Clashes between Badr and Sadr

Earlier this evening, Najaf police units, led by a Badr Organization commander, descended on Moqtada’s office in Najaf, located on the main street approaching the Imam Ali Shrine. In the clash, Moqtada’s office, only four meters from the shrine, was burned to the ground, according to Abu Hazzim, who worked in the Najaf office and fled for his life to Sadr City. He says 23 people have been killed, most of them Moqtada’s supporters. Iraqi Army and police have been involved in the fighting. Many of the police and army units in the south are packed by Badr militiamen with more loyalty to the party than to the state. As I write, clashes continue.

BAGHDAD — Earlier this evening, Najaf police units, led by a Badr Organization commander, descended on Moqtada’s office in Najaf, located on the main street approaching the Imam Ali Shrine. In the clash, Moqtada’s office, only four meters from the shrine, was burned to the ground, according to Abu Hazzim, who worked in the Najaf office and fled for his life to Sadr City. He says 23 people have been killed, most of them Moqtada’s supporters, while media reports put the number between five and eight. Iraqi Army and police have been involved in the fighting. Many of the police and army units in the south are packed by Badr militiamen with more loyalty to the party than to the state. As I write, clashes continue.
Moqtada has put out an alert for the _jaysh al-Mahdi_ militia to be on high alert in Sadr City, Najaf, Nasriyah, Amarah and Basra. In Sadr City and Basra, _jaysh al-Mahdi_ members have asked to occupy/attack SCIRI and Badr offices, but so far they’ve been kept in check by Moqtada and Fatah al-Sheikh, one of Moqtada’s supporters in parliament.
Or at least he was. Earlier this evening, Moqtada gave the Jaafari government an hour to explain, pull back or apologize for these attacks. He also called on his supporters in parliament, Fatah and others from the NICE list, to resign because “Moqtada now considers the government illegal,” according to Abu Hazzim. Fatah has told me he has resigned. A press conference is imminent.
[UPDATE 8/25/05 0032 +0300: Fatah al-Sheikh and 20 other members have “suspended” their duties in the government and parliament until those responsible for the attacks have been punished, he said. It is unclear how this development will affect tomorrow’s vote on the constitution.]
This may blow over or it may blow up. But these are fast moving events. Coming on the eve of the constitution vote, as well as large clashes between Sunni insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi forces in western Baghdad that are also continuing, these events can only be seen as worrisome.

Iran’s role in Iraq

All those hints of Iranian involvement can finally be explained.

Finally! I’ve dropped numerous hints over the last few months of Iranian involvement in Iraq, but I never went into detail. Now, thankfully, this is the story that has informed my Iranian comments. I didn’t want to spill too much of the beans because it’s not cool to scoop your own magazine on a blog, but this is an important story. I wish I could say I contributed to it, but Mick is a hell of a reporter and this is his baby.

Steven Vincent killed in Basra

Someone has killed Steven Vincent, author of “In the Red Zone,” in Basra two days after he wrote a New York Times op-ed criticizing the Basra police:

BAGHDAD, Iraq – An American freelance journalist was found dead in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, the U.S. Embassy said Wednesday.

Police said Steven Vincent had been shot multiple times after he and his Iraqi translator were abducted at gunpoint hours earlier.

“I can confirm to you that officials in Basra have recovered the body of journalist Steven Vincent,” said embassy spokesman Pete Mitchell. “The U.S. Embassy is working with British military and local Iraqi officials in Basra to determine who is responsible for the death of this journalist.”

I didn’t know Steve, but his agent, Andrew Stuart, is my former book agent. He was also a blogger and was researching another book, this one on post-war Basra. Already the comments section on the latest post is filling up. I also didn’t agree with much of what he wrote, but he was intrepid enough to spend months living in Basra, which is a hard thing for a westerner to do.

It is unknown if he was killed for his coverage or if it was kidnapping and robbery gone sour. All I know is that my thoughts go out to his family and friends.

