Sunday, May 30, 2004

Can't win for losing

Okay, as long as I'm bashing left analyses, let's go one more. Mother Jones' "Daily MoJo" for May 28 had this to say about the truce in Najaf:
The rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr - whose Mahdi Army has been battling U.S. troops for almost two months - may come out the winner in a deal reached by Shiite religious and political leaders by which U.S. and Sadr's troops will pull out of the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Kufa.
Billmon at The Whiskey Bar chimes in, saying
[a]ll that's been achieved by the past month of fighting in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala has been to further trash America's reputation in the Arab world (on the Shi'a side, this time) and to make Sadr the second-most respected leader in Iraq, according to the coalition's own pollster.
Meanwhile, The Independent (UK) for May 28 calls the deal an "embarrassing capitulation" by the US, saying that Sadr "appeared to have got the most out of yesterday's deal."

This "Sadr is winning/Sadr has won/Sadr is the winner" meme (to which Hesiod was another contributor) has gotten to be annoying not only because of the irritation of repetition, like getting repeatedly poked in the same spot, but because it is so out of synch with what I think has really happened. In fact, Sadr hasn't "won" anything. What he's done is survived. Now, I suppose that may be victory enough for someone still theoretically facing murder charges, but that's not what the meme means. It means that because of the agreement, under which he remains free and his Madhi Army is not disbanded, he's now a player, he's "beaten" the US, at least politically, and has become a force to be reckoned with.

But claiming he's the "winner" based on that, on looking just at the last couple of days, is, if I can use a lefty buzzword, ahistorical. That is, it ignores context and background and thereby creates a false picture. Sadr did not suddenly appear out of nowhere in April and measuring his status now requires a comparison with that he held before the confrontation started, not with that of three or four days ago.

I first mentioned the "hardline ayatollah Moqtada al-Sadr" on January 22, when I noted he was credited with turning out the thousands of Iraqis who were demonstrating for immediate elections, adding that he and Ali al-Sistani were rivals, indeed
some have suggested that Sistani's stiffening insistence on immediate elections was driven in part by a fear that he was losing influence to Sadr.
And on March 26, I called him "an extremely powerful voice."

This is not to puff my own knowledge; I am by no means any kind of expert on Iraq's internal politics. Indeed, that makes the point even more strongly: If I, no more than an interested observer, was aware of Sadr and his degree of influence, shouldn't the voices now treating him as some new factor have known as well?

If anything, Sadr's influence has declined over recent weeks. The poll to which Billmon refers was done in mid-April, shortly after the confrontation began, when Sadr was at the peak of his popularity as a symbol of resistance to heavy-handed US rule. But earlier this month, on May 6, I described the increasing chorus of criticism of Sadr from other religious leaders in Iraq, pointedly referring to the fact that they acknowledged that they had refrained from speaking out until it was clear public Shiite opinion had turned against him. I also referred to the reports showing that opposition within Karbala and Najaf to the presence of the Madhi Army was becoming open.

Sadr was, I argued, becoming isolated both physically and politically, and had perhaps realized he had "overplayed his hand, perhaps severely." I went on to say that "perhaps taking advantage of [the] opening" provided by the criticism, US military forces moved to the outskirts of Najaf. That proved prescient, as the military soon began moving into the city itself. On May 27, the New York Times agreed that the clerics had
sent a series of signals that many interpreted as a green light for the Americans to move into Karbala and the other holy city, Najaf.
Indeed, the ceasefire itself did not come as a result of Sadr's pressure on the US, but of those other clerics. The New York Times says that
[a]ccording to two Iraqi Shiite leaders, American officials signed onto the agreement with Mr. Sadr after they received a forceful note from Ayatollah Sistani and other senior clerics, passed to them by Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie.

"The religious leadership passed a strong warning to the Americans yesterday to end the stand-off in Najaf peacefully," said Hamed Khafaf, an aide to Ayatollah Sistani.

Had the Americans refused, Mr. Khafaf said, the ayatollah, convinced that the presence of American forces so near the Imam Ali Shrine was unsustainable, "would not stay silent."
Even the Mother Jones piece acknowledges that Sadr's truce/withdrawal proposal was not based on the strength of his position.
While Sadr claimed that the truce stemmed from his desire to prevent further damage from holy sites ... [his] decision stemmed from more earthy considerations. For one, Sadr's forces have sustained heavy casualties and one of his key commanders - also his brother-in-law - has been captured this week. The damage to religious sites has undercut Sadr's own authority, since it is widely understood that the actions of his militias made holy sites military targets. Morale among many of his fighters is dwindling after the mounting casualties and the disruption of trade and services in Najaf.
In short, being ground down militarily, hundreds of his fighters dead, the rest increasingly demoralized, the mass uprising he called for never having materialized, his influence waning, the target of increasing criticism from the religious leadership (Sistani's deputy, Mohammed al-Mehri, went so far as to blame the Sadr militia for the assault on the holy shrine of Imam Ali - Iraqi Press Monitor, May 26.), and facing open opposition within Najaf itself, Sadr simply cut the best deal he could under the circumstances, one in which he made a significant, little-noted concession: allowing for the presence of US military forces in Najaf, "protecting their headquarters and the governorate building" and running security patrols though the city center, until such time as Iraqi police can take over. Previously, Sadr had declared the city red-lined to American forces. And he wouldn't even have gotten what he did if it wasn't for the intercession of Sistani.

Meanwhile, letting his "army" stay "intact," which has been presented as a major concession to Sadr, actually means nothing at all.
"In Iraq many people have guns, every family has a gun, and these people are simply armed Shias from urban areas," Joost Hiltermann, director of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank based in Amman which has been studying the militias, told BBC News Online [on May 27].

"As they aren't a real army there is nothing to disband. What they are likely to do is just melt away, they will go back to their homes and their jobs and just keep their guns with them," he added.
Frankly, if all this adds up to Sadr being the winner, then to paraphrase Arthur Dent, this must be some new meaning of "winning" with which I'm unfamiliar.

Footnote: Just for the heck of it, I think it might be interesting to compare what has developed with what I wrote back on April 8:
I expect that the fighting will die down, perhaps with some face-saving agreement about releasing people seized "now that the situation is stabilized" and a vaguely-worded guarantee to Sadr about there being "no plans to take him into custody at the present time." For his part, I think that Sadr is going to realize that in the absence of that non-occurring general uprising, his people are going to be ground down - slowly, perhaps, but still ground down - by the sheer mass of the overwhelming numbers and firepower they face. I see him announcing an end to the fighting in a way that doesn't constitute any sort of surrender, perhaps something along the lines of "we have bloodied the enemy's nose, let us give him a chance to consider his error," at which point his militia melts back into the general population.
Okay, certainly not 100% accurate and things went on longer than I expected, but close enough to what's come out - the assurance that Sadr's case will be dealt with at some vague point in the future, the grinding down, the no-surrender end, the moving of the Mahdi Army back into the general population - to be no embarrassment.

How about others make the same sort of then/now comparison?

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