Iraq: Reality Check in Shia Politics


January23, 2007: Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has been recognized as a capable politician. But there was always doubts about his ability to stand up to the more aggressive Shia factions. Last Fall, for example, he "exercised Iraqi sovereignty" by ordering U.S. troops to halt operations against al Sadr militias in Baghdad. Maliki needed Sadrs support because Sadrs political party controlled about 30 percent of the Shia members in parliament. Noting that the Americans actually obeyed Malikis orders, the Sadr militiamen stepped up their attacks on Sunnis. In the last two months, this has led to Sadrs men moving into Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad, and going door-to-door, ordering Sunni families to flee the city, or die. This was too much even for some of the Shia political parties, and was anathema to Sunnis inside, and outside Iraq. Saudi Arabia made noises about sending troops to Iraq. Baghdad has been a Sunni Arab city for over a thousand years. It was the capital of the first Islamic empire ("caliphate.") In the face of all this, and the realization that Sadr was losing control of some of his more enthusiastic subordinates, Maliki told the Americans that he would no longer interfere in their operations against Shia militias. Sadr got the message, and made nice, but it was too late. Sadrs subordinates tried to hide, and the militiamen were ordered to be discreet (no marching around in their black uniforms, carrying guns). The Americans still had their extensive data files on the Sadr organization, and dozens of militia officers have been arrested, along with 600 of the more notorious militiamen. Sadrs crew has been the source of the most notorious death squads. In the past year or so, every Shia killed by a Sunni terrorist bomb, was avenged by one or more Sunni Arabs being grabbed and murdered. It was no longer a matter of hunting down known Sunni Arab killers. There are still over 100,000 of those out there, former Saddam henchmen with blood on their hands and fear in their hearts. Most have fled the country, because working for Saddam paid well and made exile possible. Left behind are Sunni Arabs who never got a lot from Saddam, and are now paying for it with their lives.

American commanders are planning on getting the 22,000 troops "surge" out of Iraq after about six months of operations. That, however, depends on how effective Iraqi troops can be. As it has been for centuries, the Iraqi army is very corrupt. Finding officers who are both able and honest is difficult. American efforts to introduce financial controls, that would reduce the corruption, have not been popular. Just as it was under the British and the Turks, being an army officer is seen as a way to get rich. The most ancient ploy is to claim you have more troops than you actually do, then pocket the pay for these "phantoms." Another angle is selling weapons, fuel and equipment, as well as renting out your troops to businesses, or, in some cases, Shia militias. Some of the worst officers demand kickbacks from their troops.

The additional U.S. troops will establish about three dozen small bases throughout Baghdad, and then work with Iraqi soldiers, local police and local officials to clear out death squads, terrorist cells, and those that support them. There are already many neighborhoods where this has been done, so there is a model to follow. What is unknown is whether a "little extra muscle" will bring lasting peace to many other neighborhoods. The basic problem in Iraq is, and always has been, a shortage of public minded citizens. In the West, we take for granted that, in most neighborhoods, there are enough people who care, are reasonably honest, and "public spirited" to keep the area safe and livable. In Saddam's time, the peace was kept via terror. Even pro-Saddam neighborhoods had clan or political gangs to discipline anyone who got out of line. When, in the West, such gangs are found controlling a neighborhood, it's considered a great scandal. But in Iraq, it's been the norm for so long, that many Iraqis have a hard time imaging an alternative. But there are alternatives, and there are living examples in Iraq. It's an alternative many Iraqis are not sure is worth the cost. But few Iraqis want another Saddam, so there is little choice but to clean up their neighborhoods and learn new ways of running their country.

The Sunni terrorists are using fewer suicide bombers in their attacks, a result of many of the suicide bomber organizations being destroyed or, because they were composed largely of foreign Arabs, forced to flee the country. The anti-al Qaeda alliance in western Iraq doesn't get much media attention, but they have managed to clear out al Qaeda, which now operates from those few towns and villages still containing a lot of terror supporters.

Meanwhile, the Sunni Arabs in southern Iraq got real quiet after British and American troops arrived in 2003. Sunni Arabs working for the government quickly fled. Those who moved too slowly were caught by furious Shia and killed. But over a million Sunni Arabs lived in southern Iraq, including the largest Sunni Arab tribe, and several tribes that contained Sunni and Shia clans. While there was some violence against the Sunni Arab population by Shia militias, there was nothing like the terrorist violence Sunni groups were committing in Baghdad and northern Iraq. Unlike western Iraq, the Sunni Arabs of the south did not try to establish control of towns. They went quietly along with the Shia majority. While many southern Sunni Arabs fled their homes, or the country, because of past associations with, or enthusiastic support of, Saddam, the majority have managed to ride out the war. Currently, an organization of 500 Sunni Arab clerics works with each other, Shia clerics, and Sunni clerics in other parts of the country to reduce the violence. It may be too late for that in central Iraq, where the Sunni terrorism has ignited a mutual blood bath with the Shia majority. But in the north, the Sunni Arab clergy have helped calm down terrorist tendencies up there.


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