Six Weeks to Go!

BAGHDAD—With six weeks to go until the Aug. 15 deadline for turning in their Constitution homework, Shi’ites and Sunnis have finally agreed that there will be some Sunnis on the Constitutional Committee beavering away on the draft of the country’s charter. This is a significant step, and don’t let naysayers tell you otherwise. Most significant, perhaps, is the willingness of a hardline Shi’ite cleric, Humam al-Hammoudi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to tamp down anti-Ba’athist sentiment among the Shi’ites and Kurds on the committee and, in essence, let bygones be bygones.

BAGHDAD—With six weeks to go (more or less) until the Aug. 15 deadline for turning in their Constitution homework, Shi’ites and Sunnis have finally agreed that there will be some Sunnis on the Constitutional Committee beavering away on the draft of the country’s charter.

There will be 15 Sunnis on the committee, picked mainly by tribal sheikhs and other respected men, and another 10 Sunni “advisors” to the committee, accounting for almost 36 percent of the 70-person committee. (There are several subcommittees working away on specific sections of the draft, but I don’t have any data on those bodies.)

This is a significant step, and don’t let naysayers tell you otherwise. Most significant, perhaps, is the willingness of a hardline Shi’ite cleric, Humam al-Hammoudi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to tamp down anti-Ba’athist sentiment among the Shi’ites and Kurds on the committee and, in essence, let bygones be bygones. At least as far as the makeup of the committee goes.

“If we were talking about ministries, names might be more important,” he said, as quoted by the New York Times. “But since it’s a committee, having the views is more important than the names.”

I’ve talked with others, close to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and other Shi’ite movers and shakers, and they’re of the same mind. Some of these men are optimistic—such as the advisor to the prime minister I spoke with—while others are not. One influential Shi’a leader, who never fled Iraq during the Saddam years doesn’t think the constitution will be done on time. The other Shi’a leader, who did, is concerned that the deadline will be met, but the outcome will be less than desirable—at least for secular Iraqis.

(I’m not mentioning names because that was the deal I made with them. I hope you’ll trust me enough that these men are players, they know what they’re talking about and that they’re close to the action.)

There are a number of obstacles to making the Aug. 15 deadline, however. They are:

  1. The role of Islam in legislation;
  2. The status of Kirkuk;
  3. How much autonomy will be given to the provinces.

These were all predicted long ago, and nothing new has developed the change the issues confronting Iraq. The religious Shi’ites in charge of the government—Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and others—are close to Iran and want a more Islamist government, maybe not as severe as Tehran’s wilayat al-faqih, but certainly more Islamic than Iraqis are used to. They want Islam to be the source of legislation instead of a source of legislation.

The Kurds are, somewhat predictably, throwing a spanner in the works by insisting that status of Kirkuk be settled before the constitution is drafted, while the Shi’ites want to put off the idea until after the constitution is approved. The trouble is, the Kurds won’t approve the constitution in the scheduled Oct. 15 referendum if Kirkuk is left up in the air. They don’t really trust Iraq’s Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs to deal with them fairly on this emotional issue, so they’re holding out the threat of not approving the constitution as a cudgel to get their way now. Which is what they always do, and it leads to some serious brinkmanship. I suspect the Americans will step in at some point and assure the Kurds they have their back if they’ll just yield on this issue.

And as for autonomy, oh boy. This is a hot issue, and there’s a new wrinkle. Secular Shi’ites in the south, led by a Baqr Yassin, have started a push toward making the southern three provinces of Basra, Amara and Nasariyah into an autonomous zone called “Sumer,” similar to the arrangement the Kurds have now. He’s calling for local control of resources—including the vast oil reserves there—and some kind of control of military units in the region. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Jaafari crowd are opposed to such an idea, saying such a development would pose a threat to the unity of Iraq.

