Sunday, May 25, 2008

Now playing

The Nahrainnet article referred to in the prior post ends like this:
And people of religion asked the Sistani office and the other authorities to intervene to prevent American intelligence from controlling the city of Hussein, peace be upon him,
in effect making this another direct challenge to Sistani and his Najaf colleagues, on the lines of the Haeri statement of last Wednesday which challenged them to take a clear stand against the proposed bilateral security agreement. In fact, one view is that these events, and the AP story about armed resistance to the occupation, are part of a continuing series of challenges to Sistani and and the other Najaf authorities, the AP story being in effect a similar challenge, in that case to either confirm or deny support for armed resistance.

If we step back, we an see that there are really two main families of theories about the AP story and the surrounding Sistani news:

(1) The above-mentioned "challenge to Sistani" theory, according to which these represent pressure on Sistani on behalf of the Sadrists and like-minded people who want to see the Najaf authorities take a stronger and clearer line against continued American military involvement in the country, and they are challenging the authorities to do so.

(2) Another theory is that the AP story (and a supporting item Juan Cole dug up this morning in Farsi, to the effect Sistani has banned sale of food to the American forces) represent first and foremost a move by Sistani and his circle to start hinting at a tougher position against the Americans, in implicit support of the Sadrist position. This might represent "real" toughening, or merely "image improvement," but the main point of this family of theories is that the stories are mostly being initiated by the Najaf side, not by the challengers.

The first point to notice is that the two theories are not mutually exclusive. Both of these moves could be going on at the same time. The second point is if there is any toughening or image-improvement by the Sistani group in Iraq, it is completely invisible. No attempt was made to put the implications of the AP story into the Iraqi news system. And as far as the Karbala office-opening is concerned, there isn't any suggestion of any "hinting at a tougher position" on the part of Sistani there either. In fact the brazenness of the Americans' idea of having their first big provincial ribbon-cutting right in the religious heart of Iraq suggests the Americans, for their part, don't think there's any such thing as a Sistani tightening, implicit or otherwise.

On the other hand, the "challenge to Sistani" theory finds support not only in this type of story, but also in such things as a re-reporting of the Wai'li/Fadhila attack on the Supreme Council and the Najaf authorities today in the Jordanian paper Al-Ghad (pretty much verbatim from the report last Tuesday, May 20 in Akhbar al-Khaleej, summarized in this earlier post). (Although this is an outright attack, it fits the "challenge" theory in the sense that it is added pressure on Sistani to do something to re-establish popular credibility). And in the report from an Iranian news agency about Sistani's alleged opposition to the the proposed bilateral agreement (the point again being: why doesn't he announce this).

So in terms of Arabic coverage, there are these "challenges", and if there is any response indicating to Iraqis any "tougher position" from Najaf, it is completely invisible.

However, there is another point, so obvious to English-language readers that they might overlook it entirely. The Sistani image-enhancement that appears to be so lacking in Arabic-language coverage is abundantly overflowing in the coverage by the big-circulation IC blog.

--Friday, after swallowing the AP story whole, Cole writes: "the risk that his silence would produce a backlash against him in favor of Muqtada al-Sadr, may have helped impel Sistani toward this militancy." --Saturday, having found only two lines in a Sharq al-Awsat story in support: "The phone conversation that Al-Sharq al-Awsat had with the aide in Najaf suggests that if Sistani hasn't already started authorizing attacks on foreign soldiers in Iraq, he may not be far from it." --Sunday, having dug up the don't-sell-food-to-Americans fatwa in Farsi: "But if Sistani is laying the grounds for a Gandhi-style non-cooperation movement, he certainly could put a crimp in the American military's style in Iraq." In short, this is a picture of an activist/militant Sistani, not yet out of the closet perhaps, but getting there, methodically.

I think it is obviously speculative to say what Sistani has in mind with respect to image or strategy in Iraq. What is not at all speculative is to understand that if American opinion (which is in favor of withdrawal) were to turn against Maliki/Hakim and their Najaf support-team, the result could be to threaten the continuation of US military support for them in the coming administration. Maliki/Hakim and their Najaf support-team need to be presented to the American people as closet supporters of the "withdraw-the-troops" movement, in order to keep the ball in motion. It is of course a tough sell. But when it comes to info-ops, experience should have told us by now that no job is too tough.

The result is that we are being treated to a double-feature: First, investment-promotion and the touting of Iraq as the biggest developing-country market in the world, secure and politically stable to boot. And secondly, the best part about it is that the ruling bloc with their support-team can't wait to join up with the "American-troop-withdrawal" movement. You couldn't fool Iraqis with this kind of thing, but the Americans?


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