Gilbert Achcar: It has been above all a surge in bloodshed and a major failure if we measure it by the Bush administration’s goal — nothing short of turning the whole Iraqi failure into a success story. That’s what they tried to achieve through the "surge", chiefly through a lot of spin. But it very blatantly failed.
The major goal was to create conditions through which they would change the political alignments in Iraq and set up a new alliance that would be close to the US and enable Washington to better manoeuvre in the country. Moqtada al-Sadr was a chief target of this whole operation and we can measure its failure by the way he is now back and very much prominent in the news, after having vanished for a while.
PM: What is the significance of his re-emergence?
GA: I see it — above all — as an indication of the failure of the so-called surge. Knowing that the "surge" targeted him, al-Sadr went into hiding and instructed his followers to adopt a low profile and avoid any direct confrontation with US troops. He wouldn’t clash head-on with US forces as he did previously in 2004 at a very great cost. Then he came to the verge of being arrested or killed and his movement crushed militarily. So he carefully avoided a repeat of the same pattern this time.
He understood a very elementary lesson: that he shouldn’t face the US military frontally because they have overwhelming firepower and weaponry. Instead, when they attack, the right thing to do is to retreat to safe ground or even go into hiding. This is an elementary guerrilla tactic — and the Sadrists applied it quite successfully, also managing to manoeuvre politically quite shrewdly so that they maintained their political clout and even increased it, while the hatred for US troops sharpened as a result of the so-called surge.
PM: He recently made a speech which had a more nationalist anti-sectarian edge, does this signal any change?
GA: I think he probably came to the conclusion that it is high time for him to renew or resume the political stance that he had been following until late 2005 or early 2006. The February 2006 Samarra attack [a devastating Sunni sectarian attack on the Shia mosque there] was a watershed in the Iraqi situation. That is when the image of al-Sadr turned from one of non-sectarian Arab-cum-Iraqi nationalist into one of leader of a Shiite sectarian militia.
He is trying now to restore his previous image. He probably believes that the climate is right for a new attempt — after over a year during which the Shiites let off sectarian steam very intensively in response to the sectarian attacks they had suffered.
PM: Are you saying that the tit for tat sectarian escalation may have played its course and that Moqtada al-Sadr could return to a more nationalist discourse?
GA: Yes precisely. He probably feels that things can calm down now, at a time when it’s more urgent than ever for him to rebuild his image. He needs to reach out to the Sunni Arab Iraqis, because he understands that there is a major political operation going on of which he is a target.
The two Kurdish leaders have recently made statements warning against an ongoing "plot" that aims at overthrowing the Maliki government. The other man who stands at the centre of this "plot" is none other than former US-designated prime minister Iyad Allawi — the closest, most reliable stooge that the US and Britain have in Iraq.
So the situation is getting very sensitive right now. We are at a crucial turning point in the Iraqi situation, facing a decisive moment in the coming weeks and months. And that’s when Moqtada al-Sadr has decided to go back on the offensive politically, which is definitely a clever thing to do for him.
PM: Are there any signs of a response from amongst the Sunni opposition groups?
GA: Well there are. Al-Sadr’s new tone is generally welcomed by the nationalists –in contrast to the sectarians — among Arab Sunnis. If you put aside the al-Qaida type of anti-US anti-Shiite fanatics, there are two types of forces among the Iraqi Arab Sunnis: on the one hand, those chiefly spurred on by sectarian and anti-Iranian views, which are close to the Saudis and willing to make deals with the US against the Shiites.
And, on the other hand, those who consider the US as the main, most dangerous, enemy and who are therefore willing to make an alliance with anti-US Shiite forces — provided (as the fear of Iran is common to all Sunnis) these are forces that they deem to be independent enough from Iran.
That is the case of Moqtada al-Sadr. Although he has obvious links with Tehran, which backed him increasingly over the last few years, he retains a certain degree of political autonomy and is known to be fiercely independent. His followers don’t shy away from making statements criticising Iran. For instance, criticising the recent meeting between Iranian and US representatives over the issue of Iraq as unacceptable meddling into Iraq’s affairs — as did various forces among the Sunnis.
PM: Given your earlier comments about the failure of the US surge and this sensitive critical political juncture you are describing, do you think we are heading for a crunch point later in the summer? A combination of perhaps a resurgent nationalist unity with the transparent failings of the American military offensive, leading to a decisive point where the Americans will have to change course radically or even withdraw?
GA: It can’t be so simple. I have been describing what al-Sadr is trying to do. I didn’t imply that he is going to succeed. He can certainly find a certain measure of success, but a major success allowing him to be the winner in this whole confrontation is quite difficult to predict at this point. He’s facing quite difficult conditions.
The Allawi operation is still going on. It is essentially an attempt at building a cross-sectarian political coalition using the lure of US support in order to topple the Maliki government and bring Allawi back to the helm as the "strong man" and saviour of Iraq. Although I wouldn’t bet one penny on the success of this operation, you can’t exclude it totally. You can’t exclude some kind of coup that would be backed by the US and the segment of Iraqi military forces that the US believes to be under their reliable control (if there are any actually).
What is certain though is that we will see crucial changes in the coming period. For the Bush administration, the ongoing "surge" is a double or quits operation. They are under intensive pressure in the US. Although we have seen how the Democrats have shied away from pressing forward the issue of a timetable for troop withdrawal — the issue of Iraq is prominent in the presidential election and US public opinion has become much opposed to the continuation of the war.
The Bush administration is playing what appears to be its last card. At the same time, the administration is covering its back by reaching out to Tehran — in a very limited way for a start — for a possible accommodation, as recommended by the Baker-Hamilton report.
PM: They don’t have another plan up their sleeves which they can pull out?
GA: I can’t see what it could be, other than the operation with Allawi. That’s the only trump card they could still use.
PM: Isn’t this plan to install a new strong man almost a return to the Saddam era, except under the control of a nominal Shia?
GA: A return to the Saddam era would be impossible. You can’t reinvent that dictatorship. The situation in Iraq is such that whoever tried to play "Saddam Two" would have a very hard time and would certainly fail. I don’t think that the mass of the Shiite population is ready to accept a new dictatorship, unless it comes out of their own ranks — and Allawi is widely perceived as a traitor, a former Baathist furthermore.
For them to accept a dictator who is backed by the US and appears to prevent the Shiites from reaping the fruits of what they have been waiting for ages — their empowerment as a majority — is quite out of the question, I believe. Iran, moreover, is also part of the game and it won’t accept a scenario of that kind, at least under the present conditions.
So I can’t see any winning strategy or winning card for the US in Iraq. The question is not whether the US can achieve victory or not. The failure is already there and is fundamentally irreversible. The problem is how much further harm they can do to Iraq by trying to implement crazy schemes that are doomed from the start.
PM: Turning to Lebanon, has the siege and bombardment of the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp been a relative sideshow simply involving a small Sunni fundamentalist group or does it have deeper connections? The American journalist Seymour Hersh has suggested that "Fatah al Ansar" was originally backed by the Lebanese government and that this is a sort of "blowback".
GA: There are two kinds of "conspiracy theory" on this issue in Lebanon: on the one hand, the pro-US or "governmental majority" forces claim that "Fatah al-Islam" are manipulated by the Syrian services. They claim that the recent clashes were provoked in order to counter the international tribunal on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri that Washington, Paris and London had just moved through the UN Security Council.
On the other hand, you have those, many of whom refer to the article by Hersh, who claim that "Fatah al-Islam" has been manipulated by the governmental majority itself, and behind them the Saudis and the United States.
There are only a few facts that can be taken as true. It is known, for instance, that the key leader of "Fatah al-Islam" had been jailed in Syria previously — so there is no solid ground to suspect that the Syrian regime stands behind his group, except for the fact that the situation flared up just after the UNSC voted on the international tribunal.
It is true as well that this brand of Sunni fanatical fundamentalism is usually linked to Saudi sources, whether official or unofficial. It might well be that, at some point, the Hariri bloc had a relationship with such a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group, which adheres to an anti-Shiite sectarian tradition (and has eventually joined al-Qaida), with a view to a possible all-out confrontation with the Lebanese Shiites mainly represented by Hezbollah. But from that to infer that they are manipulating this group is also quite baseless.
I think that whatever ignited the confrontation, one thing is obvious: it has been immediately exploited for a very definite agenda. This was (1) to test the ability of the Lebanese army to confront other forces, starting with the easiest — Palestinians, against whom Lebanese Shiite and Sunni soldiers alike can be united with no major risk of split along sectarian lines; and (2) to get the army to enter this Palestinian refugee camp in Northern Lebanon and take control of it under the pretext of fighting this group.
This is why at some point Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, came out saying that he considered the penetration by the Lebanese army of the camp to be a "red line." Why did he say so, despite Hezbollah initially expressing its solidarity with the Lebanese army? Because he realised that this Palestinian camp has become a testing ground for the ability of the Lebanese army to implement a task that is part of UNSC Resolution 1559 (sponsored by Washington, London and Paris in 2004) calling for the disarming of both the Palestinian camps and Hezbollah.
Nasrallah became aware that the battle of Nahr el-Bared is but a first step on a path that leads ultimately to the fight against his own forces. You can see that in the broad display of active solidarity with the Lebanese army in the ongoing confrontation: Washington is sending weapons and inciting all its allies to send whatever hardware the Lebanese army needs.
PM: More broadly what is the current state of play as we approach the first anniversary of last year’s war? Has there been any shift on the ground since the ceasefire?
GA: No, it’s been a complete stalemate. The situation is at a real dead end, which means that it is tense and dangerous. For months now, the country has been on the verge of a sectarian explosion, which could ignite new bloody fighting or even a new civil war.
Hezbollah’s strategy got bogged down completely. This is a result of the limitation inherent in their sectarian view of things, in their conception of power sharing among sectarian communities and existing power blocs. Through a series of clumsy positions, in which their alliance with the Syrian dictatorship played no minor role, they comforted the present sectarian division in this country between Shiites and Sunnis.
Although at some point, it appeared at the beginning of the Israeli offensive last summer that there was a reduction in sectarianism, it soon came back very strongly. Hezbollah’s sectarian nature made it easy for the Hariri camp to exploit Sunni sectarian feelings in very blatant ways. So the whole situation has got bogged down and the opposition has lost the political initiative that they had when they started their mobilisation at the beginning of last winter.
PM: When you say the opposition you mean the movement led by Hezbollah and Aoun against the pro-Western government?
GA: The Shiite Hezbollah and Amal, the Maronite General Aoun and many other smaller forces. In sectarian terms, that means the overwhelming majority of the Shiites plus a sizeable fraction of the Christians in alliance against the majority of the Sunnis, plus the majority of the Druze and another fraction of the Christians. This is the configuration of forces in Lebanon as it stands now — as sectarian as it used to be at the peak of the civil war.
Gilbert Achcar is an antiwar activist and an academic who grew up in Lebanon. His recent books include "Perilous Power: The Middle East and US Foreign Policy", co-authored with Noam Chomsky.