Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sadrists and Sunni Insurgents United for Peace and Love?

Badger over at Arablinks asks me the following:


Non-arab, I guess what that comes down to is that this would be a not-implausible combination: Islamist-tinged Sunni nationalism with Sadrist nationalism ?


I did tangentially address this in my previous post "On SCIRI vs Sadrists". No deep insights, but to briefly lay out my views on this:
  • The Sadrists (and the plural is important, there are numerous splinter groups and even the "official" Sadrist movement under Moqtada is pretty loosely controlled) broadly speaking represent rural southerners including the masses who have moved to urban areas (think Sadr City / Madinat ath-Thawra in particular) but kept strong tribal links to the countryside. Unlike the shrine city clerical and commercial classes (Najaf and Karbala primarily) who have strong direct ties to Iran through business (in particular catering to pilgrims and the burial trade at Wadi al-Salam) and theological dealings, these "Easterners" as they are traditionally called in Iraq feel less close to Iran. They are Arab in not just their primary language and outlook on life, but (while not without academic dispute) are also said to largely have converted to Shi'ism relatively recently, perhaps in the past two centuries. Don't want take that point too far since it is a matter of some dispute, but the point is that these folks outlook is both Arab, distrusting of foreigners, and hence very Iraqi nationalist (in the middle ages Iraq generally referred roughly speaking to today's predominantly Shi'a areas of Iraq Baghdad and south).
  • It should be said too that in the early days of the Ba'ath, the party itself was more diverse. While always a smaller party compared to some of its bigger rivals (primarily the Iraqi Communist Party - ICP) in the turbulent era of the post-monarchy revolutions in the 50s and 60s, it was by no means seen as an ethnic party. Indeed, none of the great ideological parties of that era were (some tried to paint the ICP as a Shi'a resistance movement, but Hanna Batatu's research into the party's membership and leadership showed it to be a much bigger tent).
  • Following the 50s and 60s and the eventual victory of the Ba'ath (or really "last man standing" victory after an exhausting series of coups, counter-coups, and bloody purges -- the Ba'athi purges/executions of Communists having been aided by CIA-provided lists of enemies to liquidate), one could still see a sense of Iraqi nationhood emerging. King Faisal and his successors and stooge-ministers like Nouri Said, for all their faults, did through successes and mistakes help begin to forge a sense of nationhood (mistakes and popular revolt against them often helping to forge unity as well or better than successes). The shared experience under British Colonialism, the joint 1920 Sunni-Shi'a uprising, the founding of ideological parties that cut across traditional fault lines, the toppling of the monarchy, the rule of Abdul Karim Qassim, the turbulent 50s and 60s, the discovery and beginnings of exploitation of oil and the development it brought (Iraq in the 50s had a very enlightened oil revenue distribution system that put the money largely into physical capital investment), and the broader connection to Arab Nationalism (both for and against) all brought people into new forms of identity.
  • Under the Ba'ath party and then specifically under Saddam, there was added at first two other common elements: (1) the well-known in the west fear of living under what did come to be one of the most totalitarian of the Arab dictatorships, but also (2) genuine economic development in the 70s in particular and again briefly in the late 80s after the 1st Gulf War [Arabs refer to the Iran-Iraq War as the 1st Gulf War, 1990-91 as the 2nd, and 2003 onwards as the 3rd]. By the late 70s Iraq had one of the best educational, medical, and transportation systems in the entire Arab world and people came from far away to participate in these systems despite the Ba'ath dictatorship.
  • With the 1st and 2nd Gulf Wars and the period of sanctions, a third element of common suffering was added: besides for suffering under Saddam's rule, people felt a commonality of suffering through the wars and sanctions together. The wars may have been known quietly to most folks as severe folly even if they couldn't state so openly, but they got through the hardships together. And even if Saddam was seen as foolish, it didn't change the fact that most Iraqis (southern Shi'a included) had an intense distrust of Iran, believed that Kuwait was historically a piece of Iraq, and that the Americans were out to get them. The notion of Iraq's Shi'a siding with Iran never gained any foothold, and when the regime really got on the ropes they knew it was key to provide some sort of tangible benefit to people to keep them going as an entire society and not just stitched-together bits and pieces.
