Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Straws in the wind

The large-circulation paper Azzaman, often a voice representing the Sunni establishment or a major part of it, treated the Najaf demonstration this way: On their front page, in both the Iraqi and the UK editions, they ran a big picture from Reuters showing the crowd and the massed Iraqi flags (but not showing any of the "No to America" or other slogans), with a caption referring to the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad "where there continues to be lack of security and kidnapping and killing on a sectarian basis, and unemployment", not mentioning Sadr. And there wasn't any article about the demo anywhere on the front page. The lead story started off with an account of the war of words between the Kurdish leader Barzani and the Turkish Prime Minister over Kirkuk and other issues, followed by a mention of surge-related military moves, and only then, very much in passing, does the journalist mention the demo, as follows:
The White House, for its part, minimized the importance of the Najaf demonstration, and affirmed that Moqtada al-Sadr is in Iran. On another issue, American and Iraqi forces succeeded in cleansing Diwaniya of the militias of the Mahdi Army, and arrested 60 of its members. Meanwhile, the American army announced a curfew in Falluja and Hit...and threw a cordon around Ramadi. In the Turkish-Kurdish crisis, the Kurds want to hold a referendum on Kirkuk... [and the subject of the Najaf demo doesn't come up again]
Azzaman has been a vociferously nationalist and anti-occupation paper, one dramatic example being its crusading opposition to the parliamentary vote on federalism procedures last November. It is true that there has never been any love lost between the Baathists and the Sadrists (and the video of the Saddam execution didn't help matters), but what appears be happening is that, as far as Azzaman is concerned, anti-Sadr feelings have morphed into a species of support for the occupation. Hence the reporter here drops the news of the demo entirely (after noting only that the White House minimized its importance) and touts instead the fact that the American and Iraqi forces have "succeeded in cleansing Diwaniya" from the Sadrists.

(The same process seems to be going on in other corners of the world, for instance in the "progressive" American blogs. Swopa at Needlenose, reporting about the demo, calls Sadr a "populist cleric/thug", while most others, following the lead of Azzaman and the White House, are content to minimize the importance of the Najaf demo by ignoring it).

These are what you could call the "commonplace-truth" building blocks for a "new" policy on Iraq, one that will be transferable to the Democrats, modeled on the "Saddam the devil" propaganda of the 2003 period: The first of these building blocks is the "social-science" campaign to establish a commonplace truth to the effect Iraq is no longer a case of resistance to foreign occupation, because it is now a case of "civil war", where the fact of social disintegration, a result of the occupation, is being turned into its justification. (See Flim-Flam and earlier related posts). The second of these building-blocks is the demonization of Sadr, supposed catalyst of the civil war. The aim is to set up a structure of unassailable commonplaces in support of prolonged US military involvement in Iraq, based this time on the idea of saving the Iraqi people from themselves. It wasn't just the lies about WMD that were decisive in 2003, it was more fundamentally the climate of know-nothing demonization. Opponents of the "preventive" invasion were vilified as coddlers and facilitators of a mass-murderer, and believe it or not the same is going to be said about opponents of a prolonged "humanitarian" military involvement.


Blogger Dancewater said...

I wish you would put this up on Daily Kos. It is worth sharing to more people.

I will link to you on my post for Iraq Today.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Eric Martin said...

The same process seems to be going on in other corners of the world, for instance in the "progressive" American blogs. Swopa at Needlenose, reporting about the demo, calls Sadr a "populist cleric/thug", while most others, following the lead of Azzaman and the White House, are content to minimize the importance of the Najaf demo by ignoring it.

I'm not quite sure you're being fair to Swopa here. He's been consistently one of the most astute observers of the situation in Iraq, and I don't think he is particularly guilty of Sadr demonization. He calls em like he see's em, and has used harsh language for all parties and leaders - American and Iraqi - when applicable.

You might want to clarify what you're getting at here, because I may be misreading you.

E. Martin

1:12 PM  
Blogger badger said...

Come on Eric, if a leader of several million people, bitter opponent of US policy, targeted by the US military, is called a "thug", people will get on the bandwagon. That doesn't ring a bell with you ? Let him speak for himself.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Eric Martin said...

I'll let him speak for himself. He is quite capable.

But it should be noted that when the "leader" in question is also (at the very least) complicit in, and perhaps coordinating, the operations of a network of death squads that act in his name, who exact extra-judicial, vigilante justice in the form of on-the-spot executions, then the word "thug" might apply.

