Saturday, October 21, 2006

Iraq: On SCIRI vs Sadrists

I read a nice post by Badger on recent events in Amarah here:

In response I wrote the following off the top of my head. I don't pretend it's well-organized, I didn't even bother to edit it, but I think it contains a few important points. I guess the only things I'd add to it now are (1) hope it doesn't come across as too fawning of the Sadrist groups, while I think they had raw ideological material to have become something better - and still do - the reality on the ground is that they are little more than thuggish local militia whose only partial saving grace is that they defend their localities from outsiders though their crimes outside their neighborhoods and even in their neighborhoods really does frequently qualify them as so many other militias in Iraq as "little Saddams", and (2) I give basically no discussion to the non-southern, non-Shi'a dynamics in the post. Not because they're not important, simply because I was focusing on just this issue in this post. Hope I add something useful here, open to critiques:

A couple reminders are in order: the Sadrist movement is composed heavily of "easterners", country-folks from the regions to the Southeast of Baghdad who began moving in droves to the big city (Baghdad in this case) back in the 50s in particular. They retained strong ties to the countryside and their tribes and were the main folks who moved into Madinat ath-Thawra (Revolution City), now redubbed Madinat as-Sadr (Sadr City). They contrast sharply to the Iranian-exile-led and shrine-city based clerical-political leadership represented by SCIRI. Those are the two biggest "trends" in the south, though numerous other local interests and splinters from these main groups are also key players. The two main "trends" exhibit very different outlooks on national politics as well. SCIRI again represents the commercial interests of the shrine cities (Najaf and Karbala) broadly speaking, Najaf having for example after the British invaded in WW1 and lawlessness was rampant having set up its own local constitution to govern itself – i.e., this is a place with a strong economy of its own based on pilgrimage and other aspects and with a strong local identity. These places feel they can go it alone without Baghdad, and SCIRI has enlarged this notion geographically to cover most of the south which ultimately for them amounts to a powergrab for control of the south at the expense of the Sadrist/nationalist trend. The Sadrists in contrast are largely Arab nationalist in their outlook, seeing the desire of outsiders to rip Iraq apart at the seams as the greatest threat (where SCIRI would point to Saddam and say decentralization is necessary in order to justify their power grab). The Sadrists are also very rurally connected especially in towns like Amarah where – don’t kid yourself – it has basically been Sadr controlled and dominated from day one of the US occupation, the latest flare up just being a more overt expression of it.

So in a nutshell we have SCIRI which is connected to the "civilized" (in their view) shrine cities and by extension much more tied to Iran (both because of the huge numbers of pilgrims and clerical connections to Iran and because the SCIRI leadership and many rank and file spend such a long period in exile in Iran) hoping to grab control of the entire south, being aided by the Americans who don’t understand jack about Iraq and have plugged SCIRI’s power-grab into a narrative of a black and white Kurd-Sunni-Shia narrative of the country that badly misunderstands what is going on. And on the other side we have the Sadrist trend groups who broadly represent the rural countryside, are looked down upon by the SCIRI city-and-exile types, who stayed put in Iraq throughout the Saddam era (Sadr’s revered cleric father having been killed by Saddam for his even subtle resistance to Saddam’s domination), who believe in the unity of Iraq, who have a huge power base both in large swathes of the rural and chunks of the urban south and especially in east Baghdad, but who are also highly disorganized, splintering, and violent in fighting turf wars and anti-Salafi Jihadist types who are killing Shi’a just for being Shi’a. The Sadrists once might have been natural allies of Iraqi nationalists (carrying a very Hizbullah-style Arab Nationalist banner for Iraq as Nasrallah and co do in Lebanon), but the Jaysh al-Mahdi is nowhere even remotely as disciplined, nor has their political leadership (being led as it is by young hotheads not afraid to rule by the gun) shown anywhere near the maturity and deep efforts at sectarian reconciliation as Hizbullah’s leadership has. There were brief flashes (Sadrist aid convoys to Fallujah when the Marines were assaulting it), but these were brief, and quickly undermined by Sectarian attacks and political disorganization/immaturity from all sides. As a result, it looks to me like we are increasingly talking about a SCIRI which has a reasonably strong central leadership grabbing power in as many institutions as possible while using its Badr Brigade and other stormtroopers to fight its battles, while an increasingly disorganized but no less willing to fight grouping of Sadrists fight back at a more and more local level to prevent a SCIRI takeover of their regions. Both in the meanwhile fight increasingly nastily in the now overtly sectarian Sunni-Shi’a war ignited by the American empowerment of sectarian thinking (especially that of SCIRI who saw in emphasizing sectarian identity an opportunity from early to claim itself as the sole leader of all Iraqi Shi’a and hence enhance its power grab over the Sadrist and other elements of the south) and the Salafi Jihadis and now all the local characters who have slipped into the International Relations 101 Security Dilemma – 1 feels threatened and acts to defend themself, 2 sees 1s defense as offense and defends itself, 1 sees 2s defense as proof of their offense, before long everyone is killing everyone in the name of self defense and everyone has tons of now very real grievances and very real bad intentions on the other side which perpetuates the cycle of violence.

Not as simple as the US papers would make one think, eh? Of course, if anyone has any beef with my interpretation, this is just my best guess and would love to hear critiques.


At 3:09 AM, Blogger markfromireland said...

Excellent posting. Thanks

At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes as above, will be following along here. Can we fit into the equation the oil industry deadline coming up in December? Whats SCIRI position on privitizing/ PSA in the industry? Can Maliki afford to privitize?

anna missed

At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very informative, you connect a lot of the isolated dots on this situation that I've read over the past few years. The American MSM really does a poor job of looking at intra-communal rivalries and at any narrative other than "a clean 3-way partition is the only way and besides it's inevitable." They only cover the Sadr-SCIRI rivalry when there is a flare-up in violence, and then there is never any context as to *why* these clashes are taking place.

One somewhat tangential question: what ever happened to Dawa? At the beginning of sovereignty, they were listed as equals with SCIRI as the two big parties of the Shia. But ever since they lost most of the provincial elections and their candidate for PM, they seem to have retreated to Nasiriya and haven't played much of any role in either the national picture or even in the greater Shia region. Were they over-hyped in the beginning or did something happen to cause them to lose their support? Are they done for? Where do they stand in the SCIRI-Sadr rivalry?


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