There are three other reason for their opposition: Turkey, Syria and especially Iran. A federal Iraq, with strong provincial governments based on ethnic or sectarian lines is seen as a threat in those three countries who all have restive Kurdish populations that have been hankering for autonomous regions of their own in line with Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran, especially, would face a difficult situation—well, difficult for the mullahs—because it’s incredibly diverse. Persians make up 51 percent, Azeri 24 percent, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8 percent, Kurds 7 percent, Arabs 3 percent, Lur, Baluch and Turkmen 2 percent each and “other” make 1 percent. If “Sumer” became a reality alongside an autonomous Kurdistan—each with their own sources of petro-wealth—the Arab population of Khuzestan just across the Persian/Arabian Gulf would likely try to join them or form their own ethnic enclave. You’re looking at a scenario of a Balkanized Middle East.

The question you have to ask is why are secular Shi’ites pushing for Sumer? And why is Baqr Yassin, a former Ba’athist opposed to Saddam Hussein and allied with the Syrian branch of the party, the man to lead the movement? Because the secular Shi’ites in the south are scared to death of Iran and its suffocating brand of Islam. Already Basra, which I’m told used to be quite a party town, is populated by black-sheathed women and no liquor stores, cinemas or anything else secular Iraqis enjoy. Militias such as the Badr Organization—formerly commanded by al-Hakim, now head of SCIRI—which fought alongside the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) control the cops. Freelance vice and morality squads roam the streets. And this is all at the urging of Iran, which has deeply infiltrated its neighbor. The old Ba’athist Yassin is fighting the Iran-Iraq war all over again—as are many of the Ba’athist insurgents who strike at Jaafari’s Shi’ite government because, they say, “It’s Iranian.” And it’s why Adnan al-Dulaimi, the custodian of Iraq’s waqf and who claims to speak for several insurgent groups, calls for Sunni participation in Iraqi politics so they can combat shu’ubiyyah, a racist term favored by Ba’athists that basically calls Iraqi Shi’ites “Persians”—although “dirty Persians” might be more accurate in its interpretation. This has enraged my Shi’ite sources.

I can’t speak to the truth of such charges. I believe that Iran is deeply, deeply involved in a great deal of mischief from the head of the Gulf all the way up to Baghdad. But men who have to know what is going on because they can get killed if they don’t are worried about the future, and what kind of country Iraq will become.

In end, it may not matter who’s on the committee to write the constitution if the three main groups can’t see past their self-interests—or their patrons’.

Constitutional Con?

I wish I could give you a good reason for that, but I don’t. After Marla’s death, I just didn’t feel like blogging for a while…. And now Iraq’s a busy place.

BAGHDAD—Hello all. We haven’t spoken in a while. I wish I could give you a good reason for that, but I can’t. After Marla’s death, I just didn’t feel like blogging for a while. It’s not like there’s been a dearth of material, however. A new government, a hell of a lot of violence, allegations of prior corruption, massive military operations… And that’s just in the last month or so. Iraq’s a busy place.

But this week, the new Iraqi government established the Constitutional Committee that will draft Iraq’s permanent constitution. It’s made up of 55 members of parliament that didn’t get tapped for Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s cabinet—which took way too long to get off the ground. Three months? I mean, c’mon. The government expires, in theory, at the end of this year anyway. These guys’ main job is supposed to be making sure all the checks get signed and the writing of a constitution. And yet, they’re acting like a permanent government, arguing over cabinet posts and putting more thought into their own political futures than the country’s. This pisses Iraqis off.

And speaking of political futures, Iyad Allawi is considering taking the chairmanship of the committee, although one of his aides told me that he’s really preparing for the next election. I told the aide that I thought being chairman of the committee might be a nice platform from which to run. True, admitted the aide, but if the process falls apart, Allawi will be blamed for that if he’s the chairman. I countered that if the process falls apart, Allawi’s going to have a lot more to worry about than his political viability—and so will Iraq.

