Connecting The Dots: Whacking Sadr, Round 3
There are three events going on right now which I am quite surprised that few people are connecting the dots on:
- The Bush Administration's backing of an attempt to form a new Iraqi governing political coalition consisting primarily of the Shi'ite Islamist SCIRI, the Sunni Islamist Iraqi Islamic Party, and the Kurdish parties. This is being presented as a supposedly multi-ethnic "moderate" coalition aimed at isolating "extremists" and being the political part of a new path forward.
- The debate over a temporary boost of 15,000-30,000 additional US troops primarily into Baghdad. The public debate currently is between those who say a small number like this can't make any real difference and those who say "we've got to try something".
- Muqtada as-Sadr's supporters rejoining the Iraqi government after a boycott of several weeks. On the surface this looks like Sadr's boys just threw a temper tantrum when Maliki met Bush in Jordan a few weeks back and now they're returning to work as they always planned.
I believe these interpretations are wrong and these aren't isolated events. This is a concerted and yet-again quixotic effort by the Bush Administration to try to destroy Muqtada as-Sadr's power in the political and military arenas in the next few months. Even if they boot Sadr from the political arena (heck, even if they kill him and badly bloody his foot soldiers), it is going to fail as both the 2004 attempts to crush his movement failed, and it is going to result in yet more major blowback. In a nutshell, this is what I believe is really going on:
- The supposedly "new" political coalition is really an old coalition of exile parties. More to the point, these are blatantly sectarian parties who thrive on feeding ethnic divisions in the country and from manipulating US politicians into believing the false "3 Iraqs - Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish" framework and then grabbing for power and resources as the US tries to distribute them. They're at it again as the Bush Administration desperately flails around looking for a political way out of the ma2zaq they're in. Their goal is to press for the further decentralization of power (i.e., weakening of the central government in Baghdad) so that they can each try to grab power and resources in the regions of Iraq where their political power is relatively stronger. Obviously the Kurds have solid control of their region, but they are always seeking further loosening of ties from Baghdad. SCIRI as always is seeking means to grab power in the south, in particular away from the Sadrists. And while I haven't followed Hashimi and the Iraqi Islamic Party as closely, I can only presume given their history pre-war and their overt sectarian bent today they are hoping to pick up the "Sunni" spoils of this divisive policy (anyone with deeper knowledge of Hashimi and the IIP, please comment).
- Sadr is once again being presented by Washington as the extremist who is causing the real problems and that "solving" the Sadr problem will help things move forward. From Washington's perspective it seems obvious: his Jaysh al-Mahdi death squads are a big part of the sectarian killings going on, and politically he makes an easy scapegoat as the guy whose parliamentary supporters supposedly are blocking PM Maliki from Da'wa from doing the job he supposedly wants to but can't because of political dependence on Sadr. The raids on Sadr City a few months ago which Maliki demanded be called off (eventually successfully, though it took a little while) were emblematic -- Washington couldn't go after the sectarian killers because they had the political power to get the raids called off. So now the thinking from Washington is: form an alternative political coalition where Sadr doesn't have a say, then send the US army into Sadr City (boosted by the temporary surge of 15,000 to 30,000 troops) to clean out the Mahdi Army death squads and cut Sadr down to size militarily and hence politically.
- As usual, a bad misreading of what's really going on, resulting in a terrible idea that is going to cause a lot more damage than any short-term gains (if they even get those). For starters, even if the US, SCIRI, IIP, and KDP/PUK can put together a working coalition, what will really have been formed? The Bush Administration is touting it as a "moderate" (watch out, if Washington calls anyone around the world "moderate" these days, odds are they are ugly thugs who simply accept a US paycheck instead of somebody else's) multi-ethnic group which will supposedly allow the various ethnicities to then sit down at the table and find a way to share power. Not true. What you will get is a coalition of the same forces who rode the US into power almost 4 years ago and who are seeking a division of spoils to their benefit first and foremost, not a central state able to secure and govern the country. So even if Sadr is weakened momentarily, the powerful undercurrents feeding the sectarian and political violence will be strengthened.