  • So much for the unity. Those were important building blocks and very real, but of course the Fitna ("troubles" loosely translated I guess one could say in a Northern Island sort of usage for the word) we see today had its roots too. When the great ideological era of Middle Eastern politics wound down by the 70s and the Ba'ath were the only ones left standing, people in the entire Middle East and Iraq stood disillusioned and unsure. Saddam (as with other Middle Eastern dictators) started grabbing piecemeal bits of ideology here and there to justify his rule. Sometimes he was a socialist, other times an Arab nationalist, other times an Islamist, etc, etc, etc. This could win brownie points for sure - oil nationalization and putting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) on the flag were respectively wildly popular and something nobody could really object to. But people could see there was no driving ideological force any more. It was about the party staying in power.
  • With time it wasn't even just about the party staying in power, it was about Saddam staying in power. Pure carrot and stick patronage politics and political persecution were the name of the game. Enemies were punished through the state's security services, and friends were rewarded through the state's income. This was of course overwhelmingly oil income as the state became yet another rentier oil state (i.e., dependent fiscally on oil "rents" that required no consent of the people to collect and could then be distributed as those at the top of the system saw fit to buy political support). The enlightened capital investment program of the 50s having long since given way to oil income in the service of regime survival. Sometimes regime survival brought enlightened purposes -- with no ideology and a thin political support base in the 70s, the Ba'ath were smart enough then to realize that developing the country while keeping a tight rein on folks could work in a way which in some ways is pretty similar to what the Chinese have done far more successfully since.
  • The wars and sanctions eras though meant that Saddam had to rely on a smaller and smaller power base. With a few notable meager exceptions (subsidized oil, occasionally brief fits of peace and economic growth), he could no longer buy the entire populace prosperity. Social services deteriorated across the board and people grew restless. However, there were no great ideological movements left to articulate a new or different vision for protest, and in any case the political space was sealed shut on pain of death. The Arab Nationalists were discredited after the death of Nasser and despondent after Sadat's betrayal, the ICP Communists were broken as a mass movement. Into this space, Islamist movements began moving in. Over time the Sadrists under Moqtada's father Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq as-Sadr for example became a major albeit necessarily quiet force in establishing a Shi'a Islamist ideology and (more practically) set of social services in the Shi'a community where the state had broken down. Groups such as SCIRI who actually did run off to Iran's side in the war (note this was not a mass defection of Shi'a to Iran, but one group well-connected to the more unique shrine city interest groups) also formed.
  • Note a few key elements here: (1) secular ideologies were discredited or broken and only Islamists emerged - cautiously - to fill the gap. (2) With Shi'a the largest religious grouping in Iraq, Shi'a Islamist movements emerged the biggest and strongest. This meant that Saddam, intolerable of *any* regime opponents had his biggest targets among the Shi'a. There were no movements of size that would have him equally attacking the south and center of the country. Since his core supporters tended to come from his immediate tribe/clan/family and thence dispensed their patronage to the areas they came from (the upper euphrates and tigris valleys or "Sunni Triangle" as western journalists have since dubbed it), this in essence is really where today's major Sunni-Shi'a split came from. Secular opposition cutting across sectarian boundaries had been eliminated, leaving only sectarian opposition parties. Sectarian opposition was overwhelmingly from the Shi'a side where clerics had more organization in any case (look to the revolution in Iran as an example of the power of a more organized clerical class) and where Saddam did not have as many relatives in his increasingly narrow patronage network. Boom - the "Shi'a" become the targets, not so much as design against the Shi'a, as by the fact that the regime's narrow power base brought it down on them through the process outlined above.
  • The unity outlined earlier worked against necessarily seeing things in pure Sunni-Shi'a terms, people believed in the notion of Iraq. But as time went on, and especially after the 1991 uprisings (where again, the Shi'a resistance had stronger organization to call upon and hence got more brutally crushed), it was also easier as an Iraqi Shi'a to see this as a purely anti-Shi'a drive, especially for those who went to the Islamist organizations for an ideological framework for life and resistance.
  • Without going into the entire dynamic of massive US flubs that blew wide open these schisms in Iraqi society (they didn't have to, but the US bears the primary blame for it having happened both because of the invasion and the post-invasion emphasis on sectarian identity), it will suffice to say that the Shi'a Islamist parties emerged the strongest following the US occupation. A huge secular underlying force still existed in Iraq on day 1 of the occupation, people didn't want to break up into sectarian squabbling, but the seeds of it were there.
