October 20, 2005

Getting To Know You

Out of One, Many

Rory Stewart, a member the British government, served with the Coalition Provisional Authority as deputy governor of the Maysan and Dhi Qar provinces in southern Iraq from August 2003 until June 2004. He has recently written an article (hat tip to reader WAB) that provides an interesting, and balanced, first hand account of events in that region of Iraq, informed by what he has witnessed since his return in March of 2005. The interval and passage of time between stints in-country has allowed for certain insights gained through a study of contrasts.

His recounting of events is, as is so typical with respect to Iraq, a mixed bag of progress and setbacks, optimism and pessimism, promise and disappointment, and underneath it all: coming to grips with unintended consequences. These paragraphs set the tone:

Is southern Iraq only hell with flies? September's image of a British soldier bathed in flames as he tumbled from his tank seemed to symbolise a state of anarchy, spawned by the coalition and dominated by Iranian-funded terrorist militias. The reality is less bleak, but still unsettling. Southern Iraq is under coalition occupation but not coalition control; an elected government that is not quite a democracy uses a secular constitution to impose Islamist codes; Iraqi nationalists funded by Iran employ illegal groups to enforce the law. [...]

The new order in southern Iraq is, in short, hard to define. It is an improvement on the political exclusion and sadistic inhumanity of Saddam and has a great deal to teach the Sunni areas about prosperity, security and politics. But it is also reactionary, violent, intolerant towards women and religious minorities and uncooperative with the coalition. The new leaders have dark histories and dubious allies; they enforce a narrow social code and ignore the rural areas.

But before delving into some of the more substantive observations, a background of the tripartite of players involved in the Shiite dominated region: SCIRI, the Sadrists and Da'wa. The history:

All three groups descend from a single party—the Da'wa (Islamic Call) party of the 1960s and 1970s — and their view of political Islam is defined by Da'wa's founder, a cleric, Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr (sometimes called Sadr I) who was opposed to Iraqi communism and to western "economic and cultural colonialism." Formed by clerics, developed in the ancient medieval theological seminaries of Najaf and shaped by grand ayatollahs, who as mirja (sources of emulation) had unique authority among the Shia, the party had a fundamentally theological character.

In 1970, the recently victorious Ba'ath party declared Da'wa illegal. For the next 33 years, political Islam in Iraq survived only in exile or in secret cell networks. It moved from public politics to something resembling a revolutionary terrorist organisation. On 8th April 1980, the government announced that it was a capital offence to belong to Da'wa. Tens of thousands were arrested and the party's founder, Sadr I, was executed the next day. Much of the leadership went into exile in Iran. This was the point at which the Da'wa movement began to fragment into rival factions whose leaders changed allies, national patrons and ideological positions with startling rapidity.


The first and perhaps most famous of the Islamic groups is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its Badr brigade. In last January's election, it took the governorships in the pro-vinces of Dhi Qar and Muthanna as well as half the seats on the provincial council in Basra. The leadership of SCIRI/Badr was in exile in Iran and has the closest relationship with the Iranian state, whereas many of the Da'wa leaders chose Britain for their exile and the Sadrists mostly remained in Iraq. The founding leader of SCIRI, Muhammed Bakr al-Hakim, an Iraqi cleric, campaigned for a theocracy in which the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini would become the supreme leader of a Shia superstate embracing Iran and Iraq. Under his umbrella came the Badr brigade, a paramilitary unit of Iraqi exiles commanded by the Iranian revolutionary guard who had fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq war.

Many of the leaders of this group still have family in Iran. They are all religiously conservative and committed to the establishment of an Islamic government. Their leadership has long-term connections with the Iranian revolutionary guard and intelligence services. Thousands of their followers receive salaries from Iran, but they would not consider themselves agents of Iran. Many claim to have been humiliated while in Iran and to be committed Iraqi nationalists. Immediately after the allied invasion, al-Hakim recommended compromise with the coalition, no longer calling for an Iranian theocracy but instead for "a democratic free Iraq that reflects the interests of its people." He was assassinated and his group is now run by his less charismatic brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is one of the most important figures in the national government in Baghdad.