For example, although Augusto Pinochet was a leader of several million people, I would be quite comfortable describing him as a "thug" because of the manner in which he chose to lead.

If you want to call that "demonization," that's your prerogative. But on the flip side, you could be accused of being an apologist if you failed to acknowledge the brutality and lack of respect for human rights in Sadr's methods and tactics. Not saying this is fair, but if we're only talking about "ringing bells," well...

I'm not saying that you, or anyone else, should use a particular term like "thug." But to deny what Sadr and his followers have been doing, and are doing, in Iraq is a type of blinkered analysis that I won't buy into. Even if that particular rhetorical bit ties into, by happenstance, the Bush administration's strategic overview.

Clearly, the fact that Sadr happens to be anti-occupation is what the Bush administration considers the big sticking point. They are not offended by the use of death squads per se, as long as they're amenable to our presence. Which Sadr clearly isn't, but SCIRI has been (at least in appearances up till now). So, disparate treatment.

And you are right that this might open the door for bandwagon jumping, but again, when someone like Swopa uses it, he's not trying to whip up war frenzy - nor does he suggest that Sadr is the cause of the civil war.


2:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or it is more than possible that Sadr is not a thug but simply lost control over his movement to extremeist thug elements, not unlike what happened last October when ALQI declared the Islamic State of Iraq and now forcefully demands the insurgency unite under an AlQI self appointed caliph?

3:11 PM  
Blogger badger said...

dancewater, thanks for the kind remarks, but for some reason I feel posting on Kos would be out of character somehow...

3:18 PM  
Blogger badger said...

gj, that is a ridiculous analogy

3:20 PM  
Blogger badger said...

thank you eric, I think you win the prize with the Pinochet analogy. Well done!

3:22 PM  
Blogger annie said...

having met the man i really cannot be the judge. but, i sure know what i'm being programmed to believe.

Omar has an interesting post from last fall. sadr has millions of followers, i am not sure how responsible he is operating death squads, at least not the formal ones, say, like the one run out of the ministry of interior by the guy who met george at the WH, that would be hakim thugsupreme. sadr also didn't call for a massacre of baathists like hakim did.

i am not suggesting swopa is trying to whip up war frenzy, i am just suggesting perhaps someone got too close to the kool aid and inhaled. sadr may be a thug, but relatively speaking i'm not sure how accurate the term is. i don't here swopa calling marines thugs.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Eric Martin said...


Pardon any defensiveness in my tone.

You know I'm a fan of your work. Sometimes I just speak up more when I disagree with you, because I agree so much that you'd get tired of me repeating that ad nauseum ;)


3:50 PM  
Blogger Eric Martin said...


If you want to argue that Hakim/Jafari/Badr are bigger thugs, fine by me. I do know that Swopa has used those terms - and worse - to describe those parties.

Nor do I buy the claim that Sadr is solely a victim of unruly and insubordinate underlings. Some Mahdi cadres are freelancing, others, not so much. Further, just because Sadr is singled out as "enemy #1" for reasons that have more to do with his hostility to the US presence than his operation of, and complicity in, death squad operations, does not mean he's not a thug.

For example: Saddam was public enemy #1 at some point in our recent history. We were "programmed" to think so, even though there have been worse "thugs" in history (recent and distant) and even though he was our erstwhile ally. Saddam's particular crimes (heinous as they were) were exaggerated, deliberately, and for a purpose.

Still, that should not change the fact that Saddam was a reprehensible, murderous, sadistic, and sociopathic thug. Halabja doesn't evaporate from history just because the Bush team labeled Saddam a certain way.

You can be both you know: America's enemy, and an actual malevolent force. Nothing - not even Bush administration propaganda - should prevent us from identifying cruelty and injustice where it exists.

Similarly, I don't think you need to be drinking any "kool aid" to recognize that Sadr is a demagogue, prone to employing vigilante justice that involves summary execution, and, generally speaking, a man with little respect for basic human rights. Add to that, an unhealthy thirst for power, and you have a noxious cocktail.

Heck, part of his popularity derives from the fact that aggrieved Shiites know that Sistani can't deliver the same way Sadr can when vengeance is required.

4:05 PM  
Blogger badger said...