- Militarily, the two Sadrist uprisings in 2004 show clearly the limits of attempts to crush Sadr -- they can be bloodied, but as a mass populist movement in a country the US does not have the ability to control militarily or even provide rudimentary personal security in, they cannot be destroyed. Any attempt to do so will only produce increased bitterness and anger. More Jaysh al-Mahdi fighters will go deeper underground and engage in more attacks similar in style to the Sunni insurgents.
- Politically, Sadr will receive a huge boost as well as the guy standing up to two very unpopular forces among most Iraqis: (1) US troops, and (2) decentralization forces. The unpopularity of US occupation forces - especially when they engage in major operations where they kill even more innocent civilians - I don't think needs any further explanation. But by the forces of decentralization, I refer in particular to SCIRI's regionalization push which I believe is highly unpopular except among Kurds and a small minority of SCIRI patrons who would personally benefit. I believe the vast majority of Arab Iraqis - Sadr's core supporters very much among them, but a huge cross section cutting across sectarian lines - believe the decentralization SCIRI is pushing is essentially the destruction of Iraq.
- Another immediate bit of blowback: the southern feeder lines to the Basrah Oil Terminal which carry roughly 80% of Iraq's oil exports remain highly vulnerable to attack. Despite the relatively short distance that the main trunklines are exposed (particularly on the Fao Peninsula), they were easily struck multiple times back in 2004. The fact that they have not been struck again since is not a reflection of significantly improved security, merely of the fact that the political forces in the region are aligned such that it is not in the interest of the key power brokers to see the lines shut. You cut Sadr's (huge) powerbase out of the official power structure and make it clear that the billions of revenue are going to flow instead to SCIRI who is trying to take over power at the local level where Sadr is strong and more broadly is trying to devolve power in a way many consider the destruction of Iraq -- well, there will suddenly be a huge group of powerful people who have an interest in stopping the flow of oil revenue to SCIRI. Sadrists in Basrah have made threats (how "official" they were is unclear to me) in the past to shut down the oil, I believe if there is a full scale political and military assault on them, they will renew and make good on those threats.
- For the global oil market this would have two important effects: (1) if the outages last for a significant period of time (worries start after a week, by 2-3 weeks its getting serious, a month or longer and its a major problem) then expect the flat price of crude to start spiking again and new highs to return to the gasoline pump before long, and (2) more importantly for the longer term, an actual major supply outage like this will drive up the front end of the futures price curve, possibly back into backwardation after the past few years of contango. This in turn will disincentive the holding of inventories by commercial oil companies and drive down oil stocks. That could help return the market to the sort of tightness that helped fuel the 2002-2006 price runup. Now, I don't want to be too alarmist, it would take a significant, long outage for Iraq to be able to structurally shift the market after the structural weakness in the curve and levelling off of the flat price in the last year. My point is just that if the US goes for broke on this trying to seriously crush Sadr, this now becomes a very real possibility.
- Finally, and it seems a bit of a minor point now, this I think explains the Sadrists rejoining the government. They're not eager for a knock down fight like this and would prefer to simply try to maintain their position. So rejoining the government and trying to keep the current political coalition in place will be their priority for the moment. The Bush Administration is pretty desperate though and SCIRI is always looking for a way to get the upper hand in the civil war. The political pressure is a full court press, and if we see the troop levels actually surge (as I expect) in the next couple months, I think this is going to happen.
So keep an eye out next few weeks and months, we'll see if I got this one right, but it seems clear enough to me.
UPDATE: One commenter points out that today Sistani is said to have rejected supporting the proposed SCIRI-IIP-PUK/KDP coalition. If so, it certainly puts a serious roadblock in the attempt, though we'll have to wait and see if it is a fatal blow to the political or military plans.
UPDATE 2: Seems I wasn't the first to point out the surge was to take on Sadr.