Crisis in Iraq. Big Time.

Five Things You Need to Know to Understand the Latest Violence in Iraq
By Joshua Holland and Raed Jarrar / AlterNet / March 27

The traditional media is incapable of reporting what’s going on in Southern Iraq.

Heavy fighting has spread across Shia-dominated enclaves in Iraq over the past two days. The U.S.-backed regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered 50,000 Iraqi troops to “crack down” — with coalition air support — on Shiite militias in the oil-rich and strategically important city of Basra, U.S. forces have surrounded Baghdad’s Sadr City and fighting has been reported in the southern cities of Kut, Diwaniya, Karbala and Hilla. Basra’s main bridge and an oil pipeline connecting it to Amara were destroyed Wednesday.

Six cities are under curfew, and acts of civil disobedience have shut down dozens of neighborhoods across the country. Civilian casualties have reportedly overwhelmed poorly equipped medical centers in Baghdad and Basra.

There are indications that the unilateral ceasefire declared last year by the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is collapsing. “The cease-fire is over; we have been told to fight the Americans,” one militiaman loyal to al-Sadr told the Christian Science Monitor’s Sam Dagher by telephone from Sadr City. Dagher added that the “same man, when interviewed in January, had stated that he was abiding by the cease-fire and that he was keeping busy running his cellular phone store.”

A political track is also in play: Sadr has called on his followers to take to the streets to demand Maliki’s resignation, and nationalist lawmakers in the Iraqi Parliament, led by al-Sadr’s block, are trying to push a no-confidence vote challenging the prime minister’s regime.

The conflict is one that the U.S. media appears incapable of describing in a coherent way. The prevailing narrative is that Basra has been ruled by mafialike militias — which is true — and that Iraqi government forces are now cracking down on the lawlessness in preparation for regional elections, which is not. As independent analyst Reider Visser noted:

Most importantly, there is a discrepancy between the description of Basra as a city ruled by militias (in the plural) … [and the] facts of the ongoing operations, which seem to target only one of these militia groups, the Mahdi Army loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr.

Surely, if the aim was to make Basra a safer place, it would have been logical to do something to also stem the influence of the other militias loyal to the local competitors of the Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [SIIC], as well as the armed groups allied to the Fadila party (sic) (which have dominated the oil protection services for a long time). But so far, only Sadrists have complained about attacks by government forces.

The conflict doesn’t conform to the analysis of the roots of Iraqi instability as briefed by U.S. officials in the heavily-fortified Green Zone. It also doesn’t fit into the simplistic but popular narrative of a country wrought by sectarian violence, and its nature is obscured by the labels that the commercial media uncritically apply to the disparate centers of Iraqi resistance to the occupation.

The “crackdown” comes on the heels of the approval of a new “provincial law,” which will ultimately determine whether Iraq remains a unified state with a strong central government or is divided into sectarian-based regional governates. The measure calls for provincial elections in October, and the winners of those elections will determine the future of the Iraqi state. Control of the country’s oil wealth, and how its treasure will be developed, will also be significantly influenced by the outcome of the elections.

It’s a relatively straightforward story: Iraq is ablaze today as a result of an attempt to impose Colombian-style democracy on the unstable country: Maliki’s goal, shared by the like-minded allies among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities that dominate his administration, and with at least tacit U.S. approval, is to kill off the opposition and then hold a vote.

To better understand the nature of this latest round of conflict, here are five things one needs to know about what’s taking place across Iraq.

1. A visible manifestation of Iraq’s central-but-under-reported political conflict (not “sectarian violence”)

Iraq, which had experienced little or no sectarian-based violence prior to the U.S. invasion, has been plagued with sectarian militias fighting for the streets of Iraq’s formerly heterogeneous neighborhoods, and “sectarian violence” has become Americans’ primary explanation for the instability that has plagued the country.

But the sectarian-based street-fighting is a symptom of a larger political conflict, one that has been poorly analyzed in the mainstream press. The real source of conflict in Iraq — and the reason political reconciliation has been so difficult — is a fundamental disagreement over what the future of Iraq will look like. Loosely defined, it is a clash of Iraqi nationalists — with Muqtada al-Sadr as their most influential voice — who desire a unified Iraqi state and public-sector management of the country’s vast oil reserves and who forcefully reject foreign influence on Iraq’s political process, be it from the United States, Iran or other outside forces.

The nationalists now represent a majority in Iraq’s parliament but are opposed by what might be called Iraqi separatists, who envision a “soft partition” of Iraq into at least four semiautonomous and sectarian-based regional entities, welcome the privatization of the Iraqi energy sector (and the rest of the Iraqi economy) and rely on foreign support to maintain their power.

We’ve written about this long-standing conflict extensively in the past, and now we’re seeing it come to a head, as we believed it would at some point.

2. U.S. is propping up unpopular regime; Sadr has support because of his platform.

One of the ironies of the reporting out of Iraq is the ubiquitous characterization of Muqtada al-Sadr as a “renegade,” “radical” or “militant” cleric, despite the fact that he is the only leader of significance in the country who has ordered his followers to stand down. His ostensible militancy appears to arise primarily from his opposition to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

He has certainly been willing to use violence in the past, but the “firebrand” label belies the fact that Sadr is arguably the most popular leader among a large section of the Iraqi population and that he has forcefully rejected sectarian conflict and sought to bring together representatives of Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian groups in an effort to create real national reconciliation — a process that the highly sectarian Maliki regime has failed to accomplish.

It’s vitally important to understand that Sadr’s popularity and legitimacy is a result of his having a platform that’s favored by an overwhelming majority of Iraqis.

Most Iraqis:

Favor a strong central government free of the influence of militias.

Oppose, by a 2-1 margin, the privatization of Iraq’s energy sector — a “benchmark towards progress according to the Bush administration.

Favor a U.S. withdrawal on a short timeline (PDF) (most believe the United States plans to build permanent bases — both are issues about which the Sadrists have been vocal.

Oppose al Qaeda and the ideology of Osama Bin Laden and, to a lesser degree, Iranian influence on Iraq’s internal affairs.

With the exception of their opposition to Al Qaeda, the five major separatist parties — Sunni, Shia and Kurdish — that make up Maliki’s governing coalition are on the deeply unpopular side of these issues. A poll conducted last year found that 65 percent of Iraqis think the Iraqi government is doing a poor job, and Maliki himself has a Bush-like 66 percent disapproval rate.

Read all of it here.
From Roger Baker / The Rag Blog

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