That is quite an orgy of name-calling, Eric, and definitely in your enthusiasm you do call to mind the 2003 era, underlining my, and I think Annie's, point. The actual Saddam trials had some problems, but it sounds as if when it comes to Sadr you will have lots of rock-solid evidence to present.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Questions of Eric's vocabulary notwithstanding, he's represented my views quite accurately. The main thing that opened the door to your misinterpretation was that I didn't insert prophylactic clauses about Hakim et al. being just as thuggish. (Hakim/Badr and Sadr/Mahdi Army are essentially two sides of the same coin.)

Since it sounds like a good excuse for a post, though, I'll try to round up some quick evidence of Sadr's thuggishness dating back to 2003.

5:16 PM  
Blogger badger said...

Why not a whole series on thugs? Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish, American...

5:32 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Because I'd die of old age before it was done?

5:41 PM  
Blogger Eric Martin said...

As I said above, we should not let our moral compasses be decided one way or another by the Bush administration.

Saddam was deplorable. Sadr is not someone I would rush to defend under any circumstances. It should be possible to, as I did in 2003, acknowledge a particular "enemy's" flaws without urging for an escalation of violence vis-a-vis said enemy.

While I await Swopa's greatest hits compilation, I think there are some interesting bits in this Nir Rosen piece. It is notable for two reasons:

First, Rosen gets some pretty remarkable access. Second, Rosen is by no means a warmongerer.


Side Note: that's the first time I've ever been accused of partaking in any type of orgy. Kind of like it.

Eric Martin: the swingingest blogger in the sphere! Also: wild and crazy.


5:42 PM  
Blogger badger said...

If I may just interject, in order to summarize: This was a post called "Straws in the wind", and it is about the evolving justification for continued US occupation, albeit under a different name, in the coming period of time. You need a theory about why the troops are needed, and you need a villain to personify that theory, on the model of "A-bomb threat/Saddam". In this case it appears the theory is going to be civil war, and the villain is Sadr. On the occasion of the Najaf demo, which was on the theme of "no to America" (and also on the theme of ending sectarian violence, with the participation of some Sunni notables, from Basra at least), I said it appeared the big Iraqi paper Azzaman had bought into the hate-Sadr/support-the-occupation sequence of ideas. And in this connection it seemed strange and noteworthy that a big progressive blogger was calling Sadr a "thug" (instead of congratulating his followers on a successful and peaceful demonstration, for example). "Straws in the wind" I think was a very fair way to put it.

The reply is that "well he is a thug regardless of US policy, and so is Hakim, so there's nothing wrong with saying that". The implication being that you can't hold back from these pure moral judgments, which they will admit would apply to many people, just because picking on this particular guy happens to be in lock-step with US policy.

Straws in the wind.

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At least Swopa didn't refer to Sadr as "the firebrand cleric".....Anyway I too was a little taken aback last night reading his post, following as it did a post chastising Sistani for backing away from further demands investigating Sadr's involvement in al-Khoie's assassination -- as a curious sort of appeasement favoring Sadr.

If as admitted, they're "all" thugs, why the seeming party line reference on Sadr? Choosing (favorite) Iraqi leaders based upon our own liberal/secular notions about whats best for Iraq -- is not unlike the same mistake made by George W Bush.

anna missed

10:47 PM  
Blogger Eric Martin said...

If as admitted, they're "all" thugs, why the seeming party line reference on Sadr? Choosing (favorite) Iraqi leaders based upon our own liberal/secular notions about whats best for Iraq -- is not unlike the same mistake made by George W Bush.

Well, I don't know if anyone is suggesting that "they" are "all" thugs. Clearly, there are Iraqi leaders and people who do not fit that description. Many.

In fact, by describing certain factions in accurate ways (even if some would quibble with the particular word choice "thug"), we can then accentuate the difference.

Look, I'm not sure if finding it repulsive that Sadr's cadres engage in acts like forced ethnic cleansing through the use of intimidation and, if that fails, the murder of entire families, is a liberal/secular notion, but I tend to side with people that are being victimized by more powerful, violent elements.

Maybe that makes me hopelessly quixotic, chauvinistic, or ethnocentric or something.

But reading Iraqi bloggers like Zeyad and Riverbend, et al, I get the impression that most people, regardless of national origin or ethnicity, find ruthless tactics such as these to be deplorable. Most people want to be able to live in their neighborhoods without fear of death if they don't move out. Most people don't want to carry multiple IDs for fear that their name (be it Sunni or Shiite) could lead to their rather arbitrary murder.

