by Colin Foster
Is a new nationalist political alliance emerging in Iraq, non-sectarian or at least cross-sectarian? Some reporters in the USA claim it is. The balance of evidence, I think, indicates not.
The claim for the existence of a new alliance rests on a “legislative petition” submitted in the Iraqi parliament on 8 May calling for the USA to set a timetable for withdrawal.
The “petition” does not have the force of a parliamentary decision, but its organisers claim the support of 144 members, a majority of the 275-member parliament. On 5 June they got a binding decision through the assembly stating that approval for US troops to remain in Iraq must be renewed every six months by the parliament, not just the prime minister.
It was initiated by the Shia-Islamist al-Sadr movement. It was supported by other groups, including Fadhila (another Shia-Islamist group, strong in Basra) and the Iraqi National Dialogue Front (the secular-Sunni alliance led by ex-Ba’thist Saleh al-Mutlaq) — and presumably, by sections of other movements, since Sadr, Fadhila, and National Dialogue between them have only 50 to 60 members of parliament.
According to Raed Jarrar and Joshua Holland, writing on Alternet, “the defining battle for Iraq at the political level today is between nationalists trying to hold the Iraqi state together and separatists backed, so far, by the United States and Britain...
“By ‘separatists’, we mean groups who oppose a unified Iraq with a strong central government... Dawa... SCIRI... Kurds”.
Now, such vehement critics of Bush’s policy in Iraq as Peter Galbraith have argued at length, with detailed documentation, that the USA has blundered hugely in Iraq not by favouring “separatism” but, on the contrary, by seeking an unrealistic degree of all-Iraq unity. The USA did not want SCIRI and Dawa to get the leading positions they have now. Whatever looks like an unwarranted US bias towards “separatism” is more probably a desperate scramble to do whatever deals seem workable with whatever forces seem semi-reliable.
However, Sadr, Fadhila, and National Dialogue are all set apart politically from SCIRI, Dawa, and the Kurds in wanting a relatively centralised Iraq. Fadhila favours an autonomous region in the south, but a small one around Basra, not the huge autonomous south advocated by SCIRI and others. The three groups oppose the proposed new oil law for Iraq, which would set a legal basis for privatisation with much of the decision-making power and revenue belonging to regions rather than to Baghdad.
Sadr’s movement, the most anti-American of the Shia-Islamist movements, has been markedly more political than the car-bombing Sunni-Islamist “resistance” groups.
Sadr has, so far, deftly ducked the new US military “surge” in Baghdad. At first he said he supported the “surge”; then he withdrew support on the grounds that the US had mismanaged it, but still counselled his fighters to lie low (and let the brunt of US operations be directed against the Sunni groups). “We are committed to the political path and it is working well for us,” a Sadrist spokesperson told the Guardian (1 June).
In 2004 Sadr made a point of offering the solidarity of his Shia movement to the Sunni Islamists then under attack by the US in Fallujah. This year, when Iraqi prime minister Maliki, under US pressure, said he would sack the Sadrist ministers from his government, Sadr had them resign first. Shortly before that, on 9 April, he organised a huge anti-American demonstration — in the Shia holy city of Najaf, but with Sunni clerics featured on it, and Iraqi flags rather than pictures of Shia clerics.
He responded to unpopular US plans to build high walls in Baghdad separating Sunni and Shia areas by asking his followers to paint protest murals on the walls. When US troops engaged in a (failed) shoot-out with some of his fighters near the Kazimiya Shia shrine in northern Baghdad, he secured a majority vote in Parliament to tell the US to keep well away from the shrine in future.
He responded to the US-Iran talks on the future of Iraq on 28 May — the first open US-Iran negotiations for many years — by denouncing “Iranian acceptance of an American-British-Jewish Mandate” over Iraq.
The denunciation of the US/UK occupation as “Jewish” or “Zionist” probably plays well to a large audience. It has been a common theme of many groups in Iraq, right back to 2003 (anti-semitism was a constant theme of Saddam’s regime, and as far back as 1948 “Zionism” was declared a criminal offence in Iraq, as its Jewish population — up until then, one-third of the population of Baghdad — was driven out).
Sadr can do “soft” as well as “hard”. In the December 2005 elections Sadr’s group was part of the government-majority United Iraqi Alliance, and Sadrist ministers served in Maliki’s government until April this year. The “legislative petition” of 8 May was studiedly moderate.
“We haven’t asked for the immediate withdrawal of multinational forces; we asked that we should build our security forces and make them qualified, and at that point there would be a withdrawal,” said Sadrist spokesperson Bahaa al-Araji. “But no one can accept the occupation of his country.”
