April 07, 2004

It's Not 1920 All Over Again

This isn't a pan-Iraqi uprising as confronted Britain in 1920--at least not yet.

Indeed, it's not even a pan-Shi'a uprising. (UPDATE: More pessimistic analysis here).

On this, check out the below relevant portions of profiles of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Jazeera's profile here:

"He is seen by many Shia and politicians as a zealous leader who has chosen the wrong time for this escalation of protests."

More from the Guardian:

"Yesterday, hundreds, if not thousands, of people showed their support for Sadr in Baghdad, Nasiriya and Amara. Arguably his greatest popularity is among the young unemployed in deprived areas of Baghdad.

But it is important not to overstate his influence. Many Shia are opposed to the idea of militancy when they are likely to get a great deal of power anyway in coalition-backed elections.

Few Shia Muslims are in a mood to approve the idea of an armed confrontation with the highly respected Ayatollah al-Sistani, who is the most powerful Shia leader in Iraq, and who is, for the most part, engaging with the coalition timetable for elections."

(Hat Tip: Bernard Gwertzman)

Remember, you're reading such analyses in al-Jazeera and the Guardian--not watching them on Fox or reading the WSJ's editorial pages.

The Beeb too states clearly we are not facing a generalized Shi'a uprising.

The key goal for the U.S. right now is to prevent a too ham-handed crackdown on Sadr from igniting pan-Shi'a sentiment (spare the mosques in Sadr City, please) leading towards a generalized Shi'a rebellion.

Relatedly, we must ensure that Shi'a and Sunni don't begin to collaborate against a common foreign occupier as they did back in 1920 (remember, what seems like a couple moons back, when concerns centered on the prospects of Shi'a and Sunni taking up arms against each other--rather than against the U.S?).

Sadr's Gamble

Who do you think is more nervous right now Muqtada Sadr or, say, Jerry Bremer?

The former, I'd wager.

He's involved in a very high stakes gamble.

He's gambling his rejectionist anti-american stance will spur an uprising that will spread like wild-fire through the country.

And that he will gain street cred by being viewed as the first Shi'a to stand up to the increasingly resented (because they haven't provided security) Americans.

As Mike Peters put it:

"In a sense, while the immediate targets are coalition forces, the real political target for this uprising is the loyalty of the Iraqi people. It is obviously a high-risk strategy for him and for the coalition. It remains to be seen whether Sadr will be successful in rallying the Iraqis to his cause. If he does so, it will be a very substantial setback to the coalition."

Smart money, at least where we stand today, is that Sadr won't gain the loyalty of the Iraqi people (which means his rebellion could be quelled rapidly indeed--as his hard-core supporters are quite limited in number).

Yeah Sistani's not our best buddy.

But he knows the Shi'a, based on demographic factors, will be in a dominant position come elections.

Why get involved in a war with the Americans on the cusp of achieving power through the ballot box? (put differently, he's not a 30 something hothead and knows how to bide his time)

What Next?

Of course, the situation is incendiary and anything can happen yet.

But it's time for all of us to keep our cool.

We have not created a failed state like Haiti or Somalia in Iraq-- contra Juan Cole.

Nor is this, of course, Vietnam.

As John McCain pointed out today--there were single weeks in Vietnam where we lost more men than we have all year in Iraq.

And we were in Vietnam for 10 years--we've barely been in Iraq a single year.

Senators Byrd and Kennedy lose credibility when they make such analogies.

But, on the other hand, it's certainly not time for cockiness, chest-beating, and talk of razing Fallujah, Sadr City, Najaf and such claptrap.

It's time for intelligent, methodical counter-insurgency operations--backed up by more troops.

And it's time to begin considering pre-emptively broaching with Sistani discussions regarding pushing back the sovereignty handover date:

"As intolerable as Sistani has found the occupation, he may well see Sadr-inspired chaos and radicalism as harmful to the interests of the Shia. Sistani has been a good-faith negotiator--he always gives the CPA a chance to meet his demands and never abruptly imposes a fact on the ground--and he may be receptive to the argument that the instability fostered by a weak interim government will benefit the Sadrists and invite meddling from Iraq's Sunni neighbors like Saudi Arabia."

I'm not as sure as Spence Ackerman that this is a must just yet.

And given that Sistani will be coming under pressure from hard-line Shi'a to get tougher with the Americans--particularly as Sadr's militia (and innocents in densely packed residential zones) get killed during counter-insurgency operations--well, it makes it all the harder for Sistani to agree to push back the handover date.

But we might find ourselves in a position where we will have to try to persuade him to do so.

Put differently, we have to potentially tee up his acquiesence to a delay in the handover if, come late May, the situation in Iraq remains so unstable that a sovereignty transfer would appear a risible notion to anyone who cares about pursuing a unitary, democratic Iraqi state.

Another carrot to dangle to Sistani should we need to persuade him to delay the handover--one not mentioned by Ackerman?

That U.N. blue helmets and/or NATO forces would be brought in during the months after the initial handover date so as to make the occupation look less distinctly American.

There may be a limited appetite for that in places like Paris, Berlin and Turtle Bay.

But the state of the Atlantic Alliance is not quite as dim as many think.

And preventing Iraq's descent into anarchy or civil war is in the interests of all these parties--no matter the previous trans-atlantic discord of '03.

More soon.

Posted by Gregory at April 7, 2004 10:55 PM
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