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