Sunday, April 06, 2008

US air-strikes in Sadr City, and the political context of the War on Sadr (updated) (another update)

Since Thursday, April 3, US troops have been reported deploying in Sadr City, and an AP report on Friday associated this with an attempt to deter rocket-launching operations against the Green Zone.

Then on Saturday, at a meeting of a parliamentary committee (Political Council on National Security), the Green Zone parties (except for the Sadrists) backed Maliki's "crime-fighting" initiatives and approved the continuation of "operations under special laws", in effect giving him the green light to carry on against the Sadrists. (See the prior post here). Maliki stressed, implicitly or explicitly, the idea that the Basra "outlaw" groups represent a clear and present Iranian threat in Iraq. The Sadrist representative said this was a political attack on the Sadrists, and he said the US presence in the Green Zone, with night-time raids and mass arrests, constitutes collective punishment for having defended themselves (and naturally for opposing the US occupation).

Next: During the night from Saturday to Sunday, April 5 to 6, the US forces went from raids and arrests to large-scale attacks, based on the following reports: AP reported five killed and 17 wounded, including women and children, in "clashes" in Sadr City, then reported that at least 20 people died and 50 were wounded. Continuing into Sunday, AFP said a US airstrike killed nine people at 8:00 in the morning, a strike the US army confirmed, and that another airstrike involving two missiles at 11:00 in the morning, which wasn't "immediately confirmed". [Correction: "20 dead and 53 wounded" is reportedly total for the period Saturday night through noon Sunday, based on hospital sources, so it seems to include the airstrikes]. *

The chronology is important. The US forces didn't get involved in airstrikes and other major "clashes" until after the Political Council on National Security, including Sunni parties, had expressed its support for Maliki's extraordinary "law-enforcement" strategy. The key here is the Sunni parties, the largest bloc of which, the Iraqi Accord Front (IAF) reiterated its support for the Maliki military/law-enforcement campaigns, adding to warm feelings between them and the Maliki administration. Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said he hopes this will lead to a return of the IAF to the Maliki cabinet soon. The idea is embellished in the government paper AlSabah this morning, along with other wonderfully forward-looking ideas, including that of "restructuring a national-unity government".

So the political logic seems to be going like this: Sadr = Iran, therefore IAF links arms with Maliki. This isn't just another random move in the GreenZone musical-chairs routine. Rather, it represents a hoped-for accomplishment in the months-long US efforts to try and create in the GreenZone a government that would have a broader base than just Maliki and the Kurds, because the "Iraqi government" is going to have to sign a long-term security agreement with the US, and if the "Iraqi government" doesn't even have any Sunni Arab representation (not to mention the other missing parts), then the credibility and legitimacy of anything they sign with the US would be all the more questionable.

(This US effort to broaden the GreenZone government, under the rubric of "reconciliation", has been going on since the reported Dead Sea meetings and even before, but US secrecy and a general misunderstanding of what was going on, have made the process particularly hard to follow. Supposedly this has been a process of secret talks with the resistance, but probably it has been more of a series of probes to see who can be lured into the American-sponsored political process. In any event, the painting of Sadr as a clear and present Iranian danger in Iraq has perhaps done more than all of those talks put together, in getting Sunni groups to link arms with GreenZone administration).

* For more details and updates, with the links, see the first item under "Baghdad" at the Iraq Today blog, here.

ANOTHER UPDATE: The Gorillas Guides website has a report from an Iraqi in Baghdad with details on the situation in Sadr City, talking about a crisis of medical supplies at the Imam Ali Hospital in Sadr City, and on a spreading fire caused by US bombing of the central Jameela Market. (His heading is a typo for "April" 6 2008, not March)


Anonymous Tony Sayegh said...


What is your own, personal, view of Sadr?

Many supporters of the resistance earlier had hoped that he would join the "Sunni" resistance in a nation-wide resistance against the occupation. But then, the Mahdi army became a sectarian Shiite militia with its death squads and instead of fighting the occupation it engaged mostly in ethnic cleansing and the slaughter of Palestinians.

Are we supposed to forget this very dark chapter of Muqtada and embrace him again as a nationalist leader? And how about Iran's twists and turns? Are we to believe that Iran really wants the end of the US occupation and a free, united Iraq?

Your thoughts, please.

9:39 AM  
Blogger badger said...