But then, maybe I'm imposing my own liberal/secular notions of morality on Iraqis - and this stuff is really just part of their culture.

In addition to the ethnic cleansing that Nir Rosen describes in that piece cited above, and the death sentences for wrong names cited above, there is also the judge, jury and executioner style death squads employed by Sadr's organization that retaliate for Shiite deaths. These death squads target Sunnis with something less than exacting evidentiary standards.

Maybe, again, it is a secular/liberal tradition to find the use of death squads abhorrent, but then if so, guilty as charged.

And Badger, the problem with your repetition of "straws in the wind" - aside from, perhaps, some level of condescension on your part - is that Swopa is hardly that type of voice.

That was my original objection. He is not a "party-line" stepper, weather vane, or unoriginal thinker. Your critique is unfair, which brings us back to square one.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, the liberal secular tradition has no problem with the use of death squads, or ethnic/political cleansing. Just watch Gen Petraus as he divides Baghdad into manageable cantons and eliminates all the military age males. If the U.S. were doing this in the interest of sectarianism, and not secularism i.e. democracy, security, etc, then that would be "thugish", right?

anna missed

11:39 AM  
Blogger Eric Martin said...

Actually, the liberal secular tradition has no problem with the use of death squads, or ethnic/political cleansing. Just watch Gen Petraus as he divides Baghdad into manageable cantons and eliminates all the military age males. If the U.S. were doing this in the interest of sectarianism, and not secularism i.e. democracy, security, etc, then that would be "thugish", right?

Anna, you assume too much.

Have you ever read anything I've written? What, exactly, has given you the impression that I would give Petraeus or the US forces a free pass on anything like the use of death squads?

See, this is part of why I objected to Badger's generalizations as made in this post with respect to Swopa (who was citing something I wrote). It gives the impression that Swopa (and by extension, I) am a Bush administration cheerleader, marching in lock-step with the party line. Straws in the wind as it were. That we are both quick to hop on the demonization bandwagon in hot pursuit of the next Enemy #1.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Hence, my attempt to clarify. Neither of us are warmongerers. Neither of us ever supported the invasion of Iraq. Neither of us support the "civil war" rationale for staying in Iraq or targeting Sadr - and both of us support a prompt withdrawal of all US forces.

RE: Death Squads -

I have written extensively of my disgust for such practices - almost entirely critical of the United States' use thereof. I focus more on US actions than those of Sadr or any other Iraqi.

I have written about Operation Condor, about the Salvador Option, about the Generals in Argentina, Pinochet in Chile, etc.

So, no, I don't consider their use to be an acceptable part of the liberal/secular tradition. They should be treated as an aberration that is incompatible with the liberal/humanistic tradition.

But what is your argument anyway?

Before, you suggested that I only objected to Sadr because of my liberal/secular chauvinism. Implying that I was projecting my own moral biases onto the Iraqi people. Thus, that the Iraqis don't really have a problem with ethnic cleansing, death squads and random, arbitrary sectarian murder based on the name on ID cards. It's just us Westerners imposing our beliefs on them.

Now you're saying that Sadr's tactics are the same as ours so that I'm....not objecting to them based on liberal/secular chauvinism? If we're mirrors of each other, then it would sort of tend to weaken your claim that I am applying foreign, incompatible standards to Sadr, et al.

I'm a little uncertain about your argument. But perhaps that is a two-way street here as you might not exactly understand where either I, or Swopa, are coming from.

Which was kind of the first point I made on this thread.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure theres not a lot of daylight between views here. I only jumped in because the two issues tend to drive me crazy:
a) the tendency of the MSM to propagandise prefixed names and or notions, to foreign leaders or events -- that evolve into common assumptions and beliefs that are then exploited to serve U.S. "interests" abroad. It's regularly reported, and largely assumed that it was al-Qaeda in Iraq who bombed the mosque in Samarra, even though I've never seen any evidence reported it was so, Rather like the similar Saddam "kicked the inspectors out" legend these things weasel their way into even critical discourse.

So exactly what did Muqtada al-Sadr do to have inspired such demonization? After all he's a nationalist, supports democracy, is a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda, is anti partition, is less in Irans pocket than the other Shiite trends, and no doubt to the total chagrin of occupation authorities, can call out up to 1/2 million flag waving Iraqis into the streets in a show of unity and peaceful resistance. You would think he'd be a dream come true for the Bush administration, seeing how he represents all of the above also happen to be in concert with them in what they say they want for Iraq. And in addition, Sadr is also against everything the administration says its against (but, surely is for), like enduring bases, partition, oil resources, etc. -- except for that one thing; that he is also anti-occupation. That he will never serve American interests in Iraq. So, in spite of all that, he's relegated as a "firebrand, radical, thug", and as Time would say "the most dangerous man in Iraq".

