By Clive Bradley
The worst fighting since May has erupted across Iraq, with the collapse of the ceasefire with the so-called Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In Najaf, according to the interim Iraqi government and the US army, hundreds of militia have been killed - though al-Sadr has not been driven out of the city.
Fighting has been fierce in many other towns - in the Shi'a slums of Baghdad where the Mahdi army is very strong (although calm was reported to be returning on Sunday, 8 August) - but also, as in the last "uprising" in the Spring, in Sunni areas.
The military offensive of the Sunni "resistance" took a further sectarian turn, targeting Iraq's Christian minority along with its usual victims - foreign soldiers and anyone, including contract workers and cleaners as well as Iraqi soldiers and policemen, believed to be working with the Americans.
The interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi formally took over from the occupation at the end of June, and is still scheduled to hold elections by January 2005 at the latest. A "congress" of tribal and political leaders due to be held in July had to be postponed. The complicated selection process for choosing delegates had favoured the expatriate parties and politicians; the religious Shi'a parties felt underrepresented (while the more radical factions, such as the Sadrists, refused to take part). Reports suggest that the floor fights in local selections were, in some cases, vicious. It bodes ill for the elections themselves next year.
If, indeed, the interim government can remain on schedule. Allawi - a former Ba'thist who fell out with Saddam - has been granted emergency powers; some reports suggest that the elections may be delayed. The death penalty has been reintroduced. The security situation is appalling - listed by Iraqis as their greatest concern, and provoking an exodus of thousands from the country - and any democratic government would have to take steps against the various terrorist factions.
But the commitment of some of the major players in the interim government to democracy is questionable beyond such concerns. Polls suggest Allawi himself has only minority support among Iraqis - the most popular political figures are radical Shi'a leaders including Muqtada al-Sadr, who came second in a recent poll, with nearly 70% of Iraqis regarding him favourably. The most popular leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, recently left Iraq, apparently for medical treatment in the UK. (This is the first time he has left Najaf, or indeed his house there, in years).
The former favourite of the US neocons, Ahmed Chalabi, faces charges of corruption. His son, who is leading the prosecution of Saddam, has meanwhile been accused of the murder of a political opponent. He claims the charge is absurd and politically motivated.
The various "resistance" factions would plainly like to obstruct whatever transition to democracy may be possible. There does seem to be a distinction, however, between the Sunni groups and the Sadrists: the latter are playing a more political game, offering to participate in the process if they are given enough carrots.
For this reason it seems unlikely to me that they provoked the recent fighting: more likely Allawi's government and his US sponsors are anxious to reduce their influence and calculated this could be achieved by a military offensive. The measure of the problem in this is Baghdad's so-called Sadr City - where al-Sadr's forces are, in effect, the police and justice system and have mass support. As the commander of the US forces there put it: "I can't fight three million people with a battalion."
That the Sadrists have mass support seems beyond argument. But this is not to say they are universally popular. Their main targets are off-licenses and prostitutes. As one Najafi comments: "Saddam took my father and now the Americans took my job away... The Mahdi army and the Americans want to fight and we, the poor people, are caught in the middle." (The Guardian, August 9)
Al-Sadr gains much of his support among the poor, and especially young unemployed men. Nearly a year and a half after the toppling of Saddam, both the security and the employment situations remain catastrophic. One task for secular, democratic and working class forces in Iraq, such as the emerging trade unions, is to make the "middle", "caught" between the Mahdi Army and the USA, a strong independent force which can organise those people currently drawn to the Sadrists.
Our task, through solidarity, is to help them.