This isn't going to satisfy you, but it's the best I can do.

In a nutshell: The alternative of having to "forget" this and "embrace" that doesn't really fit my case as a non-Iraqi (non-Arab) luckily sitting out of harm's way. If I "was there", so to speak, I might have to--and be able to--give you a straight answer, but in that case I would also have a lot more information and experience than I actually have, sitting here. It just seems it would be presumptuous to answer in that way.

Having said that, I do have a working hypothesis when it comes to interpreting what I read day by day, and in the case of "Iranian meddling", for instance, it is this: Iran is a regional power, and no matter what the outcome in Iraq, Iran will have its share of influence, and they are confident of that (assuming Iraqi Shiites aren't completely disenfranchised, which obviously won't happen). Just in the same way as for instance the US would react if Belgium, or France, say, invaded Canada and the French-Canadians and the English Canadians had some ugly periods. The US wouldn't really "take sides", but instead keep friends with all parties, looking to the day when Canadian stability was re-established and US influence would naturally resume. It would be Belgium, or France, that would be into the hysterical micro-management mode, blaming everything that went wrong on the US. In other words, I don't really think which way Iran leans in this or that case is all that decisive in the long run. Much more important is how the US tries to spin any Iranian role. And I think that's what we're seeing right now, and will be seeing more of when Petraeus testifies.

Plus, since I don't read Farsi, I see the "twists and turns" you refer to, as mostly the twists and turns in what I read in the corporate media about Iran, which isn't the same thing at all.

On Sadr: I don't have access to his soul or the ability to blame or exonerate people for acts and omissions over the years. For me, it comes down to the question whether he wants to throw out the occupiers and earn a leading place for himself and his followers in a new Iraq, or whether this is overshadowed by an urge to go out and kill more Sunnis. I see evidence for the first hypothesis, none for the second. But as I said, I'm a bystander trying to understand, not a participant who needs to answer those tougher kinds of "forget" or "embrace" questions.

12:46 PM  
Blogger badger said...

and btw, thanks for the nice highlighted summary of the latest post, which I just saw, over at your blog. I was afraid that point, being somewhat complicated, might get lost, but you really put it up there in lights...

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I don't quite understand:

Isn't Hakim the one with the long-standing and close ties with Iran? Aren't the ISCI guys those in Iraq who are "beholden" to Iran?

And aren't they at the same time now the closest buddies with Maliki?

If that is so, how do they manage to put Sadr into the pro-Iranian corner?

And how would anybody take Maliki seriously when he complains about "foreign (i.e. Iranian) intervention" in Basra?

Why would the IAF buy Maliki's line?

How come Maliki is so successful in painting Sadr "as a clear and present Iranian danger in Iraq", as you put it, badger?

I don't understand. Sigh.

Somebody explain, please. Thanks.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Tony Sayegh said...

Thanks Badger; I appreciate your objectivity. Please keep up with what is going on in Iraq and please keep supplying us with your interpretations. I visit your blog at least once a day.

1:43 PM  
Blogger annie said...

If that is so, how do they manage to put Sadr into the pro-Iranian corner?

iraqis don't really buy that do they? isn't that just in the western media? isn't that mainly a function of our propaganda artists?

1:43 PM  
Blogger badger said...

anonymous, Annie's right, painting Sadr into the Iranian corner is partly propaganda for the West, because it puts all the evil in one corner: Sadr who wants the occupier out, and Iran which is America's rival for influence. (And who knows if they're still into trying to gin up a war with Iran). BUT there are also some Sunni groups, of the GreenZone variety at least, that it seems are also going to be buying into the War on Sadr. The idea is that this Sadrist show of strength will be enough to rekindle that militant anti-Mahdi feeling from the ethnic-cleansing days and before. But we'll see. That part of the equation is something I deduced from (1) the fact that getting Sunni parties back into the government has been a long-time US priority, so no doubt they're been primed for this; and (2) the recent talk about the IAF rejoining the Maliki cabinet has been explicitly linked to "the new situation" or words to that effect.

If that part of the scheme crashes, you'll hear about it here first...

3:25 PM  
Blogger badger said...

On your other points, anonymous, about ISCI and Maliki being, in fact, tight with Iran, so how can Maliki now accuse Iran of being a danger, I don't have a good answer. Or any answer, really. My feeling is they're only going to (seem to be) anti-Iranian for these specific immediate purposes, but...