Fadhila leader Hassan al-Shimmari concurred: “We can all see that it’s not possible for the American troops to leave, and that withdrawing right now would lead to a disaster in Iraq, because the Iraqi security forces are still very weak, and they are still controlled by their sectarian and factional loyalties,” he said.
The Maliki government is increasingly discredited in Iraq. Its writ scarcely runs outside the US-controlled “Green Zone” in Baghdad, and not that much in the Green Zone either. Its members of parliament rarely turn up, preferring to spend as much time outside Iraq as they can.
It has no progress to show on the main things the US wants from it, either: finalising the oil law, and amending the 2005 Iraqi constitution so as to conciliate more Sunnis.
But US efforts to find a better government coalition (openly talked about by top US figures in late 2006) have come to naught. According to a detailed report in the Washington Post, the latest plans drawn up by US ambassador Ryan Crocker and military commander David Petraeus renounce such efforts and instead focus on trying to shore up Maliki.
Iyad Allawi, the secular ex-Ba’thist politician whom the US (very unsuccessfully) tried to put up to win the January 2005 elections, would be the obvious leader for an alternative government, and was reported in March as being actively trying to put together an anti-Maliki coalition. Now, according to the Iraqi newspaper Al-Zaman, Allawi has decided against withdrawing from the Maliki government.
Sadr, and whatever allies he can muster, thus have a clear run against a very discredited Maliki. Can they mobilise a mass movement which will leave the Americans with no choice but to scuttle? (It is hard to see how the US could defy a sustained majority vote in the Iraqi parliament to demand US withdrawal). If they do, could they establish a workable administration to replace the Americans?
Or, alternatively, could they squeeze out Maliki, and establish themselves as the prime political force with which the US has to negotiate Iraq’s future?
There was strong talk in official US statements in late 2006 that the Americans considered Sadr’s movement a worse pest than al-Qaeda. There have been repeated skirmishes between the US and Sadrists. On 2 June the US sent bomber planes against Habibibya, an area in the huge Sadr City district of Baghdad which is Sadr’s main base, no doubt killing many people.
The kidnapping of five British people in Baghdad on 29 May has been blamed on the Mahdi Army, or possibly on a splinter from it.
On 2 June the Guardian quoted the International Institute for Strategic Studies as predicting that: “The final wave of US troops that arrives in June will be sent to Baghdad’s outer suburbs...Their task will be to seek out and defeat... Jaish al-Mahdi” (Sadr’s Mahdi Army).
But the USA’s plans for the new military “surge” it started in February this year were that the much-increased numbers of US troops in Baghdad were to have gained workable control of the streets in most of the city by July, allowing the USA then to shift a bit into hearts-and-minds activity like improving public services. They are very far short of that. The USA reckons to have workable control over only 146 out of 457 neighbourhoods in Baghdad (New York Times, 4 June).
Against that background, it is hard to imagine any competent US general going for a confrontation with Sadr’s Mahdi Army. The US commander of ground troops in Iraq, Raymond Odierno, told a news agency at the end of May that he was seeking “dialogue” with Sadr.
“He has a grass-roots movement that he’s always going to have; we have to recognize that. We’re trying to talk to him. We want to talk to him.
“We are talking about cease-fires, and maybe signing some things that say they won’t conduct operations against the government of Iraq or against coalition forces”.
A Sadrist spokesperson responded that they would never talk to the occupation forces, but in fact there is a long history of under-the-counter deals between the US and the Sadrists back to 2004.
In short: the Sadrists are the nearest thing there is in Iraq to a militant mass nationalist movement. They have been able to make some alliances across sectarian lines and use their political openings deftly. The USA, in a weak position, is probably thinking that it will have to do deals with Sadr.
Could the Sadrists unite, around themselves, a real movement of Iraqi national liberation — right-wing in social outlook, to be sure, but a force capable of taking at least one step out of Iraq’s current bloody impasse?
The balance of evidence is no. Afflicted Iraq has not only an occupying power incapable of effectively occupying, but also nationalists incapable of effective nationalism.
In the first place, Sadr’s movement is specifically Shia-Islamist. It trades on the name Sadr, belonging to current leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s older relatives, who were in their time the foremost theological figures of Shia Islamism in Iraq, right from the time it originated as a conservative reaction to the growth of secular socialistic politics through the then-mass Iraqi Communist Party of 1958-63. Both older Sadrs were killed by Saddam.
In 1991 Sadr City did not rise against Saddam together with the Shia south. Maybe the long-established Shia-Islamist parties, Dawa and SCIRI, had been unable to establish effective underground organisation there, and that gave the younger Sadr a clear field there after the US/British invasion and the fall of Saddam in 2003.