The Sadrists:

The Sadrists are the second group that dominates southern politics. They tend not to have been in exile, see themselves as nationalists, perceive the coalition as a colonial occupation, and are worried about threats from Iran. Their leader was Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr (a relative of Da'wa's founder), an inspirational teacher who preached on the evils of western decadence and talked often of the coming of the Shia messiah, the "hidden imam." His populist conservative message attracted many young clerics in the 1990s. Because "Sadr II" was resolutely nationalist and anti-Iranian and called al-Hakim a traitor and a spy, he was initially supported by Saddam. But by 1998, his criticism of corruption, secularism and decadence seemed increasingly dangerous.

Sadr II reached out to the poor with a charity supported by pious Iraqis. Tens of thousands of young men, often from poor homes, began to attend the mosques where his young disciples preached. The most senior leader of the Iraqi Shia was (and is) Grand Ayatollah Sistani, a much more learned scholar. But Sistani was born in Iran and did not give public sermons—some said because he did not want people to hear him speak Arabic with a Persian accent. Young men sometimes mocked him in private, calling him the "silent leader" and gave their hearts to the unimpeachably Arab Iraqi nationalist, Sadr II.

In 1999, Sadr II was assassinated by Saddam. This martyrdom turned a growing movement into perhaps the most powerful popular religious movement in Iraq. Sadr II's legacy was continued through his grassroots network of social foundations and the young preachers, led by his chief of staff and surviving son, Muqtada, a cleric in his late twenties. After the invasion, almost anything in a Shia district that had been called "Saddam" was renamed "Sadr" (hence Baghdad's Sadr City, a poor suburb of 2.5m people). Posters of Sadr II appeared throughout the south. Whereas Saddam was depicted in suits, sheikhly costume or military uniform and holding rosary beads, a Cuban cigar or a hunting rifle, Sadr was depicted in his black robes, preaching.

The party of his son Muqtada — the Office of the Martyr Sadr — is emotional in appeal, exploiting Shia themes of martyrdom and messianic beliefs about the coming redeemer. It is anti-coalition—Muqtada led an uprising against the "occupation" for much of last year in which thousands died. It is also popular. In Maysan, a proxy of Muqtada's party took three times as many votes as the next party, and the head of the Sadr office in a provincial city became governor of Maysan. The group has a militia called the "army of the Mahdi imam."

Now here's something I didn't know:

The Sadrist groups called Fadhile and Fudhala, led by the former chief of staff of Muqtada's late father, share the same theological views and Iraqi nationalism as Muqtada but are more moderate in their politics. Their supporters are often urban professionals whereas Muqtada's are from the urban poor. The governor of Basra is from Fadhile.
Finally, Da'wa:
The third of the three Shia religious parties is still called Da'wa. It was involved in terrorist operations in Kuwait and against Saddam (its Lebanese faction became Hizbullah with Iranian support). But it also established a more moderate branch in London, which rejected Iran and further subdivided. One branch, with the closest links to Iran, became Iraqi Da'wa, whose leader Abu Akil I met in March. Another became the Islamic Da'wa party whose de facto leader is the new Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari.
Despite the fact that these three groups descended from a common political/religious ancestor, they are by no means a cohesive and unitary bloc. Although they are lumped together in the Sistani endorsed UIA, which controls the central government with help from the Kurdish faction, there are signs of unrest. As I suggested in a previous post, the unified UIA ticket might very well splinter into competing factions in the near future, as each appears discontented to stay in its current subservient role. This friction will, hopefully, create room for a real differentiation of political platform that would have the ability to appeal to Iraqis across confessional lines. By the flipside of the same token, however, the tensions between these three factions could erupt into large scale power struggle that has the potential for massive bloodshed.