  • So now to come back to the Sadrists. As stated early on, they represent a group that is very Arabist in its outlook, but also very much a strong Shi'a Islamist party. While the differences to Lebanon's Hizbullah are huge (they are not as disciplined, they do not have as experienced a leadership, they are nowhere near as adept at wooing inter-sectarian alliances, and - oh yeah - they have out of control death squads unlike Hizbullah's quite professional and disciplined military apparatus), the similarities are also big at least on the surface: a Shi'a Islamist grouping with a social services network participating in the political system as a strong non-majority force and carrying a banner of anti-occupation (anti-Israeli, anti-American, etc.) resistance.
  • In Lebanon, Hizbullah has been able to win allies outside of its own Shi'a community (the Aounist Christians primarily) by emphasizing the resistance angle which others can agree on, by not seeking a state ruled on their interpretation of religious law, and by *not* terrorizing those of other sects but seeking to allay such fears where possible (not always possible granted, Lebanon remains a tinderbox, but they've certainly convinced a sizeable number).
  • The Sadrists have a wee bit of a problem though: their militia (the Mahdi Army) is wildly out of control and is slaughtering members of other sects. Big problem for inter-sect cooperation. Yes, the Arab or Iraqi nationalist and resistance angles give space for cooperation, but Iraq is just entering it's civil war and the Sadrists and Mahdi Army are young and undisciplined whereas Lebanon already went through a civil war (hopefully there's not another coming) and Hizbullah is a well-established and disciplined force. Even if Moqtada says the right things, it's hard to win friends on the basis of nice anti-occupation words when he can't control his foot soldiers and those foot soldiers are staging mass kidnappings of folks from other sects and dumping their drill-hole ridden bodies on rubbish tips.
  • Of course it's not just a matter of "well then why don't they just stop it?" Fact is emotions for the constituency Sadr represents are incredibly raw. They suffered immensely for the past century (they were always the poorest of the poor and being targeted under Saddam for supporting Islamists made it that much worse), and now from their perspective they're being targetted again. The Sunni resistance to the occupation has several strikes against it for winning Sadrist trust: (1) lots of ex- or current-Baathists who the Sadrists in many instances rightly know were the guys who used to torture and kill their people, (2) the Al-Qaeda type minority in the Sunni resistance is blatantly sectarian anti-Shi'a with all the infamous beheadings and car bombs in marketplaces and what not, and (3) the presence of those forces makes it really hard to trust anybody who works with them including what one might term "honest" nationalist resistance fighters. Think about it, if you're some guy who's grown up in Madinat ath-Thawra / Sadr City your whole life, walking through sewage, your dad and uncle disappearing or getting tortured for years for being a member of Da'wa, and then suddenly the Ba'ath falls and the guys who you tried to make nice with at first from over in Aadhamiya (Sunni part of Baghdad) to fight the Americans together are now seen as allies of the folks who are sending car bombs to the fruit market -- well, it's not hard to see why there's a lack of trust.
  • The flip side also holds true: if you're a Sunni opposition fighter or sympathizer whose primary goal is to rid the country of US occupiers and at first you saw great hope in all those joint Sunni-Shi'a prayers and Sadrist aid convoys to Fallujah in April 2004, but now you see the Mahdi Army mortaring your living room and torturing and killing people in the streets and in secret for having the wrong name...well, kinda hard to trust them too eh?
  • 2nd Fallujah (November 2004 flattening of the city by the marines) was a real watershed in this regard. The Sadrists sent aid to Fallujah in April, but when it turned into Al-Qaeda central for beheadings of Shi'a and assembling carbombs meant for Sadr City, most of the south of Iraq sat back with some satisfaction seeing the city flattened. They felt betrayed and thought Fallujah got what it deserved. On the Sunni side what was viewed as yet another American ugly crime seemed to have now had a Shi'a blessing. The sectarianism of it all was growing and a rift clearly exposed.
  • So, even though Sunni nationalists (minus Al Qaeda) tend to say the right things about national unity and common opposition to the US occupation, and even though Sadrist leaders tend to say much the same stuff, the reality is that dead fathers and raped sisters tend to have a bigger impact on people's feelings. And those feelings are raw. I'm afraid at this point that the scab has been ripped off and every day more salt is being poured into the wound.