Another name being bandied about is Houman al-Hammoudi, a political advisor to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). These two guys are handy symbols for where Iraq may be heading. If Allawi takes the chairmanship, the new constitution will likely have more American input and be more secular. If al-Hamoudi gets it, look for a stronger role for Islam and more influence from Tehran. (SCIRI still has significant ties to the Iranian regime.)

The chairman will be announced today, inshallah, so we’ll get to see where we’re going. [UPDATE 5/16/05 5:32:23 PM: The chairmanship wasn’t announced on Sunday because committee members can’t decide between al-Hammoudi and a Kurdish member.] But, in my opinion, it’s already off to a bad start. There are only two Sunnis on the committee. One suggestion to increase their representation is to shunt them off to a subcommittee ghetto, where they’ll filter up their recommendations to the main committee. Dr. Saleh Mutlak, a member of the National Dialogue Council, the hot, new political group for disenfranchised Sunnis, thinks things might be OK if Allawi is the chairman but if it’s al-Hammoudi, the marginalizing of the religious minority will be complete. This is a recipe for yet more disaster, considering the Sunnis are already suspicious that de-Ba’athification is really code for an anti-Sunni purge.

The new government and the Americans might be wise to listen to Mutlak and his compatriots on the Council. They have good ties to the Iraqi insurgency—the Ba’athists and nationalists, not the jihadis—and they’re looking for a deal. As TIME Magazine reported in February, members of the Ba’athist/nationalist insurgency are open to negotiating an end to their struggle with the U.S. “We are ready,” said a top insurgent negotiator, “to work with you.” The Council is their Sinn Fein.

But talks may have broken down. Mutlak declined to confirm any negotiations, but handed me a statement yesterday that reads, in part:

What we cannot forget is the responsibility for the continuation of casualties that is borne by a blind insistence on a military solution to the insurgency. That military solution, over the course of now two long years, has proven to be clearly unreachable.

The U.S. and its Coalition partners, which created the conditions that prevail in Iraq today by its ill-advised dissolution of the Army and its sweeping de-Ba’athification edicts, should drop its “hands-off”attitude toward negotiations and political solutions and join with all of us, those in the Iraqi government and those who are outside, in the common work of finding a political solution that will end the insurgency, and bring about the new democratic Iraq that we all desire.

This tells me the talks may have broken down and that they’re looking to start them up again. Probably because the Sunnis are worried about Shi’ite revenge squads. One could argue whether they have it coming or not, but that is, in effect, arguing for civil war. So I guess the choices are let the Shi’ites and the Kurds massacre the Sunnis or talk with the former Ba’athists and bring them into the government. Your pick.

And this ties in with my current obsession: how Iraq will reconcile itself with its recent bloody past and the role of the Ba’ath Party. While many Sunni leaders stayed and took part in the regime, the current Shi’ite and Kurdish leadership spent much of the Saddam years in exile—and they have long memories of the oppression of their people by a military largely commanded by Sunni officers. So it’s no surprise that many former members of Saddam’s military think this is not only a political purge, but also a sectarian one. “They do not mean Ba’athists,” said Abu Laith (a pseudonym), a captain from Fallujah in Iraq’s new 8th Mechanized Division. “They mean Sunnis.”

Abu Laith is a former captain in Iraq’s 6th Armored Division, which was based in Basra. He chose not to fight the Americans in March 2003, when they rolled north out of Kuwait. But now he’s ready to take up arms against the new government and the Americans if talks break down and hardliners in the Jaafari government push for a purge of the security forces. “We are professional men and we know how to fight,” he said.

Losing experienced officers like Abu Laith to the insurgency is not something the Americans want to see, which is why they seem to be more open to talks than the Iraqi government. The Jaafari cabinet and the Kurds are not in a forgiving mood for a lot of reasons. But the choices are going to come to down to talking or fighting. Driving the former Ba’athists away from talks and their jobs is inviting catastrophe.

“If the government has 1,000 enemies now, they will have 10,000 enemies,” said Abu Laith. “We are fighting for our lives.”