Meet The New Boss

As Stewart notes, the UIA still has to cooperate with their Kurdish coalition partners in the federal government, but in the south, the three factions enjoy total control of their respective fiefdoms. The results have been, as mentioned above, mixed. On the one hand, law and order has been restored (more on this below), but on the other, there has been a resurgence of religious dogmatism backed up by well-armed extra-governmental militias.

Although they now hold all of the senior elected positions in the provincial government and have thousands of followers in the police and the ministries, the groups continue to rely on their militias. They use them to enforce religious practices: firebombing internet cafes, alcohol and music shops, and attacking unveiled women. Many from minority religious groups, such as the Christians, have fled to Baghdad, preferring the terror in the Sunni triangle to threats from the Shia parties. In March, the Sadr militia in Basra attacked a group of engineering students from the local university who were having a picnic. Apparently angry that men and women were sitting together, that some of the Christian women were unveiled and that some of the Christians were carrying alcohol (none of which was illegal), the Sadrists kidnapped some of them and shot dead a female student for wearing jeans. Basra's new governor, a Fadhile Sadrist from the movement's more moderate wing, defended the actions of the Sadr Office.[...]

Meanwhile, the new politicians use their militias to enforce their will whenever they are frustrated by the new constitution. If SCIRI or the Sadrists are unable to fire a provincial minister through the formal channels, they send the Badr brigades or the Mahdi army to knock on his door. The Islamist politicians are urban and anti-tribal and do not try to work with or around the sheikhs in order to extend government into the rural areas where perhaps half of southern Iraqis live. And the Sadrist movement in particular is reluctant to co-operate directly with an "infidel, colonial" coalition. The Sadrist governor of Maysan has instructed Iraqi police units to cease joint patrols with the coalition. In Dhi Qar, the Fadhile faction in the council has suggested rejecting all development assistance from the coalition. In Basra, the governor has supported the arrest of coalition soldiers. Furthermore, the militias continue to mount terrorist attacks against the coalition, most recently killing soldiers and embassy guards with shaped explosive charges, designed in Iran.

Although it comes at a price, the heavy handedness of the Islamist groups could provoke something of a backlash in subsequent elections. Especially if the UIA splinters, and there are viable secular parties that emerge in its wake. To the extent possible, our efforts should be to assist the growth of a more tolerant political manifestation that could encompass those who would turn away from this style of governance. The Christians mentioned above would be one such disaffected group ripe for the picking. And there are more.

Partly because of such incidents, educated middle-class Iraqis are often horrified by their new leaders. Even if they did vote for the "Sistani list" that now governs Iraq, they do not want to be ruled by men who have spent 20 years as Iranian secret agents or who have no education outside a theological seminary. Some are so afraid that they are leaving Iraq.
It should also be mentioned that, though unpopular to certain groups, these three parties have delivered in some key areas of governance. Most importantly, they have restored security which in today's Iraq is highly valued, to say the least.
Nevertheless, southern Iraq is in a better condition now than it was last year. For much of 2004, the southern provinces were caught up in a full-blown insurgency. In Maysan, in October 2003, the police chief was assassinated on the steps of a Sadrist mosque and in May 2004, the governor shot dead another police chief (with Iranian connections) in a hospital morgue. In the neighbouring province of Dhi Qar, the police were powerless, officials corrupt, beatings and rape commonplace and services faltering. When I left Iraq in June 2004, a civil war seemed almost inevitable—not between grand factions but between small local groups that were simultaneously mafia, tribes and political parties. Neither the police nor the coalition were in a position to control them.

But when I returned to Iraq this year, scores of Iraqis told me that security was much better in the south. This improvement was, of course, relative: my friend Sheikh al-Ibadi praised the security improvements, but did so while breathing heavily because he had just been shot three times in the chest in an assassination attempt. The political militias still kill people and collect "contributions" by threat; diesel smuggling rackets are booming and there were 60 murders in Basra in July alone.

