What Politicians Say

BAGHDAD — Lately, there’s been a lot of talk: reconciliation talks, talks about the government, talks about Sunni-Shi’a partnership, talk, talk, talk.
Don’t listen to most of it. While many are thankful all-out civil war was averted after the violence of the last five days, many others are still spoiling for a fight and now distrust their leaders. In the south, I just heard, many Shi’a in Karbala are very angry over the decision by Moqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Organization to stand down, angry over the public shows of national unity between al-Sadr and other Sunni leaders. My fixer from Karbala tells me the mood in much of the south is, “The politicians just want to keep their positions and they’re willing to sacrifice our lives and our mosques for themselves.” He was especially alarmed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call to form more tribal militias to protect the Shi’a.
Karbala is a stronghold of Sistani, who is usually considered a moderate. Chew on that for a while.
He thinks that while this week didn’t spark a full-on conflagration, it will take only one more massacre, one more bombing for this can of gasoline we call Iraq to burst into flame. I tend to agree with him. The government talks are pointless unless something is done about the various militias that are staking out territories and security portfolios. Sunni policemen patrol western Baghdad while Shi’ite Army troops patrol the Shi’ite eastern half. Meanwhile, SCIRI and the al-Sadr Current compete for who can be the most anti-American. They’re barely keeping their militias in check. They’re not leaders; they’re captives of the passions they inflame.
On the Sunni side, the Muslim Clerics Association is calling for its followers to be prepared to descend on Baghdad and protect their comrades and their mosques. Weapons are being stockpiled in the western neighborhoods and roadblocks are going up at the ends of streets.
What Iraqi politicians say to U.S. Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad and to Green Zone-based reporters is largely meaningless. What is much more influential is what they say to their followers through sermons in the mosques, their tribal allies and pernicious whisper campaigns. For example, shortly after Wednesday’s bombing, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said Khalilzad bore some responsibility. Although he recanted shortly after, the calls for Khalilzad’s expulsion were as strong as ever in mosques loyal to SCIRI and the Badr Organization on Friday.
Not to be outdone, al-Sadr said in Basra it made no difference if Khalilzad stayed or left, as long as the occupation remains.
“Listen, loved ones, look what the feeble-minded want us to do,” he said in Basra. “They want us to expel the U.S. ambassador. No, we want to expel the occupation, not the U.S. ambassador.” He added: “Whether the U.S. ambassador leaves or not, what will that do if the head of the snake remains here? Cut off the head of the snake, then the entire evil will go away. So we want the occupation troops to leave Iraq, even according to an objective [mawdu’i] timetable, as they call it.”
For the last 18 months, we’ve been in a low-grade civil war. The Askariya bombing kicked us up to “medium-grade,” I guess you might call it. Both Sunnis and Shi’a I’ve spoken with are waiting and preparing for it, and that very preparation might make for a self-fulfilling prophecy. For to many Iraqis, it’s only a matter of time.