Moqtada redux

Moqtada al-Sadr isn’t that popular, except where he exploits the fears and resentment of the poor, his vision of Iraq is not that popular, he’s been given numerous opportunities to take part in a political system that is, while flawed, the only game in town, and he refuses and takes over the holiest shrine in Islam. So what is to be done?

It’s time to set something straight that I should have done a while back. In a “previous post”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/000803.php that pissed a lot of people off, I said, “Mobs are terrifying, but they’re relatively easy to deal with if you’re willing to kill a lot of people and say the hell with world opinion.” I would have _thought_ most people would have realized that I was _not_ advocating killing a bunch of people; I was saying armed mobs like Sadr’s are fiendishly difficult to deal with — unless you’re willing to say to hell with what other people think.
America and Allawi have shown that, by and large, they don’t care what other people think. But I didn’t choose words carefully in the next sentence: “The latter is unlikely to be a problem for Allawi and the Americans, however; world opinion is basically against Moqtada.” I should have instead said “world opinion is not for Moqtada.” That’s a different idea that I wrote and that was my mistake.
What I meant is this: Liberal democracies, mostly what we call “The West,” are usually pretty uncomfortable with things like mass killings and razing holy places. That’s a good way to get people riled up and why dealing with mobs in a jack-booted way is tricky and difficult. But what works in the U.S. and Allawi’s favor is the general unsavoriness of the Mehdi Army. As Juan Cole says, “Arab newspapers don’t usually say so, but the other side of the story is that Muqtada’s militiamen are narrow-minded, thug-like puritans who impose their power on civilians by coercion.” He’s absolutely right. As one fighter is quoted by a Salon story, “We will do anything to stop the Americans. They have sex and drinking and other things, and we don’t want this.”
Now, I’m _not_ going to make the argument that they should be killed because they don’t like Britney Spears. I am also not going to say that they don’t have a right to life or to their beliefs. I am going to ask the question why the Western world should be wringing its hands about dealing decisively with a heavily armed group of these guys, who are also the chief suspects behind a wave of liquor store and CD shop bombings in Baghdad and other cities. In any other situation, they would be considered criminal thugs and most people would begging the National Guard to come in and restore order. But in the case of Moqtada, you’d think I’d maligned La Resistance of World War II. How _dare_ I call the brave mujahdeen assholes and thugs?
Which brings me back to my point. Where is the outrage and the sympathy for Moqtada? I mean, I understand the desire to avoid killing people in mass quantities; it’s really for the best that that doesn’t happen. I am against mass killings, period. But where are the crowds and the marches for U.S. out of Najaf or for Moqtada’s brave resistance such as those that preceded the war in the West? Where are the denunciations in the U.N. from people with credibility on human rights and violence like Germany or Canada? I’m not hearing them. Or at least, I’m not hearing of reports of them.
And here in Iraq, I’d guess that most people would “sympathize” with al-Sadr standing up to the hated Americans. But do they support al-Sadr himself? Overwhelmingly, *no.* In a survey (.doc file) done in June by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, an Iraqi think tank run by Dr. Sadoun al-Dulame, he found that the person Iraqis would most vote for in a presidential race was … Ibrahim al-Jafari, the head of the Islamic Dawa Party (A Shi’a group.) The next most popular was “don’t know.” The Shi’a leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, received 2.1 percent of the vote. What did Moqtada get? 1.1 percent. Hell, _Saddam Hussein_ outpolled al-Sadr, with 1.7 percent of respondents choosing him as their favorite presidential candidate.
Would more people vote for al-Sadr now? Very possibly. Would it be more than 2-3 percent? I seriously doubt it. Will it change in the future? Undoubtedly, but to what degree I have no idea.
Al-Sadr’s movement garners sympathy because he’s pointing his finger at the biggest devil of them all in Iraq — the United States. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into support for the man himself. His cause — driving out the U.S. — may be popular, but the man and his policies, such as they are, are widely disparaged. Putting down an armed (and mostly unpopular) rebellion isn’t putting the brakes on democracy, it’s removing a barrier to it.
What the Iraqis do after that is their business, hopefully. I’ve been at the national conference for the past two days, and it’s a mess, but I hope not an entirely hopeless one. The big parties — the PUK, KDP, Islamic Dawa Party, SCIRI and Iraqi National Accord have set up the selection process so that it — surprise! — favors themselves. And the two biggest parties, Dawa and SCIRI are making a real power play to dominate the coming council. The reaction among the 1,300 delegates to the Islamic putsch? Dismay and alarm. Most Iraqis from all walks of life really don’t want to live under an Islamic state envisioned by the Islamists, among which Moqtada would proudly place himself.)
Anyway, the people who do argue most strenuously are the “hard-core anti-imperialists,” as I rather sloppily termed them. My apologies. These are — generally — the folks who opposed the war, as I did, but who think that pulling out completely is the answer, as I do not. I don’t think they’re really arguing in favor of Moqtada so much as against the U.S. Someone in one of the comments said they favored “self-determination.” Based on anecdotal evidence — and the poll results above — self-determination would involve _someone_ riding Moqtada’s ass out of Najaf on a rail and disarming his militia. It would also involve getting the U.S. out of Iraq and not damaging the shrine.