But the rackets in carjacking, kidnapping and archaeological theft which dominated the south a year ago have largely been beaten. The highways are safer. Businesses in Basra are not forced to pay protection money to gangsters. There are still attacks on the coalition but the Sadrists stopped their full-scale armed resistance in September 2004 and have since allowed some of their supporters to join the government....The Islamist militias hate each other, but apart from an incident in September they have avoided large-scale battles. Nor have they become full-time gangsters: they have rarely, for example, involved themselves in the huge black market in diesel. Moreover, although many politicians have been killed in Baghdad and elsewhere, I am not aware of a single provincial governor or member of a provincial council in the four southern provinces who has been killed since Saddam's fall.

Stewart identifies some other sources for the Shiite good governance, as well as their heretofore remarkable self restraint in the face of a brutal insurgency.

Despite their intolerance and violent methods, the new politicians are often young technocrats with a confident and articulate programme of anti-corruption and economic development. Their religious beliefs can be an important moderating influence in Shia society. So too are wider mechanisms of social control, confidence and moral concern. Thousands of Shia have been killed by Sunni terrorists in Iraq but the Shia community has generally refused to retaliate. Restraint has been shown not only by Sistani but also by political leaders at a district level. The leaders I met on my last visit had stopped complaining that they were the victims of a Zionist plot and seemed realistic, tolerant and humorous about progress. They had begun to find the capacity to co-operate with each other and lay the foundations for government and security.
Since I have already borrowed so liberally from Mssr. Stewart, I will allow him to conclude this piece with his analysis of what is a messy entanglement of pluses and minuses, the what if's and what will never be's - the good, the bad and the ugly.
Southern Iraq is a democracy but we should not assume that this or any of the other terms which we deploy frequently about Iraq — insurgency, civil society, civil war, police force or even political party — mean what they do in Britain. There have been elections, but the government is not responsive to or respectful of human rights. In many ways it resembles Iran, but it is not governed by clerics. Its militias are not infiltrators, they are an integral element of the elected parties. The new government is oppressive, but has a popular mandate; it is supported by illegal militias, but it has improved security.

This is not the kind of state the coalition had hoped to create. During 14 months of direct rule, until the middle of last year, we tried to prevent it from emerging. We refused to allow Shari'a law to be "the source of legislation" in the constitution. We invested in religious minorities and women's centres; supported rural areas and tribal groups; funded NGOs and created "representative bodies" that were intended to reflect a vision of Iraq as a tolerant, modern society. We hoped that we had created the opportunity for civil society to flourish. This was a dream we shared with many Iraqis. We refused to deal with the Sadr militia and fought a long counter- insurgency campaign against them. Then we left, an election was held and the dream collapsed—the Islamist parties took almost all the seats provincially and nationally. The rural sheikhs, the "liberal" middle classes and the religious minorities mostly vanished from the government.

Some observers suggest that people voted for Islamist parties out of ignorance or poverty. But most people in the south share the parties' vision of a more religious, moral and traditional society, as well as their suspicion of non-Muslims and "western decadence and colonialism." They are proud of being Iraqis and Shia Muslims. They may dislike the brutality of their new leaders and be suspicious of their connections to Iran, but they prefer them to the coalition.

Most people in the south tolerate the coalition only because they believe the presence of the troops in bases may deter civil war. Iraqis are reluctant to trust us or work with us. Because of this lack of co-operation, it has been difficult for the coalition to achieve as much as it had hoped with its billions of dollars in development aid, and it has received almost no credit for its efforts. The Shia are grateful that the coalition toppled Saddam but for little else. Despite thousands of troops and tens of millions invested in essential services, despite a number of impressive reconstruction projects, despite ambitious programmes in police training and in developing "good governance and civil society," the coalition has had only a minimal political impact in southern Iraq.

