November 26, 2004

The Shi'a Triangle

"Surged." "Tenacious." "Relentless". "Devastated." "Intense." "Devastated (again!)." "Unrelenting." "Inflamed Sunni resentment." "Impossible." "Threatening to unravel the very social fabric of the country." "Sunni-dominated cities exploded." Mosul: "second front of the insurgency" "Embattled capital."

All that in a short Edward Wong NYT dispatch from Iraq. Oh, don't miss the "bit of positive news" too! (How, exactly, by the way, has Mosul become a full-blown second front of the insurgency? Several police stations were occupied by insurgents--and have since been re-taken by coalition forces. Does this a second front make?)

Look, these stories matter and need to be reported--if in more balanced, judicious manner. But the big and hugely under-reported story in Iraq, right now, is that the Shi'a are about to assume power after the January elections--after 500 years under Sunni domination since the days of the Ottoman Empire. Most journalists are ignoring this mega-story in favor of the cacophony of news re: car bombings, beheadings, and so on. While B.D. has been dismayed throughout the Iraq war that too few troops were put in theater (allowing such absurd situations to fester) the country is still moving towards elections-despite all the turbulence enthusiastically chronicled by the MSM.

Yes, of course, instability in the Sunni Triangle matters very much to the general legitimacy of the impending elections. But it's the emergence of a "Shi'a Triangle" that is the big story media should be following diligently right now. Unlike the Sunni Triangle, the Shi'a Triangle isn't a geographic designation--but a description of the complicated inter-relationships currently underway between three men: Ayatollah Sistani, Moktada al Sadr, and the irrepresible Ahmad Chalabi (busily re-inventing himself as a pious Shi'a, of sorts, and helpfully out of sorts (vis-a-vis his street cred) with the Americans, Allawi, etc (Allawi remains a player too, of course, so that we might even talk of a Shi'a quadrangle).:

In the political jostling, the two main religious Shiite parties have agreed to form a coalition to run in the elections and are competing for the support of Sistani, say officials of both groups, the Dawa Islamic Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, better known as SCIRI. The two parties want the ayatollahís commission to endorse the parties as the main body of a unified Shiite slate.

But so does Chalabi, who leads a rival faction called the Shiite Council, which consists of 42 smaller parties, including his own Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi is competing for the commissionís endorsement and a guarantee of a significant share of any assembly seats won by the Shiites, at the expense of the more established parties.

Seen as a carpetbagger by some Iraqis, Chalabi is relying on Moqtada Sadr to strengthen his credibility. Senior officials in the groups of the two men have discussed how they would divide assembly seats if they were to offer a single list of candidates. An organizer of the Shiite Council, Ali Faisal Al-Lami, recently traveled to Mosul with Ali Smesim, Sadrís top aide, to speak to Sunni tribal leaders about their possibly joining a predominantly Shiite coalition led by Sadr or Chalabi or both.

Who would have thunk it? Chalabi, Iraq's George Washington to be and darling of Washington's neo-con's--now allied with Moktada al-Sadr against more establishment Shi'a political groupings (SCIRI, Dawa) that are vying for Sistani's support? More material to beat up the AEI crowd with? Well, not necessarily. The situation is much more complex than that. Sadr, after all, periodically threatens to boycott the elections claiming that cooperating with the Americans and interim authority re: the scheduled Jan. 30 elections is tantamount to unacceptable cooperation with the occupiers. And, of course, we are busy enough worrying about Sunni boycotts to concerns ourselves with, say, Sadr City boycotting too (these Baghdad slums, it should be noted, represent approximately 10% of Iraq's population alone). So, to a fashion, Chalabi's attempts to cobble together some unified Shi'a list, perhaps with Sadr's participation, is actually probably pretty helpful to the Americans. In conspiratorial moments, indeed, one wonders whether the so public falling out with Bremer and the US government may not have been, at least to some extent, suffused with an extra dose of theater. After all, it is good for Chalabi to have fallen out with all the right people--Allawi, the U.S. government, etc. How else for him to gain Sadr's trust and cooperation, for instance...

My point in all this? The Shi'a are about to gain power in Iraq for the first time in 500 years (at least, why not start the clock back in 657 when the first Shi'a Imam Ali was deposed?). This is a massive historical development. Chalabi, indefatigable and uber-intriguer that he is--has emerged as one of the key players in this historical drama. We should, at least in the short term, be wishing him some dose of luck in getting a unified Shi'a ticket put together. Remember, Sadr refusing to participate in the elections would be a disaster for us. Let Chalabi help us keep him on board--whatever his agenda. Meantime, recall that many of Iraq's impoverished Shi'a certainly revere Sistani as their spiritual leader--but Sadr's credibility has been greatly enhanced on the bricks and mortar political leadership front--given his skillful evocations of Iraqi nationalism fused with displays of religious fervor during the intermittent insurgencies he spearheaded with his Mahdi Army. So it's doubly important to keep him in the fold.

