Where Things Stand Tonight

BAGHDAD — It’s Saturday night in Baghdad, and it’s been a busy day. The funeral of a well-known journalist was attacked west of Baghdad and one person was killed and four people injured. On the way back to town, the funeral procession hit an IED, which destroyed a car or two. An unknown number of people were injured, but no one (else) was killed, thank goodness.
In Karbala, a car bomb exploded at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of the Shi’ite holy city, killing several policemen and an unknown number of civilians. Weirdly, a man was apprehended nearby who allegedly detonated the bomb via remote control. Reports are that he said the real target was the shrine to Imam Hussayn in Karbala, which holier than the Askariya shrine destroyed in Samarra.
One of my staff members reports that there is fighting on his street tonight, and several neighbors have already been killed. He lives in a primarily Sunni neighborhood in west Baghdad.
The curfew was extended today to 6 p.m., but it is to be lifted tomorrow at 6 a.m. We’ll see what happens. Right now, there’s a feeling that the tension has eased somewhat, but that may be false security. Shi’ite militiamen, probably Mahdi Army, and Sunni gunmen fought pitched battles in the streets of southern Baghdad yesterday and today, while the Iraqi police and Army — praised by the Americans and the Iraqi “government” for their professionalism and efficacy — stood by and watched. During the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the Lebanese Army sat out much of the conflict there, allowing militias free reign. The same is happening here in Baghdad today.
It’s clear the authorities, at least the ones who appear on television with titles such as “Defense Minister” and “U.S. Ambassador,” have no clue what to do. Their strategy seems mainly to consist of betting that Moqtada al-Sadr and the hardline Sunni group, the Muslim Clerics Association, “really will make nice”:http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,18278442%255E1702,00.html. Four sheikhs associated with al-Sadr and MCA spokesman Abdel Salam al-Qubasi publicly pledged a “pact of honor” and promised to end attacks. That’s nice. While these men were on television playing political footsie, we had reports that their followers were still trying to kill each other. There’s a real history here of saying one thing and doing another. We’ll have to see.
More balderdash from the Americans, of course. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad gave another press conference tonight in which he said the Iraqi “government” was holding lots of meetings, and that was good. Also, the Iraqi “government” has decided to ban people “who should not have arms” from patrolling the streets. “I think the government decision to ban that was a good thing,” he said.
Well, sure. But in my experience, men with guns in their fists and rage in their hearts don’t wait around for their weapons license to come through when there’s killing to be done. And who is going to enforce this ban? The police? Badr Brigade members control the police of most of the southern cities. An entire Public Order Battalion in Baghdad is composed of Mahdi Army. In Anbar, most of the Army units are Shi’ites and Kurds. What happens when Mahdi militiamen run into a squad of their brothers in the police? Do you think they’ll turn in their guns? Or what happens in Anbar, where many of the police forces in the cities are now local (Sunni Arab) guys? Do you think they’ll confiscate the AK-47s of their _mujahideen_ brothers off to fight the Shi’ite members of the 1st Division down the road?
I don’t.
We have reached a point where the facade of the “political process” has been shredded. The real power lies — and has always lain — in the hands of the sheikhs, the clerics — especially Moqtada — and the gunmen. The politicians in Baghdad can continue their silly little exercise in government building and the Americans and the foreign diplomatic corps can tell their audiences in their home countries how much progress Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is making at building bridges with Saleh Mutlak. But we on the ground know the truth. We’re on the edge of a hot knife, and it’s getting hotter. There may be a pause now, but only for now. And we might have pulled back from the abyss just in time. This might end soon after all and my doom-saying will be proven wrong.
But I don’t think so. If there’s another bombing of a Shi’ite shrine, or some other massacre of Sunnis, then all bets are off. Sistani has already instructed his followers to take matters into their own hands if the government can’t keep them safe. For Iraqis, their fate appears to lie with the scruffy young men standing at the ends of their streets, not with the politicians in the Green Zone.