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Lysander said...

Badger, Paul Woodward's war in context links to an AP article saying Sadr faces isolation. If a broad government coalition does demand disbanding the Mahdi army, what's your prediction? Will they disband and if not, will the U.S. raze Sadr well as destroy them? Do you think the Militia could survive both military and political pressure? do you think Sadr has enough popularity to ride this out?

And what of the April 9 demo?

Sorry for asking so many questions.

9:40 PM  
Blogger annie said...

Iraq's Maliki threatens to bar Sadr from vote

BAGHDAD, April 7 (Reuters) - Iraq's prime minister raised the stakes in his showdown with followers of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, saying in an interview broadcast on Monday they would be barred from elections unless their militia disbands.

The comments followed an offensive by government forces into the cleric's Baghdad stronghold, the Shi'ite slum of Sadr City, in which heavy fighting returned to the capital after a week of relative calm when Sadr called his militiamen off the streets.

"A decision was taken ... that they no longer have a right to participate in the political process or take part in the upcoming elections unless they end the Mehdi Army," Maliki said in an interview with CNN, according to a report posted on the U.S. television network's Web site.

2:03 AM  
Blogger badger said...

Lysander, I can't answer all of that, but on the "isolation" theme, I think it's clear that the decision to declare war on the Mahdi Army was partly to scare more people and parties into the Maliki government (creating a "broader-based" government to sign the long-term bilateral security agreement). So it shouldn't be surprising if the Sadrists lose some ground in the GreenZone, while gaining ground on the street. I think that's the way it works.

annie: Hasn't Sadr already said they won't be contesting the local elections as a party? Rather, they will be a "movement". The GZ people might have to figure out another way to disqualify candidates...

5:12 AM  
Anonymous Steve said...


From talking to some in the Sunni community (though they'd reject the compartmentalizing terminology)and reading anecdotal evidence surrounding the possibilities of outreach from the likes of the Political Council etc, it seems that, based on the response to the bombing of the Askariya shrine, a great deal of blame has attached itself to Sadr and the Mahdi Army and includes the allegation of working for Iranian interests.

However, against that is the level of confidence shown by tribal leaders in the fact of their attendance at the Sadr organized conference in Khadamiya last month. To be able to persuade many of those people to attend must have required a certain amount of evidence that he was, indeed, a nationalist and that his allegations of infiltration of the MA had some merit.

This is why I was so interested in the sourcing of the information contained in the stories you posted from Kuwait and Lebanon a few days ago.


7:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

based on the response to the bombing of the Askariya shrine, a great deal of blame has attached itself to Sadr and the Mahdi Army and includes the allegation of working for Iranian interests.

you mean sunnis blame the organized death squads on badr, carried out by sadr? the problem w/laying the blame for this on the shine bombing is the unlikeliness the US summer campaign (weirdly called operation forward together lol) wasn't likely planned in advance or in sync w/the bombing as a form of justified genocide against the sunni community also stimulating sectarian hatred providing an escalation of the war prior to the US presidential elections. it bolstered the pro war position going into the elections and served that faction also leading to the justification for the surge.

in other words, it worked to the advantage of the US as much as any perceived advantage to Irans position.


11:21 AM  
Blogger badger said...

Steve, here's the whole relevant section from the Al-Akhbar piece that you're referring to:

Analysts think the American plan to strike [the Mahdi Army] could succeed, because the Shiite organization obtained a very poor reputation at the time of the sectarian fighting. And the government faces the same problem. It is well-known among Iraqis that the Sadr trend in general, and the Mahdi Army in particular, are (or "were"? Arabic doesn't require an actual verb in that spot, you have to supply it) penetrated beyond measure, because the setup in the security ministries, and the Interior Ministry in particular, guaranteed that the majority of the officers would be from the militias of the Badr Organization of the [Supreme concil] and from the Dawa Militias, who assigned executive missions to [I think this just means hired people] who for the most part were members of the Sadrist trend, which made the Mahdi Army, in the eyes of Iraqis, [seem to be] the executive tool in the sectarian fighting.

Meaning the high-class Badr/Dawa people gave the orders and street folks who happened to be in the Sadr trend carried them out. Just something "well-known to Iraqis..."

