its enemies.

      The Americans said nothing because the abortive attack on Basra was,
      for them, a nightmare. The claim that the surge was the first step
      in restoring peace to |Iraq was exposed as a myth. American military
      casualties might be down -- but some two thousand Iraqis were killed
      in March. American politicians ran for cover. While I was in Baghdad
      in March, Senator John McCain visited, at the same time as Vice-
      President Dick Cheney. Both expressed confidence that security was
      improving. McCain happily told CNN that Muqtada's `influence has
      been on the wane for a long time'. Three weeks later, McCain was
      denying he had ever said such a thing; what he had said, he
      insisted, was that `he was still a major player and his influence is
      going to have to be reduced and gradually eliminated.' Given that
      Muqtada is the most powerful Shia leader, and that his militiamen
      had just shown they could defeat the Iraqi army, this would mean
      that McCain, if elected president, would fight a war with Iraq's 17
      million Shia.

      By this time, American generals and politicians were saying that
      they had known nothing about Maliki's disastrous offensive until the
      last minute -- conveniently forgetting that the Americans had been
      urging Iraqi prime ministers to attack the Mehdi Army since 2004. It
      was the failure of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the previous Iraqi prime
      minister, to initiate such an attack that turned the Americans
      against him. Four years ago, Paul Bremer, the US viceroy in Iraq,
      was demanding that Iraqi ministers refer to the Mehdi Army
      as `Muqtada's militia'. Bremer called him an Iraqi Hitler in the
      making and made a disastrous attempt to eliminate him in April 2004,
      an attempt that was similar in many ways to Maliki's offensive on
      Basra last month. Bremer too grossly underestimated Muqtada: his
      supporters took over most of southern Iraq in a few days.

      The Iraqi government, ISCI, the Kurds and the Americans all felt
      threatened by Muqtada's men. The Green Zone was coming under daily
      fire from Sadr City. ISCI in particular wants to defeat the Sadrists
      before the provincial elections in October, in which it is expected
      to do badly and the Sadrists well. The government dismissed soldiers
      who had refused to fight in the March campaign and is reported to
      have recruited 25,000 tribal levies. The Americans have long been
      hoping to repeat their triumph in Anbar province in 2007, when Sunni
      tribal leaders allied themselves with the US against al-Qaida in
      Iraq. Maliki's advisers felt that if the Iranians had not interfered
      then the army might have given a better account of itself. But from
      the Sadrist point of view the humiliation of the government was
      almost too complete. The Sadrists admitted that they were becoming
      isolated. `A decision has been taken,' Maliki said in early April.
      The Sadrists will `no longer have a right to participate in the
      political process, or take part in the upcoming election, unless
      they end the Mehdi Army'.

      The statement was hypocritical: the Kurdish peshmerga and ISCI's
      Badr Organisation are both militias that have been effectively
      incorporated into the Iraqi army and police. But the Sadrists were
      in a difficult position. Shia solidarity was breaking down. Muqtada
      has always been good tactician. He called a million person
      demonstration for 9 April, the fifth anniversary of the fall of
      Saddam Hussein, to demand an end to the occupation. `He needs,' an
      Iraqi observer said, `to show that his movement's popularity is
      still as great as its military strength.'


      Patrick Cockburn is the the author of "Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the
      Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq."

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