Patterico's Pontifications


The New Face(s) of Conflict in Iraq

Filed under: War — DRJ @ 3:59 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

There are many things to worry about in Iraq: Casualties, both American and Iraqi; the economy; insurgencies and threats from neighboring countries; and sectarian conflict. In addition, there is concern by some (including me) that America is overlawyering the Iraq war.

However, at the end of the day, I suspect this Washington Post article comes closest to identifying the real long-term problem Iraq faces: Same-sect disputes and crime. It’s not a perfect analogy but, in some ways, Iraq faces a Middle Eastern version of the Mafia:

“This year’s U.S. military offensive and dramatic shifts in tactics by both Sunni and Shiite groups are redrawing the balance of power across Iraq. With less violence between Sunnis and Shiites, festering struggles within each community may come to define the nature of the conflict.

In the Shiite-dominated south, Sadr’s main Shiite rivals are taking advantage of the surge in U.S. troops, as well as Sadr’s imposition of a freeze on operations by his Mahdi Army militia, to make political gains. “They are all gathering against us,” said Ayad Abu Ali, a wiry, broad-shouldered militia guard who had sent his family into hiding and now hardly leaves the office.

U.S. forces have arrested hundreds of Mahdi Army militia members in Baghdad, creating voids in the leadership. This has emboldened Iraq’s mostly Shiite security forces, loyal to the Supreme Council and other political parties, to reach for power in the south. In cities such as Karbala, Diwaniyah and, most recently, Hilla, scores of Sadr’s followers are routinely being detained.”

Like the Mafia, the roots of these disputes are family-based struggles for money, power and control:

The competition has its origins in the days when the fathers of Hakim and Sadr, both preeminent ayatollahs, fought to lead Iraq’s Shiites. Under Saddam Hussein, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim spent years in exile in Iran. Sadr remained in Iraq, bolstering his street credentials. After the U.S. invasion in 2003, Hakim embraced the Americans, while Sadr went to war against them, launching two major uprisings in Najaf in 2004.

Today, their struggle is multidimensional, playing out along lines of personality, class and ideology. The contest is a street fight over turf, a tug of war over oil revenues and a battle for control of the shrines. Sadr’s militia has targeted Hakim’s party offices and fought his movement’s armed wing, the Badr Organization. Both militias are widely believed to have operated death squads targeting each other and Sunnis.

The fight is also political; both parties control 30 seats in Iraq’s parliament. Last year, Sadr backed Nouri al-Maliki for prime minister, largely to prevent Hakim’s candidate from gaining office. By the end of 2006, the Bush administration and Hakim had grown closer, to counter Sadr’s growing street power.”

The Hakim-backed Supreme Council has been criticized by Shiites for not doing more to provide services and boost the economy. This has created an opening for Sadr and his followers, especially in the South, an opening the US military may be able to exploit:

“The Supreme Council’s links to both Iran and the Americans have eroded popular support. Voted into the government as part of the ruling Shiite alliance in 2005, the movement is also blamed for not improving basic services or boosting the economy. Even members of the Shiite business elite, core Hakim supporters, are grumbling.

“We elected Abdul Aziz al-Hakim because he was one of us,” said Abu Ali, a merchant near the Imam Ali shrine who asked that his nickname be used. “But has his coalition done anything for the people?”

Hakim is battling lung cancer, although he has appeared healthier in recent weeks. His successor remains unknown.

By reaching out to the urban underclasses, the Supreme Council is wooing Sadr’s core constituency. For years, the Sadrists have brought social services to the Shiite masses.

Despite the arrests, Sadr’s close aides say the cleric will maintain the freeze on his militia’s operations. It is in part a pragmatic decision: The U.S. and Iraqi raids have weakened his movement. But Sadr is also trying to exert control over his unruly, decentralized militia, parts of which still commit atrocities. “We are rebuilding the Mahdi Army,” said Salah al-Obaidi, Sadr’s chief spokesman in Najaf. “We want them to be well disciplined, well educated.”

If all goes well, Sadr might extend the freeze, scheduled to end in February, Obaidi added. That could bolster the young cleric’s popularity, especially during the April referendum, if it takes place. U.S. military commanders are now publicly commending Sadr for the freeze.

These are the kinds of problems that law enforcement and lawyers might be very good at handling.


7 Responses to “The New Face(s) of Conflict in Iraq”

  1. Very interesting post. This ties in with what I’ve read from the troops in the field.

    “If you want to understand how Iraqi society works…watch ‘The Godfather’ or ‘The Sopranos.'”

    MarkJ (8ac3d8)

  2. My understanding is tribal loyalty comes first, sect loyalty second.

    Also I saw a few mentions today of Sadr sending out hit men to take out some of his own who haven’t been sticking to well to the game plan he wants to play.

    I have to think he saw just how well muslim on muslim violence was working out for AQ and maybe even got a lot of feedback from his own field troops about how the locals were taking the whole idea.

    It is also interesting to note how some are finally pointing to just how much like Hezbollah with the service to locals concept Sadr has been practicing.

    daytrader (ea6549)

  3. This is the culture of the Middle East and we will not be able to change it anytime soon. The question is whether some frm of democratic rule can be grafted onto such a base. Turkey has to be our model and we have to looking for Ataturks. Maybe Saddam killed them all. We will have to deal with this.

    Mike K (86bddb)

  4. But Mike K, at one time, couldn’t you have said the same thing about the “culture” of Chicago and NYC?

    DRJ (09f144)

  5. If you take most news from Iraq and change the name to a US city; it would be back page at best.

    Iraqis have crimes, criminals and killings. If not for the war it wouldn’t even be news in US papers. These things happen in every country, democratic or not.

    Verlin Martin (899dce)

  6. the biggest problem is his alliance with the Iranians: Mookie needs to have a cerebral hemorrhage….

    it doesn’t matter if it’s natural or 7.62×39, as long as we’re deniable.
    no one will mourn his passing, as they will be too busy trying to move up.

    redc1c4 (39c24a)

  7. He should be very wary of things named Hellfire, or J-DAM. We shouldn’t need to get closer than that. And, he should stay away from anyone we are seriously looking for so as not to be collateral damage.

    Another Drew (8018ee)

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