In any case Sadr quickly built a mass movement there. It was not in the least secular. It started off with a few hundred theology students. It built a militia, the Mahdi Army, which was looser and more popular-based than SCIRI’s Badr Corps (a force forged for SCIRI, out of Iraqi exiles in Iran, by the Iranian government), but whose very name is distinctively Shia-Islamist.
The Mahdi, according to a book by Moqtada’s father, is the “hidden” twelfth Imam — living since the year 868 but concealed for the last thousand-odd years — who will shortly re-emerge and “fight the wrong, remedy the evils and establish a world order based on the Islamic teachings of justice and virtue. Thereafter there will be only one religion and one government in the world”. That religion, of course, is to be not only Islam but Shia Islam. (A concept of the Mahdi apparently exists in some variants of Sunni Islam, but it is substantially different).
Sadr’s doctrine, even if not all the unemployed young men who have joined the Mahdi Army hold to it or even know about it in detail, is that the ideal government is one under the direct control of senior clerics, as in Iran. And which senior clerics? Shia ones, of course.
The Mahdi Army first established itself in Sadr City and elsewhere by enforcing Islamic dress, closing alcohol outlets and video shops, persecuting gypsies, etc.
In March 2005 it was forced into an apology by a big student strike at Basra university which erupted after Sadrists attacked a mixed group of students on a picnic and killed a Christian student who was defending female students harassed by the Sadrists.
Whatever gambits the Sadrists can pull off, there is no chance that they can durably unite the whole Iraqi people around their politics — or form a military force capable of policing Iraq effectively around the core of a Shia-sectarian militia.
The Sadrists are Iraqi nationalists. Iraqi nationalism is a real force, at least among Arab Iraqis. But it can and does combine with sectarianism. A Shia sectarian may be a sincere Iraqi nationalist but believe that the Shia are the real Iraqi majority, and the Sunni suspect because of pan-Arabist links. A Sunni sectarian may be a sincere Iraqi nationalist but believe that the Sunni Arabs are the real Iraqis, and the Shia suspect because of Iranian links.
So Iraqi nationalism, even if fervent, is not necessarily a basis of unity. Moreover, the Sadrists are among the Iraqi-Arab forces least tolerant of Kurdish demands.
A movement to overthrow Saddam from below might well — though not without difficulties and bloodshed — have found ways to surmount or “manage” the sectarian/communal conflicts and contradictions under pressure of the imperatives of assembling a majority against the dictator. With Saddam removed “from above”, and the terrain poisoned by the USA’s arrogance and brutality and clumsy deployment of ultra-corrupt handouts to US contractors in place of social reconstruction, the conflicts and contradictions have become putrid. “Troops out, victory to the Sadrists” is a path to doom for democracy and the Iraqi labour movement as much as “Troops out, victory to the Sunni sectarian militias”.
Behind the scenes, so it appears from press reports, the US administration is scrabbling to find a “Plan B” to follow when they finally have to admit that the “surge” has failed. There is no evidence that they are coming up with good options.
On the foundation stone of the huge new US embassy in Baghdad might be written, substituting “Bush” for “Ozymandias”, Shelley’s words:
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The Sadrist movement and its gambits are not an oasis in the desert sands. The only oasis is the harassed but still-living Iraqi labour movement.
On the morning of Monday 4 June, the oil pipeline workers in Basra, southern Iraq, struck. According to the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine & General Workers’ Unions: “Earlier strike calls in May [focused around demands including consultation with the union on the proposed new oil law] were postponed after the union gained a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki” — where, according to the union, Maliki accepted all its demands on paper. Maliki did not deliver.
“The union is currently focussing on two core demands in its strike at the pipeline company:
“They demand that the Oil Ministry take action to force the general manager of the pipeline company to resign;
“They demand that the company be financially and administratively independent from the Baghdad-based central ministry, and that the pipeline company be managed locally.
“ICEM is informed that the reason for the first demand, and the catalyst for today’s action, is that the general manger of the pipeline company, Adel Aziz, who is based in Baghdad rather than in Basra, blocked the orders of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Mailiki to release delayed benefits due to workers [and] stopped an allowance which the workers are regularly entitled to”. On 6 June Maliki issued orders to arrest four union leaders for “sabotaging the Iraqi economy”.
All the different Iraqi union movements are united in supporting democracy, opposing Sunni-Shia-Kurdish division, and insisting that Iraq’s oil remain public property. With sufficient resources — which they do not yet have — they could begin to unite a majority of the population around such demands, and lay the basis for a political way out.
Support and success for the current strike is vital even on its limited demands, because it can lay the basis for Iraqi workers starting to develop the confidence for a new political direction.
• Alternet: http://www.alternet.org/story/51624/
• Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions: http://www.basraoilunion.org
• Iraq Union Solidarity: