Heavy fighting has spread across Shia-dominated enclaves in Iraq over the past two days. The U.S.-backed regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered 50,000 Iraqi troops to "crack down" — with coalition air support — on Shiite militias in the oil-rich and strategically important city of Basra, U.S. forces have surrounded Baghdad’s Sadr City and fighting has been reported in the southern cities of Kut, Diwaniya, Karbala and Hilla. Basra’s main bridge and an oil pipeline connecting it to Amara were destroyed Wednesday. Six cities are under curfew, and acts of civil disobedience have shut down dozens of neighborhoods across the country. Civilian casualties have reportedly overwhelmed poorly equipped medical centers in Baghdad and Basra.
There are indications that the unilateral ceasefire declared last year by the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is collapsing. "The cease-fire is over; we have been told to fight the Americans," one militiaman loyal to al-Sadr told the Christian Science Monitor’s Sam Dagher by telephone from Sadr City. Dagher added that the "same man, when interviewed in January, had stated that he was abiding by the cease-fire and that he was keeping busy running his cellular phone store."
A political track is also in play: Sadr has called on his followers to take to the streets to demand Maliki’s resignation, and nationalist lawmakers in the Iraqi Parliament, led by al-Sadr’s bloc, are trying to push a no-confidence vote challenging the prime minister’s regime.
The conflict is one that the U.S. media appears incapable of describing in a coherent way. The prevailing narrative is that Basra has been ruled by mafialike militias — which is true — and that Iraqi government forces are now cracking down on the lawlessness in preparation for regional elections, which is not. As independent analyst Reider Visser noted:
"On closer inspection, there are problems in these accounts. Perhaps most importantly, there is a discrepancy between the description of Basra as a city ruled by militias (in the plural) ... [and the] facts of the ongoing operations, which seem to target only one of these militia groups, the Mahdi Army loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. Surely, if the aim was to make Basra a safer place, it would have been logical to do something to also stem the influence of the other militias loyal to the local competitors of the Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [SIIC], as well as the armed groups allied to the Fadila party (sic) (which have dominated the oil protection services for a long time). But so far, only Sadrists have complained about attacks by government forces."
The conflict doesn’t conform to the analysis of the roots of Iraqi instability as briefed by U.S. officials in the heavily-fortified Green Zone. It also doesn’t fit into the simplistic but popular narrative of a country wrought by sectarian violence, and its nature is obscured by the labels that the commercial media uncritically apply to the disparate centers of Iraqi resistance to the occupation.
The "crackdown" comes on the heels of the approval of a new "provincial law," which will ultimately determine whether Iraq remains a unified state with a strong central government or is divided into sectarian-based regional governates. The measure calls for provincial elections in October, and the winners of those elections will determine the future of the Iraqi state. Control of the country’s oil wealth, and how its treasure will be developed, will also be significantly influenced by the outcome of the elections.
It’s a relatively straightforward story: Iraq is ablaze today as a result of an attempt to impose Colombian-style democracy on the unstable country: Maliki’s goal, shared by the like-minded allies among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities that dominate his administration, and with at least tacit U.S. approval, is to kill off the opposition and then hold a vote.
To better understand the nature of this latest round of conflict, here are five things one needs to know about what’s taking place across Iraq.
1. A visible manifestation of Iraq’s central-but-under-reported political conflict (not "sectarian violence")
Iraq, which had experienced little or no sectarian-based violence prior to the U.S. invasion, has been plagued with sectarian militias fighting for the streets of Iraq’s formerly heterogeneous neighborhoods, and "sectarian violence" has become Americans’ primary explanation for the instability that has plagued the country.
But the sectarian-based street-fighting is a symptom of a larger political conflict, one that has been poorly analyzed in the mainstream press. The real source of conflict in Iraq — and the reason political reconciliation has been so difficult — is a fundamental disagreement over what the future of Iraq will look like. Loosely defined, it is a clash of Iraqi nationalists — with Muqtada al-Sadr as their most influential voice — who desire a unified Iraqi state and public-sector management of the country’s vast oil reserves and who forcefully reject foreign influence on Iraq’s political process, be it from the United States, Iran or other outside forces.
The nationalists now represent a majority in Iraq’s parliament but are opposed by what might be called Iraqi separatists, who envision a "soft partition" of Iraq into at least four semiautonomous and sectarian-based regional entities, welcome the privatization of the Iraqi energy sector (and the rest of the Iraqi economy) and rely on foreign support to maintain their power.
We’ve written about this long-standing conflict extensively in the past, and now we’re seeing it come to a head, as we believed it would at some point.
2. U.S. is propping up an unpopular regime; Sadr has support because of his platform
One of the ironies of the reporting out of Iraq is the ubiquitous characterization of Muqtada al-Sadr as a "renegade," "radical" or "militant" cleric, despite the fact that he is the only leader of significance in the country who has ordered his followers to stand down. His ostensible militancy appears to arise primarily from his opposition to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
He has certainly been willing to use violence in the past, but the "firebrand" label belies the fact that Sadr is arguably the most popular leader among a large section of the Iraqi population and that he has forcefully rejected sectarian conflict and sought to bring together representatives of Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian groups in an effort to create real national reconciliation — a process that the highly sectarian Maliki regime has failed to accomplish.
It’s vitally important to understand that Sadr’s popularity and legitimacy is a result of his having a platform that’s favored by an overwhelming majority of Iraqis.
With the exception of their opposition to Al Qaeda, the five major separatist parties — Sunni, Shia and Kurdish — that make up Maliki’s governing coalition are on the deeply unpopular side of these issues. A poll conducted last year found that 65 percent of Iraqis think the Iraqi government is doing a poor job, and Maliki himself has a Bush-like 66 percent disapproval rate.
As in Vietnam, the United States is backing an unpopular and decidedly undemocratic government in Iraq, and that simple fact explains much of the violent resistance that’s going on in Iraq today.
3. "Iraqi forces" are, in fact, "Iranian- (and U.S.-) backed Shiite militias"
Every headline this week has featured some variation of the storyline of "Iraqi security forces" battling "Shiite militias." But the reality is that it is a battle between Shite militias — separatists and nationalists — with one militia garbed in Iraqi army uniforms and supported by U.S. airpower, and the other in civilian clothes.
It has always been the great irony of the occupation of Iraq that "our" man in Baghdad is also Tehran’s. Maliki heads the Dawa Party, which has long enjoyed close ties to Iran, and relies on support from SIIC, a staunchly pro-Iranian party, and its powerful Badr militia. The "government crackdown" is an escalation of a long-simmering conflict in the south between the Badr Brigade, the Sadrists and members of the Fadhila Party, which favors greater autonomy for Basra but rejects SIIC’s vision of a larger Shiite-dominated regional entity in Southern Iraq.
4. Colombia-style democracy
Basra has been engulfed in a simmering conflict since before the British pulled their troops back to a remote base near the airport and turned over the city to Iraqi authorities. But the timing of this crackdown is not coincidental; Iraqi separatists — Dawa, SIIC and others — are expected to do poorly in the regional elections, while the Sadrists are widely anticipated to make significant gains. It is widely perceived by those loyal to Sadr that this is an attempt to wipe out the movement he leads prior to the elections and minimize the influence that Iraqi nationalists are poised to gain.
The United States, for its part, continues to take sides in this conflict — in addition to providing airpower, U.S. forces are enforcing the curfew in Sadr City — rather than playing the role of neutral mediator. That’s because the interests of the Bush administration and its allies are aligned with Maliki and his coalition. That they are not aligned with the interests of most Iraqis is never mentioned in the Western press, but is a key reason why Bush’s definition of "victory" — the emergence of a legitimate and Democratic state that supports U.S. policy in the region — has always been an impossible pipedream.
5. Chip off the old block: Maliki’s attempt to criminalize dissent
It’s unclear whether Sadr has lifted the cease-fire entirely, or simply freed his fighters to defend themselves. He continues to call for peaceful resistance.
Whatever the case may be, it’s not entirely accurate to say that he "chose" this conflict. The reality is that while his army was holding the cease-fire, attacks on and detentions of Sadrists have continued unabated. Sadr renewed the cease-fire last month, but he did so over the urging of his top aides, who argued that their movement was threatened with annihilation. He later authorized his followers to carry weapons "for self-defense" to head off a mutiny within his ranks.
Ahmed al-Massoudi, a Sadrist member of Parliament, last week "accused the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) of planning a military campaign to liquidate the Sadrists."
The lawmaker told Voices of Iraq that Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim’s "SIIC and the Dawa Party have held meetings with officers of the militias merged recently into security agencies to launch a military campaign outwardly to impose order and law, but the real objective is to liquidate the Sadrist bloc." "Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is directly supervising this scheme with officers from the Dawa Party and the SIIC," he added. Despite his close ties with Tehran and deep involvement in Shiite militia activity, Hakim has been invited to the White House, where he was feted by Bush himself.
Sadr called for nationwide civil disobedience that would have allowed his followers to flex some political muscle in a nonviolent way. His orders, according to Iraqi reports were to distribute olive branches and copies of the Koran to soldiers at checkpoints.
The Maliki regime responded by saying that individuals joining the nationwide strike would be punished and that those organizing it are in violation of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Act issued in 2005. A spokesman for the prime minister promised to punish any government employees who failed to show up for work.
This is consistent with a long-term trend: the U.S.-backed government’s obstruction of Iraqi efforts to foster political reconciliation among diverse groups of Iraq nationalists. (Read more about this here.)
Propaganda and the surge
The Maliki regime has set an ultimatum demanding that the militias — the nationalist militias — lay down their arms within the next two days or face "more serious consequences." Al-Sadr has also issued an ultimatum: The government must cease its attacks on his followers, or his followers will escalate. It is an extremely dangerous situation, especially given the fact that the main U.S. resupply routes stretch from Baghdad through the Shia-dominated southern provinces.
But the precariousness of the situation appears to be of little concern to the military command, which issued a statement saying that the violence was a result of the success of the U.S. troop "surge" (Bush called the "crackdown" a "bold decision’’ that shows the country’s security forces are capable of combating terrorists). It’s yet another example of the administration putting U.S. geostrategic (and economic) interests ahead of Iraqi reconciliation and democratic governance.
The much-touted troop "surge" had little to do with the drop in violence in recent months — it didn’t even correlate with the lull chronologically and was certainly a minor causal factor at best. A number of factors led to the reduced violence, but Sadr’s cease-fire had the greatest impact. Nonetheless, the Maliki regime, backed by the United States, continued a campaign of harassment and intimidation against Sadr’s followers, denied them space to peacefully resist the occupation and forced his hand.
Given the degree to which the coalition has continued to stir a hornets’ nest, we may be seeing a perfect illustration of the dangers of believing one’s own propaganda play out as Iraq is once again set aflame.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer. Raed Jarrar is Iraq Consultant to the American Friends Service Committee. He blogs at Raed in the Middle.