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thedrifter
04-03-06, 08:32 AM
Can the Shiite Center Hold?
The unanticipated consequences of "Iraqification."

BY REUEL MARC GERECHT
Monday, April 3, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

The Shiites of Iraq who want representative government, and who look to the resolutely moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for religious and political guidance, have endured Baathists, Sunni supremacists and holy warriors. They have seen the shrine of Samarra--the most purely Shiite shrine in the country, which has been for ages the responsibility of Sunnis to protect--horribly scarred. If the Shiite center collapses--if radicals like Muqtada al Sadr and some within the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) and the Dawa Party can depict themselves as more effective guardians of the faithful--then massive internecine violence, Kurdish secession and a Shiite dictatorship seem likely.

Contrary to what so many in the Bush administration hoped, Iraq's salvation still rides with the two forces that few had foreseen: the religious Shiites, who recognize Ayatollah Sistani as moral guide, not the secularists in whom U.S. officials placed such store; and the U.S. military, which remains the only effective counterinsurgency force capable of diminishing sectarian strife and staunching Sunni-led violence. Together, they can corner the militants in their midst; if either falters, Iraq will probably descend into hell.

Contrary to what the former U.S.-appointed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi recently asserted, Iraq isn't yet in a civil war if one uses that term to describe an irreversibly cataclysmic struggle. Just make a comparison to Algeria in the early 1990s, where failed, arid, brutal secularism and savage Islamic radicalism ripped the country apart, leaving entire neighborhoods and villages slaughtered. It shouldn't be too hard to see that things in Iraq--the only country in the Middle East whose violent past can rival Algeria's--could become much worse. After the bombing at Samarra, the U.S. military and the Iraqi army, which didn't fall apart, practically shut down the country to ensure raw emotions didn't flash into massive bloodletting. In Algeria, during its most violent civil-war years, the military, using indescribably brutal tactics, wasn't able to bring comparable quiet to the land. Nevertheless the attack in Samarra and Shiite counterattacks against Sunni mosques, social and political organizations, and clerics have significantly embittered politics and faith. Though the Bush administration hates to admit it, daily life in Baghdad has become worse. For those politically active, life is more dangerous now than ever. It is irrelevant whether small businesses, imports, and school and hospital construction are doing better if Iraq's political and intellectual classes (not to mention foreigners who are trying to help them) cannot walk out of their homes unguarded.

If Baghdad remains a killing zone, where Iraq's leaders can safely gather only under U.S. protection, then the prognosis for the Iraqi national identity, which has always had Baghdad at its center, is poor. Lasting political compromises will probably be impossible if the increasingly vicious sectarian strife in Baghdad and its environs intensifies. Within a year, at most two, Iraq could become Algeria.

Though declining, the odds remain decent that Iraqis will do their part to stop the descent. On the Shiite side--and the Shiites will either make or break the Iraqi democratic experiment--no party, not even the firebrand Muqtada al Sadr, has advanced a nondemocratic political ideal. Though one can certainly find Iraqi Shiites who admire an Iranian-style theocracy, they have been philosophically crippled in their own country since no prominent Iraqi cleric has come forward to challenge Ayatollah Sistani and the other senior ulema, who have rejected clerical rule in favor of democracy. Though Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad are awash with those who fear the nefarious hand of Tehran in Iraq--and Iran's clerical elite and their fervid praetorians, like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, certainly intend us great harm--Tehran has relatively few loud political defenders among the Arabs of Mesopotamia. Prominent Shiite Iraqi exiles who've become political players in Baghdad do owe Iran their lives--Tehran saved thousands from certain death under Saddam--and many more are now surely benefiting from the Iran's clandestine largesse. Regions of southern Iraq appear to be increasingly under the sway of Tehran. Iran will try to prevent the birth of functioning democracy backed by senior Iraqi clerics who don't recognize the legitimacy of theocracy.

Yet no Iraqi Shiite can expect to have a political future--indeed, expect to stay alive--with the rallying cry of "Shiites Unite! Join the Persians!" Saddam Hussein was not the only thing driving Iraqi Shiites to kill Iranian Shiites in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Iraqi nationalism and an organic, nonideological Arabism is alive among them and will provide stiff resistance to any Iranian effort to direct its Shiite "allies" in Iraq. Hence, in part, Muqtada al Sadr's criticism of Sciri's recent efforts to facilitate U.S.-Iranian talks about Iraq. Sadr and his men, who often deride Ayatollah Sistani's Iranian birth, can be ferocious Arab Iraqi nationalists and diehard Islamic militants. That the Bush administration would welcome Sciri-backed Iranian-U.S. talks in Baghdad is bizarre: We should want to underscore and oppose all of Sciri's Iranian flirtations.

We can certainly expect to see Iraqi Shiites cut short-term deals with Iran--the crushing poverty in many Shiite regions of Iraq will guarantee the cash-laden Iranians influence. But it is fear of the Sunni insurgency and holy warriors that gives Iran real traction in Iraqi society. If the insurgency abates, the Iraqi army becomes more powerful, or Iraqi Shiite militias become bolder (and they certainly appear to be more effective in striking Sunnis even in well-armed, solidly Sunni neighborhoods), Iran's influence will wane. Though definitely weakened by the constant savage Sunni attacks against the Shiites, which make Shiite clerics counseling forbearance look somewhat unworldly, Ayatollah Sistani still holds sufficient sway to guarantee that negotiations among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds continue. Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Sciri, the dominant Shiite political party, is well aware that if Ayatollah Sistani were publicly to signal dismay with his actions, his political power would shrink considerably, probably even jeopardizing Sciri's existence. It is Sciri's clerical connections--the Hakim family is among the most prominent, and in the holy city of Najaf, among the most moderate, of Iraq's influential clerical families--that give it real strength.