The British soldier engulfed by flames and his colleagues who were kidnapped were not simply victims of mob violence, or even of an illegal militia. They were confronting the authorities of an independent state. In place of last year's insurgency, there is now an increasingly confident governing apparatus in the south, which extends from governors and provincial councillors to the militias, police and ministries. The leaders of these groups have a distinctive Islamist ideology and complex history. This new Islamist state is elected, it functions and it is relatively popular. We may not like it, but we can only try to understand it and acknowledge that there is now little we can do to influence it. [emphasis added throughout]

Posted by at October 20, 2005 11:01 PM | TrackBack (1)

It's kind of disturbing that the guys nominally on our side are probably taking orders from Iran, but that the guys opposed to us (though not violently at the moment) are the Iraqi nationalist who distrust Iran.

Something seems to have gone slightly wrong...

Posted by: Andrew Reeves at October 21, 2005 04:32 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Good article, with good, fleshed out detail about the parties, and the state of south Iraq. I guess its an open question whether thesse 3 parties will struggle for the most part, in a "civil" manner, using the political system, or whether these three will fall towards civil war internally.

Still, if the progress described is an indication, then it looks like it IS a semi-stable system, that is present now, and that the US needs to figures out the best way to relate to.

We'll see.

Andrew Reeves,

I may be incorrect, but if Iran is smart, they will never think they are "giving orders to" Iraqis - even southern Iraqis. If Iran is smart, then Iran and southern Iraq can enjoy an analogous "special relationship" similar to the one Britan and the US have enjoyed.

We should never underestimate nationalism. If the US were to "invade" or try to take over Canada or Britian by force, then the "special relationship" would disappear immediately. Only by staying cooperative partners, has the US-Britian relationship stayed so positive.

Iran could do the same with southern Iraq, and foster very friendly relations, and even share many policy goals. But if Iran attempted to annex part of Iraq (which of course won't happen anyway because of the occupational army), or TELL Iraq what to do, nationalism would destroy that relationship quickly

Posted by: JC at October 21, 2005 07:34 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Good point. The irony is indeed thick. In Iraq, up is sideways.

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 21, 2005 03:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

First, from what I understand its the relationship of these three parties to Iran is complicated by the divisions within the Iranian govt - but I will leave that topic to those who know more about Iran.

Questions - in the national elections, all these factions ran together on the UIA slate, alongside some secular Shiites, tribal sheiks, and independents. So its not possible to tell directly their relative popularity from the national results - one assumes that the number of seats each had on the UIA list related to their popularity, though thats not necessarly the case, as figures who appeared more "coalitionable" like Chalabi may have been given prominence beyond their electoral popularity.

In provincial elections, did they all run seperately, or as parts of joint lists? How did the rural voters go? Did they abandon their tribal sheiks, or did the sheiks cut deals with the Islamists? What has happened to the Iraqi Communist Party, traditionally the Islamists rival for influence with the urban poor?

There are new national elections in December. When are the next provincial elections?

A weak central govt will have difficulty enforcing rule of law on the provinces. OTOH a strong regional govt, dominated by SCIRI and Dawa, might be able to restrain the Sadrists, if it wanted to.

It occurs that anyone in the south who isnt a Sadrist or SCIRI supporter has a strong incentive to want to strengthen the central govt. OTOH Muqtada himself, with his ties to Sadr city, has an interest in the unity of Iraq - but he is likely to be less influential in the central govt than in the southern provinces, esp Basra. One begins to see the contradictions that may lie at the root of his apparenently volatile behavior. Not clear how this will effect the December elections.

How much of the views youve quoted is impacted by the Brits being in Basra - heavily Sadrist - and NOT being in Najaf and Karbala, where the politics is more deferential to Sistani?

All the horror stories of Shiite extremism seem to come out of Basra - that could be cause of its size, and cause it has more in the way of minorities than the pilgrimage cities, or it could reflect a different political dynamic.

Posted by: liberalhawk at October 21, 2005 03:45 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Good questions all, as usual. I don't have many answers for you, unfortunately. As far as this question:

In provincial elections, did they all run seperately, or as parts of joint lists?

The answer is, they ran separately and they each took different regions. I think SCIRI was the big winner IIRC.

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 21, 2005 05:19 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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