As I said, if Moqtada and his followers get slaughtered, I’m confident most of the world will make the standard disapproving noises, but not too much of a fuss. If the shrine is undamaged (or maybe only a little bit), it’s a big win for Allawi. If, however, the Imam Ali shrine is damaged or worse, that’s an entirely different story. And a much scarier one. That _would_ inflame middle class and poor alike, uniting behind a hatred for the U.S. that could translate from resentful grumbling into real action. That’s why al-Sadr is weak without the shrine and powerful inside it. And that’s why this is tricky.
Al-Sadr isn’t that popular, except where he exploits the fears and resentment of the poor, his vision of Iraq is not that popular, he’s been given numerous opportunities to take part in a political system that is, while flawed, the only game in town, and he refuses and takes over the holiest shrine in Islam. An Iraqi reporter in Najaf is telling me the people of Najaf are fed up with him and want him out because the Mehdi’s are terrorizing them and shooting mortars from the top of the mosque. Tell me again why he shouldn’t be dealt with strongly and forcefully if he continues to refuse all overtures of giving him a slice of the political pie? What is the alternative? Just pulling up stakes and leaving?
That’s not such a good idea either.
Saying the war should have never happened and feeling virtuous because you were right it is all well and good, but it’s not really a road map to what to do regarding Iraq. Because, Iraq is the U.S.’s problem — and it’s a big one. It is _the_ foreign policy challenge for the U.S. — and the rest of the world — for the foreseeable future. If this was Vietnam you could, from a realpolitik point of view, let it muddle along under a regime of benign neglect. But not here. It’s chaos sitting on the second-largest oil reserves in the world. And they don’t even have to be tapped for it to affect you personally.
Yes, you personally. Let’s say Moqtada survives and his movement succeeds in discrediting the Allawi government to such an extent that he resigns or, in desperation, asks the United States to leave and invites Moqtada into some form of power-sharing arrangement. He’s a fundamentalist Shi’a who wants to impose an Islamic state on a population that would overwhelmingly oppose it, as I’ve mentioned. Or hell, let’s say he dies and his martyrdom leads to a popular revolution — again, something I think is improbable, but bear with me for the sake of argument. Call this new Islamic Republic of Iraq Iran-lite.
What would happen next? Well, for one, the best and the brightest of Iraq’s intellectuals and middle class would flee. So you’re making an already poor population poorer. Good for Moqtada, the poor are his base, appealing as he does to a kind of Islamic populism. What happens when you make a country impoverished? Right, you create a breeding ground for _jihadist_ terrorism. It’s already happening among the Sunni extremists of the Anbar province. A very few foreign figures such as Zarqawi are inspiring native-born Iraqi _jihadis._ Fallujah is crawling with them.
Next, the Kurds would probably fight a civil war to get out of such a state. That’s one of the reasons they’re so adamant about the veto clause in the TAL — and why the Shia groups were so adamant to have it in. An independent Kurdistan would almost surely ignite a regional war involving Turkey and Iran. It would also deny the unified Islamic Republic of Iraq a lot of oil revenues from the Kirkuk region. The Mullahs of Baghdad would not let region go peacefully.
So now you have a fundamentalist state that may not be officially terroristic, but has created the conditions for terrorism to grow, and there’s a regional war being fought right on top of much of the world’s oil supply. Can you say $60 a barrel? Maybe higher? $100?
Now, bemoan American dependence on Middle East oil all you want — I certainly do — but for the medium term, we need it. As does Europe and Japan — even more than the United States does. Oil prices at $45 a barrel are already producing a drag on the United States economy; even higher rates would send the world economy into a tail spin. And what happens when China can’t afford Middle East oil? Well, those Spratley Islands look mighty inviting.
So now the U.S. is faced with _two_ blatantly hostile regimes straddling the Gulf and the subversive Saudi regime, all controlling 20-25 percent of the world’s oil supply. Your heating bills will go through the roof, for one. Likewise, your electricity bill. Forget about driving that car everywhere, and hell, you probably won’t have a job to drive to, since the energy costs are causing companies to cut costs everywhere. Transportation costs are higher, so the goods you need to buy and the food you eat will cost a lot more — which is problem since you lost your job. Etc., etc. You get the point.
So there is a domino theory at work here, as I think I’ve pointed out — just not the one the neocons envisioned. I’m not saying it’s right to ignore the masses or urban poor, only that it happens. I’m not saying it’s right to kill a lot of people whether they’re poor or rich, but sometimes it’s necessary. It’s tragic that the poor are too often the victims, however.
I’m saying that defeating al-Sadr’s aims to impose an Islamic state either through diplomacy or through military action, which would be highly distasteful and probably a pyrrhic victory, is really the only option left to Allawi and the Americans. And the fact that that’s not really a choice at all is a tragedy too.

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