Washington currently has no Shiite "partner" in Iraq. In all probability, it will not find one. Stained by reports of corruption in his interim government, Ayad Allawi may well be finished as a significant political player. And his antireligious, "pro-Sunni" secular disposition doomed him long ago among most Shiites. Though still seen as the brightest politician, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi was annihilated in the parliamentary elections. The current prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, a leader of the Dawa Party, is too politically inept and his party's alliance with Sadr is likely to grow stronger. (On a grassroots level, Dawa is easily as radical as Sadr's Mahdi Army.) Which leaves Adil Abd al-Mahdi of Sciri, probably the only major player in Sciri with whom the Americans culturally feel comfortable. (Though sincerely religious, Mahdi is highly Westernized and lay, free of the evasive speech of Shiite clerics.) But Mahdi isn't Sciri.

Shiite-U.S. relations will likely get worse. The Iraqi conspiratorial reflex--powerfully on display in the recent "mosque shooting" of Sadr's followers (U.S. soldiers supposedly oversaw the execution of Shiite worshippers in a Baghdad mosque)--is now aggressively working against the U.S. American efforts to incorporate Sunnis into a "national unity" government often appear to Shiites as antidemocratic coercion to reward Sunnis who have rarely condemned the insurgency. Yet for most Shiites, Americans are still seen as indispensable, even if it is difficult for them, and especially their religious leaders, to associate with Americans in a publicly grateful and cooperative way.

Americans aside, the attack in Samarra didn't blow apart the democratic Shiite consensus led by Ayatollah Sistani. The various, often mutually hostile, Shiite parties, are likely to plow ahead, however fitfully, to some political deal with the Sunnis and the Kurds, who both now know that the Shiites will no longer passively watch their women and children slaughtered and their holy sites desecrated. Sunni and Kurdish fear of Shiite power--a fickle but growing alliance between Sunni Arabs and Kurds was inevitable--is politically overdue and healthy for all concerned. This is a tightrope act, but the Sunni Arabs must internalize the fact that they cannot leverage the insurgency into power. If they continue to try, they will only convert Shiite "sheep" (the traditional Arab Sunni view of Arab Shiites) into rampant "lions," unstoppable by even the most revered, peace-promoting divines.

And what is most likely to curtail the violence is the U.S. military--not political dialogue among the Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Kurds. Dialogue is important--the all-critical, viscerally anti-U.S. and seriously anti-Shiite Sunni Clerics Association is slowly moving toward reconciliation with a Shiite-led Iraq. But only the U.S. military has the capacity, as recently shown in Tal Afar and brilliantly reported by The New Republic's Lawrence Kaplan, to secure territory against insurgents and holy warriors. The successful operation in Tal Afar is a blatant negation of Gen. John Abizaid's "light footprint" strategy that views large numbers of U.S. soldiers as part of the problem, not the overwhelming part of a counterinsurgency solution. The current approach to counterinsurgency--transfer responsibility to the Iraqis as quickly as possible--will seriously stress Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions, perhaps to the breaking point. Do we really want Shiite and Kurdish soldiers taking the lead in killing Sunnis? Unless heavily monitored by Americans for the foreseeable future, these soldiers could well utilize Algerian-style tactics against the Sunni Arabs. It is astonishing that Shiites have not unleashed more vengeance against their former Sunni Baathist masters and current Sunni tormentors.

It is no coincidence that Shiite militias have grown more powerful and more aggressive as U.S. forces have increasingly adopted an Iraqi-centered strategy. Such an approach will not, anytime soon, curtail Sunni attacks. Counterinsurgency warfare is the last thing you'd expect a newly minted army to undertake. Shiite militias, incorporated within the government and outside it, will not be inclined to stand down: They will react even more harshly to continuing attacks on their community. The Iraqification program has actually started to fuel the very violence that Iraqification in theory was supposed to stop. This gradual, perhaps rapid, U.S. withdrawal could well unhinge the Shiite community, giving victory to the militant minority.

We are now in the unenviable position of having to confront radicalized, murderous Shiite militias, who have gained broader Shiite support because of the Sunni-led violence and the lameness of U.S. counterinsurgency operations. The Bush administration would be wise not to postpone any longer what it should have already undertaken--securing Baghdad. This will be an enormously difficult task: Both Sunnis and Shiites will have to be confronted, but Sunni insurgents and brigands must be dealt with first to ensure America doesn't lose the Shiite majority and the government doesn't completely fall apart. Pacifying Baghdad will be politically convulsive and provide horrific film footage and skyrocketing body counts. But Iraq cannot heal itself so long as Baghdad remains a deadly place. And the U.S. media will never write many optimistic stories about Iraq if journalists fear going outside. To punt this undertaking down the road when the political dynamics might be better, and when the number of American soldiers in Iraq will surely be less, perhaps a lot less, is to invite disaster.

The Iraqis and the Americans will either save or damn Iraq in the coming months. Quite contrary to the purblind charges of Michigan's Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, the Iraqis really are doing their part--better than what anyone historically could have expected. The real question is, will Gen. Abizaid and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld do theirs?

Mr. Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Ellie