Perhaps something could happen eventually to heal the rift, but its tough to see now in my eyes for a very, very long time. Not impossible eventually, Hizbullah once was a much cruder, angrier, less-disciplined lot in Lebanon. But Lebanon and the Lebanese Shi'a had to go through a lot before it got to where it is today. Iraq is a much bigger and more explosive place with bigger stakes. The raw material for cooperation between these major consituencies in Iraq exists, but how you get past this bad blood of the past few years is beyond me at the moment.


At 8:48 AM, Blogger badger said...

thank you. I think a lot of people who don't know the history, or have forgotten most of it, should read this!

At 12:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. NonARab Arab:

This is the most insightful thing in English I have come across, and one that provides some realistic hope that a creative alliance of the type you hint at may yet 'save' Iraq. Undoubtedly one of the major features of the transformations now underway is the emergence of new social and political groups for leadership. Though born in blood and the pain of history, they represent the future. In this sense, what is taking place in Iraq and in Lebanon marks the true birthpangs of a radically altered MIddle East.

God give you strength in your efforts, Mr. NonArab Arab.

-- Jafar AlSadiq

At 2:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to add my thanks, too. This review of the last half-century history helps a lot for me as I try to sort things out and try to understand relationships.

Also the bit about Hizbollah being a model contains an important reminder that such an efficient and effective organization could never have been born overnight.

At 9:53 PM, Blogger John Francis Lee said...

Thanks very much for your insights. I've book marked your blog. You add another, seemingly more personal, dimension to what I find at Juan Cole... and a different set of interests.

But arghhhh! You are allied with Google too. So this will have to be my first and last posts to your blog.

At 10:45 PM, Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

John Francis Lee:

I'm not any sort of online ideologue, what exactly do you mean by "allied with Google" and is there a way to fix it while still keeping access for everyone else?

At 10:58 PM, Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

BTW, to everyone: Mr. Alsadiq, Badger, Rosemary, Mr. Lee -- thank you for your kind words. I don't always have a lot of time to write, but when I do it tends to come out in these big brain spasms and its nice to know they can be of some use.

At 12:44 AM, Blogger CharleyCarp said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A wonderful posting Non-Arab Arab!

Sucessfully describing the maturation of these political forces without derailing into descriptions of the Da'wa - SCIRI - Sadr ideological paradigms.

The combination you describe might well have a push in formation (reformation of the 1920 Revolution) if US forces go ahead with their clear plans to attack Sadr - necessity being the mother of invention - it will drive the nationalist (cross-sectarian) forces together if only in their opposition to the occupation.

Its amazing to me that the largest single "fact" of post-invasion/occupation Iraqi politics is completely ignored outside Iraq: the 'inside-outside' split. Though not identified in such terms you are clearly pointing that out above.


John Measor
University of Victoria


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