by Frank James
The battles raging in southern Iraq's Basra are more than a central Iraqi government trying to assert control over the militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Instead, it's more complicated, more like a mini civil war between competing Shiite groups vying for power.
This is the take of Anthony Cordesman, the insightful national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cordesman urges those trying to understand the current turmoil in Basra and elsewhere to avoid oversimplifying the current fighting into a good guys versus bad guys dynamic. In the analysis below, Cordesman refers to the Jaish al Mahdi, or JAM, also known as the Mahdi Army, which is al-Sadr's group and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by Shiite cleric Abul Azziz al-Hakim
Much of the current coverage of the fighting in the south assumes that Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr militia are the "spoilers," or bad guys, and that the government forces are the legitimate side and bringing order. This can be a dangerous oversimplification. There is no question that many elements of the JAM have been guilty of sectarian cleansing, and that the Sadr movement in general is hostile to the US and is seeking to enhance Muqtada al-Sadr's political power. There is also no doubt that the extreme rogue elements in the JAM have continued acts of violence in spite of the ceasefire, and that some have ties to Iran. No one should romanticize the Sadr movement, understate the risks it presents, or ignore the actions of the extreme elements of the JAM.
But no one should romanticize Maliki, Al Dawa, or the Hakim faction/ISCI. The current fighting is as much a power struggle for control of the south, and the Shi'ite parts of Baghdad and the rest of the country, as an effort to establish central government authority and legitimate rule.
The nature of this power struggle was all too clear during a recent visit to Iraq. ISCI had de facto control over the Shi'ite governorates in the south, and was steadily expanding its influence and sometimes control over the Iraqi police. It was clearly positioning itself for power struggle with Sadr and for any elections to come. It also was positioning itself to support Hakim's call for a nine governorate Shi'ite federation -- a call that it had clear Iranian support.
The US teams we talked to also made it clear that these appointments by the central government had no real popular base. If local and provincial elections were held with open lists, it was likely that ISCI and Dawa would lose most elections because they are seen as having failed to bring development and government services.
There was no real debate over how bad the overall governance of the south was at the provincial level, how poor the flow of capital was from the central government in Baghdad, and how poor government-related services were even in Shi'ite areas. As recent ABC polls show, incompetence and corruption are not sectarian. The south may be more secure, but Shi'ites only receive marginally better treatment from the central government than Sunnis.
Members of the US team differed over how much the Sadrists had a populist base and broad support among the poor Shi'ite Iraqis in the south, and how well the Sadrists could do in any provincial and local elections, although most felt Sadr still had a broad base of support in Baghdad. One of the key uncertainties that emerged during visits to the south was over how elections would shape up when there were no real political parties operating with local leaders, and in a framework of past national elections that only allowed Iraqis to vote for entire lists (most with many totally unfamiliar names) for the main parties and that made no allowance for the direct election of members of the COR that represented a given area or district. Optimists hope for a populist upswell; realists foresee an uncertain mess.
There were also differences over how much Sadr was waiting out the effort to defeat Al Qa'ida before allowing the JAM to become active again, and how much he was repositioning himself to strengthen his political and religious position for a more normal political life. In practice, he may be doing both, may be as confused by the uncertain nature of Iraqi politics and security as everyone else, and may be dealing with a movement so fractured and diverse that effective control of even its mainstream is difficult to impossible.
It was also clear that Basra was a special case. The British position had essentially eroded to the point of hiding in the airport. There was a fair amount of bluster about joint planning, training, and patrols, but little evidence of substance. Moreover, the power struggle in Basra differed sharply from the struggle in the other Shi'ite provinces. Basra was essentially divided up among Shi'ite party mafias, each of which had its own form of extortion and corruption. They sometimes fought and feuded, but had a crude modus vivendi at the expense of the rest of the nation. Basra also had far more Iranian penetration in both the civil and security sectors than the other Shi'ite governorates. However, it was clear that Iran and the Al Quds force continued to be equal opportunity supporters of all the Shi'ite militias, and that Iran effectively was ensuring that it would support the winner, regardless of who the winner was.
This does not mean that the central government should not reassert control of Basra. It is not peaceful, it is a significant prize as a port and the key to Iraq's oil exports, and gang rule is no substitute for legitimate government. But it is far from clear that what is happening is now directed at serving the nation's interest versus that of ISCI and Al Dawa in the power struggle to come. It is equally far from clear that the transfer of security responsibility to Iraqi forces in the south is not being used by Maliki, Al Dawa, and ISCI to cement control over the Shi'ite regions at Sadr's expense and at the expense of any potential local political leaders and movements. Certainly, the fact that these efforts come after ISCI's removal of its objections to the Provincial Powers Act may not be entirely coincidental.
Is the end result going to be good or bad? It is very difficult to tell. If the JAM and Sadr turn on the US, or if the current ISCI/Dawa power grab fails, then Shi'ite on Shi'ite violence could become far more severe. It is also far from clear that if the two religious-exile parties win, this is going to serve the cause of political accommodation or legitimate local and provincial government. It seems far more likely that even the best case outcome is going be one that favors Iraqracy over democracy.
This is the complicated internecine conflict U.S. military forces still find themselves refereeing as the conflict enters its sixth year. As Cordesman suggests, the best case scenario may be a governing arrangement that doesn't resemble anything like the kind of democracy Americans are accustomed to.
But that would be far superior in the eyes of many Americans to the worst-case scenario, which would be the Shiite militias turning their weapons once again on U.S. forces.