Frankly, I'm just sick of the hypocrisy and the transparent duplicity of just assuming the negative simply because those in the media say its so, especially when it happens also to be in their self interest to say its so.

And while I may be overstating the point, or assuming too much, It just bugs me to see otherwise clear thinking to assume this trash baggage stereotyping in their analysis, and inadvertently carrying water for the administration.

And b), which is the that this entire notion that Iraq is/was to be a template for democratization of the Middle East has in fact been branded as a liberal enterprise. There is, preceding the above pattern of assumptions, a following assumption, that the ME can or should be given or want the gift of democracy as we know it -- imposed upon them. This being, albeit a perfect propaganda/justification tool for internal America, fails massively as a means to inspire interest in the program because of a fundamental cultural disconnect. Which has been generated historically in the west from the enlightenment on, with its emphasis on the individual at the expense of the collective -- seeing that how it is, that historically, the ME is the precise opposite, being essentially collectivist oriented societies -- where the clergy functions as the arbitrators/lawyers of the word and flows outward simultaniously on all cultural levels (politics included). To assume that these peoples would throw off their entire cultural milieu in favor of an occupiers (and a bad one at that)values is the unfortunate product of the present dilemma forged as it were, by liberal enlightenment done rejected. And become a fools errand.

anna missed

9:09 PM  
Blogger Eric Martin said...

Agree with that Anna. And again, I apologize for the defensiveness in my tone. It's just not everyday that I get accused of being an administration water carrier - even if just an insinuation. But I think we understand each other better now.

I would only say that if you read Swopa on a regular basis (or me, though I would not suggest you endure such a hardship ;)), you would see that the opinions expressed vis-a-vis Sadr are not based in vague propaganda. Nor are they lacking in nuance and appreciation of the various undercurrents.

You are 100% right that the primary beef the Bush administration has with Sadr is that he opposes the occupation. We recognize that. As I mentioned upthread, we're OK with SCIRI's death squads because Hakim comes to the White House and makes nice.

But just because there is propaganda swirling around Sadr does not mean he is not a "thug" or some other similar descriptive. Just because the Right demonizes Castro, doesn't mean I'd want to live under a brutal, authoritarian regime such as the one he has created. Just because the Right hyped Saddam's brutality doesn't mean that he, and his sons, weren't callous human rights abusers. War criminals in fact.

Remember, for a while, it was only the left and various human rights groups like Amnesty that were complaining about Saddam at all (the Reagan administration was poo-pooing those naive do-gooders). But when the Bush administration(s) decided to make him Enemy #1, that didn't expunge all his prior crimes. The victims were no less sympathetic. Nor were they brought back to life.

It's the same with Sadr (though I'm NOT saying he is as bad as Saddam). We should be able to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time, and understand that just because we object to a given party's brutality, that doesn't mean we endorse unleashing our own in response.

And for the record, I have written in the past, and will do so in the future, in the interest of challenging the extreme anti-Sadr propaganda and associated warmongering. As well as the tendency to view him as the source of ALL of our problems in Iraq.

He is not that. But he is also not someone who I'm particularly fond of. For good reason I believe.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Eric Martin said...


Let me clarify something. When I said this:

We recognize that. As I mentioned upthread, we're OK with SCIRI's death squads because Hakim comes to the White House and makes nice.

The first "we" referred to Swopa and I. The second "we're" referred to the Bush administration.

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Badger dear, you have done a most beautiful and concise analysis with your "commonplace truth" paragraph. It is something I have been aware of and thought about a great deal over the last few years as I watched the spin machine at work, but I have never been able to articulate it so well, even for myself. I am so very glad I saw it, and very grateful for the extremely dedicated folks at Iraq Today (formerly Today in Iraq) for drawing my attention to it, and also for reminding me of your extremely valuable site.

Thank you for the great and unique work you do!

11:24 PM  
Blogger badger said...

Thank you Shirin. I was getting a little discouraged because that "commonplace truths" point seemed to be getting drowned out in the comments. And thanks to the folks you mention. Don't forget us over here.

3:53 AM  

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