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Syllabus of Errors, Part Two

Mar
6
2006

Read part one.

Roughly speaking, there have been three wars in Iraq since March 2003:

The first war was the war against the Ba’athist regime. It lasted roughly from March through December 2003, finally coming to an end sometime between the killing of Saddam Hussein’s sons, the October 2003 rebellion of Moqtada al Sadr, and the capture of the former dictator himself.

The second war was the war against the Sunni insurgency. This war lasted roughly from late spring 2003 to the present. It saw the Ba’athist insurgency coalesce with a combination of foreign and homegrown Islamists; as it dragged on, this Islamist character grew and eventually eclipsed Ba’athist irredentism. The second war did have some Shi’a characteristics, notably in the April and August 2004 rebellions of Moqtada al Sadr, but by this point it was clear that he did not represent a pan-communal movement, and so the strategic enemy remained the Sunni community.

The third war is the Iraqi civil war. It is just beginning. After years of Shi’a forebearance — and make no mistake, the Shi’a at large have hitherto been admirably restrained against their former oppressors — the Rubicon of direct Shi’a versus Sunni action has been crossed. The end of this contest is profoundly uncertain.

The dynamics of this still-nascent civil war are only now emerging. In brief, judging from media, and more important, intelligence reports in-country, we can state that the following is broadly accurate:

In the wake of the December 2005 elections, two parties felt disempowered — the Sunnis of Iraq, and the Shi’a Sadrists. The former are doomed by demography to permanent minority status, which they fear perhaps the more by dint of their cruel reign of the past several decades. The latter are doomed by the clerical inferiority of their leader: the baby-faced fanatic Moqtada al Sadr is not, in Shi’a eyes, the respected leader that the Ayatollah Sistani or his deputies are. The Sunni insurgency’s perception of the principal oppressor accordingly shifted from the Americans to the Shi’a; and it reacted with the insane death-wish that typifies Islamist violence the world over. They destroyed the al Askari shrine in Samarra.

In this, Moqtada al Sadr saw his chance. Shi’a across Iraq took vengeance on the nearest Sunni targets of opportunity. This in itself was hardly unusual, and it probably would have spluttered out in a few bloody days had the Sadrists not seized upon the retribution, and carried it forward in a far more organized and horrific fashion. An angry mob is one thing: an organized militia is something else. Worse, the Sadrists were able to do what they had been unable to do in their previous battlefield efforts against the Americans. The Americans gingerly refrained from assaulting Shi’a sensibilities per se, and so the main Shi’a militia in Iraq, the Badr Brigades of SCIRI, saw no reason to intervene on the Sadrists’ behalf when the American Army and Marines were cutting them to ribbons in 2004. The Sunnis were not so intelligent, and so local Badrists were all too ready to join the Sadrists in a campaign of vengeful lynching. Whatever the Badr Brigade and SCIRI senior personnel thought was at this point irrelevant — they could not be seen by the rank and file as thwarting the rage of the Shi’a, and thereby cede the mantle of Shi’a populism and communal defense to Moqtada al Sadr. And so it came to pass that the entirety of the Shi’a militia movement and political apparatus set itself to killing Sunnis.

Let us here note that the failure of the Americans to press the campaigns of April and August 2004 to the hilt, and capture or kill Moqtada al Sadr, thus emerges as one of the cardinal strategic errors of our effort in Iraq.

The independent policy-setting of the Badrists and SCIRI knocked the props out from the rule of the Shi’a majority in the Iraqi government, and specifically Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari. With the bulk of Shi’a political power either circumventing or ignoring the government, al Jaafari and the central institutions of Iraq itself look increasingly irrelevant. They could not protect the Shi’a holy places, and now they cannot protect the Sunni holy places. Forces nominally loyal to the government either participate in anti-Sunni pogroms, or stand aside and reveal the Shi’a militias as the true power in the land. The Iraqi government measure that is having some effect — the curfew — is having the effect of freezing the victimized populations in place, making flight difficult, and allowing the persecuting militias to pick them off at will.

The theory of elections in Iraq held that democratic legitimacy is a powerful and superseding legitimacy: but the true superseding legitimacy is that of power. No one will fight for Ibrahim al Jaafari or the Iraqi government unless they are first perceived as fighting for themselves. It’s a cycle of inefficacy feeding upon its own appearance that is difficult in the extreme to break. How difficult? Unconfirmed reports — not in major media — that al Jafaari is making overtures to Sunni leaders in Fallujah for support reveal the extent of his desperation. Elections notwithstanding, the government of Iraq is on the verge of losing its legitimacy altogether.

What would rescue that legitimacy? The exercise of power. And the only power left to the government of Iraq is American power.

Continued in part three.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 6:25 PM | Permalink

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