Next, on to that other piece, coming right up...

11:43 AM  
Blogger badger said...

The op-ed in the Kuwaiti paper Awan, in the relevant part, said that post-Feb 2006 "the Shiite parties encouraged" the Sadrist trend to "take revenge" on the other side, and he expresses this as being "involved in the ugliest sectarian fighting Iraq has seen in recent centuries", going on to note that the governments of Jaafari and Maliki, and ministers associated with Hakim, gave them governmental cover along with official cars, permits, and so on.

These two articles (AlAkhbar and Awan) have different points to make. But what initially struck me was that they both referred to the importance of Sadr's having allied himself with Sunni/Allawi people as a trigger for the crisis. But as you point out, another common feature is this idea that there were two levels in the Shiite side of the sectarian fighting, the Sadrist level being the lower one.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Thanks both Badger and Annie.

The point I was trying to make is that the Sunni community in Iraq broadly believe the Kuwaiti narrative spelled out above. This is not at all surprising, of course, given the complete lack pf first hand reporting on the subject and the bombardment of the Iraqi people with the same kind of information. Read the COIN manual for more detail on the importance of that.

This points to the importance of Sadr needing to make his case, plainly and convincingly that either the Lebanese narrative is true or that the Sadrists had nothing whatsoever to do with any of it. Both of these are far more likely than the Sadr in cahoots with ISCI/Dawa but that belief is powerful and, quite frankly, supported somewhat by the element of class prejudice endemic against the Sadrists.

It makes no sense for Sadr to be a sectarian nationalist - a totally ridiculous concept in Iraq - but for these outside commentators to talk about something "well known to Iraqis.." isn't really helpful to us.

With that information to hand we still end up reading the tea leaves, as with the possible background to Sadr being able to convene the Khadamiya conference or the few other snippets we see around the place.

What we're left with is a chasm between the nationalists of Iraq which, if it didn't exist, would lead the way to some sort of political direction that could bring peace and stability in a post-occupation scenario.

All very frustrating


12:34 PM  
Blogger annie said...

What we're left with is a chasm between the nationalists of Iraq which, if it didn't exist, would lead the way to some sort of political direction that could bring peace and stability in a post-occupation scenario.

that seems highly speculative.

interesting comment. especially in light of badgers new post, hadly's quote, and the hatchet effect pdf file in the last link.

1:03 PM  
Blogger annie said...

steve, perhaps i was not following your thought all the way thru. are you saying if the nationalists united it would lead to eventual stability?

because they still would have to deal w/the federalist threat of dividing iraq. someone has to win out. i can't quite see how the nationalists chasm is the only obstacle in the path of political direction and peace.

perhaps i am not comprehending your meaning.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Annie, yes, that is what I'm saying.

The great fear of the US and the Green Zone government was never a military alliance between the Sunni and Shi'a nationalists. We saw that in 2004 and beyond and it was put on hold by "anti-Shi'a" bombing campaign and the shrine attack. Additionally it was never really a threat to the US long term presence because it could be sold to the American people as yet more "insurgency" that could be put down with yet more killing. That's not a hard sell, I'm afraid.

What really rattled them was the possibility of a political coalition. That doesn't necessarily mean one that takes its seats in parliament (see the Sinn Fein move of the '80's)but one that demonstrates its overwhelming popularity in the country and uses that to push for a withdrawal timetable, perhaps setting up a government in exile in order to labor the point.

One of the main things we learned in the making of our film was the importance of the leadership/follower relationship within the Sunni part of the resistance. There is nothing that can be negotiated by any leadership structure until a timetable has been implemented. However, that doesn't discount demonstrating a political structure in readiness for the day and, in my opinion, will be the beginning of a solution for Iraq and its people.

4:36 AM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Forgot to mention a couple of things.

The federalist/partitionist side of the civil war is only able to exist under the protection of the US military and would probably begin their own withdrawal at the announcement of a timetable. Of course, some would remain but - as we've seen the past few days - couldn't even prevail with US air support, let alone without it.

One last thing I intended to throw into the tea leaf reading: Was the Sadr ceasefire call a few days ago also partly intended as a message to the Sunni community and, more broadly, the tribes? The message being, I'm back in control.


4:45 AM  
Blogger annie said...

thanks for elaborating steve, very helpful

10:02 AM  

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