Some brief takeaways, at this point: 1) Don't delay elections. A delay will, almost certainly, open up the proverbial gates of hell. The Shi'a are very keen to hit the ballot box come end Jan--let's let them--as a delay will likely precipitate renewed Shi'a insurgency 2) Allow Chalabi to continue his convoluted Shi'a ticket balancing act--it's a net positive for us--at least at this juncture. 3) Ensure that Shi'a emissaries continue to meet with Kurdish counterparts. The Kurds are likely biding their time for a going forward independence bid and, at this point, are basically happy to play along with the elections in cooperative manner. But their good behavior should never be taken for granted. 4) Don't panic on the Sunni front. My fearless prediction--many of the Sunni groupings that have threatened to boycott elections (most notably the Association of Muslim Scholars) will reverse course before then and end up playing ball--so that Juan Cole's (not bad) idea of carving out a 20% Sunni slate and holding in reserve may not be necessitated. Remember, the real enemy are the hard-core Baathist remnants, Salafists, and foreign jihadists. They do not consitute even close to a majority within Sunni areas and, of course, many of the jihadists aren't even Iraqi nationals. So I am still somewhat confident most Sunnis will realize that there real interests lie in participating in the elections come end of January.

This is the big story in Iraq right now--the myriad frenetic political machinations underway--truly a massive burst of political activity marked by free discourse rather than the old oppressive Saddamite yoke. These events are pushing Iraq towards elections that will help move Iraq towards a democratic outcome--despite all the obvious pitfalls and imperfect conditions we face over the coming months. Pity the MSM doesn't devote more resources to this story--one that is significantly more critical than the latest beheading or car bomb.

Note: More on the Iyad Allawi role in all this soon.

Posted by Gregory at November 26, 2004 07:25 PM

Thoughtful post, and I agree with you on most of the bottom part. It would be pretty interesting if Chalabi were still working for good; who knows?

But Mosul is more confusing than you make out. 3200 of 4000 Iraqi police quit and we had to call in the peshmerga to help out before American reinforcements arrived. I don't see that as good, and I suspect that many Kurds are wondering if it's a good idea for them to be the enforcers in such a rough town, one that was a stronghold of the Iraqi military. One thing I'm confused about is how the 4pm curfew gets enforced. By the Americans? By the IP? Have they been reconstituted? Was the number of desertions off? Were they only temporary? Etc.

Posted by: praktike at November 26, 2004 10:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If I were a Sunni, I'd be concerned that the Kurds are a bit too enthusiastic and willing to be the enforcers in Mosul, perhaps as a prelude to returning to the city in large numbers. The Sunni can either play ball or sit on the sidelines and watch the Kurds and the Shia clean up at their expense. The Sunni may still have to lose a few times by pouting before they decide to play.

Nonetheless, Iraq sounds more like the Balkans all the time. "What they need is a Tito to pit each of the ethnic groups against each other to maintain general peace." I am not sure this is a great foundation for installing post-modern representative government for pre-modern cultures. You might end up with a country divided up into a red part and a blue part.

Posted by: Richard Heddleson at November 27, 2004 01:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

great work!

Posted by: reliapundit at November 27, 2004 04:21 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

" But the big and hugely under-reported story in Iraq, right now, is that the Shi'a are about to assume power after the January elections--after 500 years under Sunni domination since the days of the Ottoman Empire. Most journalists are ignoring this mega-story in favor of the cacophony of news re: car bombings, beheadings, and so on. "

Isn't it possible that the cacophony of news in intimately related to the Shia imminent taking over of power? Whether the Sunni partake in the election, the Shia will control 55% to 60% of the parliament.

I don't know if the new process requires a special majority for the passing of a constitution, but if it doesn't or if it does and the Shia have that majority, the moment of truth will arrive.

Will the Sunnis and the Kurds work a power sharing arrangement with the Shias or will the Shias impose their will on the Sunnis which to a larger or smaller extent will mean a serious compromise to the democratic principles the US is supposedly fighting for? Will that in turn mean a civil war? If it does, will it be protracted or quick? What will the end state after that civil war and how will American public opinion react?

In all of those questions, I am afraid I don't have the answer. Most probably neither does the administration. Most frightentingly, perhaps there isn't one that's acceptable to America's interests.

But going back to my original question, if the Sunnis don't believe in or don't see a workable bargain with the Shia, it's probably rational for them to engage in the insurgency and not partake in the election.

It all goes hand and hand. The bad with the less bad.

Posted by: Nick Kaufman at November 28, 2004 10:54 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Help stop evil word of mouth marketers like by supporting the Blog Publishers Association founded by legendary blogger Jason Calacanis.

Posted by: Blog Ethics at December 6, 2004 10:07 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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