Spinning Plates in Iraq

The recent fighting in Baghdad, Basra, and elsewhere between Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Maliki government forces with American support have ably demonstrated that the relative tranquility has not been based solely or even mainly on General Petraeus’s surge program. The decline in violence has been based on many factors. The Sunni tribes of Anbar and Diyala have garnered US protection from Shi’a militias in exchange for their help in fighting al Qaeda. Shi’a groups have ceased fighting the US and each other, due to fears of a US-Sunni partnership and also due to Iranian pressure.

All observers are wondering if the recent violence will spread and undermine the administration’s Iraq policy. (Supporters dread it; opponents privately yearn for it.) Several forces will likely prevent a return to the violence of a year ago ”“ at least for the time being.

First, Sadr is unlikely to find allies in or outside of Iraq. He is not well respected among most Shi’a because he caters to urban masses and lacks the Islamic credentials that his father and Sadr’s rivals enjoy. Sunnis abhor him as the would-be avatar of their expulsion or extermination. And Iran, despite being supportive of him in some respects, views him as anti-Persian and an obstacle to its goal of a stable, Shi’a dominated Iraq.

Second, purely military considerations suggest that the violence will be contained. Sadr’s troops, though armed and trained by Iranian cadre, lack the discipline to deliver a decisive defeat to Maliki’s forces, who for their part have demonstrated no ability to do the same to Sadr’s. A return to a truce is more likely than an internecine war.

Third, the US is unlikely to press Maliki to fight on for an extended period or to launch once more its own incursions into Sadr’s strongholds. Much as the US would like to see Sadr’s command terminated (Wolfowitz is said to have authorized his killing years ago), protracted battles would call into question the surge’s success and make Petraeus’s upcoming visit to Washington far more than the triumphant publicity event it is hoped to be.

Fourth, Iran does not want its co-religionists, upon whom it places its hopes of a stable neighbor to its west, degenerate into intra-sectarian warfare. All this makes for a containment of the present fighting.

Amid the chaos of this recent upsurge in fighting, several things are clear.

First, the Iraqi army, despite years of Petraeus’s tutelage, has been a disappointment to its mentor and headmaster. Government’s forces have experienced desertion and balking and have had to use US airpower against Sadr’s rickety militia units, which likely now lack any unitary command and may now be loyal to various local commanders and Iranian advisers. The Iraqi army would fare even worse against Sunni insurgents, many of whom are former members of Saddam’s army and others who have benefited from US assistance for over a year now.

Second, the US will not be able to safely withdraw any more brigades than have already been announced for the next few months. The generals oppose the further cuts that the administration wants for political purposes before the US elections, and they are likely to have their way ”“ and their brigades.

Third, coalition forces in the south will face increased casualties or at least the threat thereof, which will lead to more allies withdrawing their forces. Small though those contingents are, they will have to be replaced somehow ”“ almost certainly from already stretched US troops.

Fourth, political reconciliations, which composed an essential goal of the recent surge program, remain largely elusive.

The US’s efforts in reducing casualties is reminiscent of the old plate spinning acts on variety shows of the fifties and sixties. A staple of the era, the act consisted of an agile performer spinning several plates atop sticks while audiences looked on in awe and trepidation, and hurrying from one to the other to prevent them from crashing to the floor. This time the US will probably avoid losing a plate, but another in its Baghdad act will soon be wobbling.

~ ©2008 Brian M. Downing
Brian M. Downing is a regular contributor to The Agonist and the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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  • If we pull out, which of the neighbors would want to move into the vacuum to restore order and enhance their influence? We saw Syria do that in Lebanon and it worked for a decade, but now even they must see that playing the role of occupier cannot last forever. Would Iran really want to invest the bloodshed and money necessary to subdue the Sunni community and guarantee a permanent Shi’ite government? Why would Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia expect to have any more success than the U.S. in occupying Iraq?

    We would be better off asking what each of the neighbors wants, and what each of the major Iraqi communities want, so that we can appeal to these wants if possible while we exit the situation.

    Looking at the neighbors’ desires:

    Saudi Arabia and Kuwait: a stable border, respect for the rights of the Sunni minority in Iraq, a lessening of Sunni-Shi’ite tension.
    Jordan and Syria: a stable Iraq that will allow most of the refugees to return home.
    Turkey: an end to the concept of a Kurdish independent state; elimination of the terrorist threat from Iraq Kurdish groups.
    Iran: A Shi’ite dominated government in Iraq, or if that is not possible, a federation wherein southern Iraq is run by and for the benefit of Shi’ites with close ties to Iran.
    The Iraqi people: an end to the blodshed, a state with secure borders and fair domestic policing, a chance for jobs, health care, and education. How or if oil is shared is a critical unresolved issue, as is respect for the Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

    Somewhere in this mess of fears and interests there is the making of a regional plan for cooperation in helping Iraq transition to a working, stable nation. It won’t happen until the U.S. announces a date for its own withdrawal of most forces. But once that happens, there is an incentive for a conference of Iraqis and neighboring states to collectively control the outcome.

    The odds of success are unknown. But the odds of success of the current plan, including the Surge, are probably lower, as we’ve just seen. In fact, it was Iranian intervention that put a stop to the latest Shi’ite internecine warfare. That is at least a partial model for facilitating the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

  • One of the best analyses I’ve read this week. Just one objection: “Sadr’s rickety militia units, which likely now lack any unitary command and may now be loyal to various local commanders and Iranian advisers.” The second I strongly doubt. Iran is supporting the Badr militias with advisers and equipment, not al-Sadr’s thughs. At least not on any significant level, to my knowledge (I haven’t seen any objective proof of that yet).
    And Numerian, Iran already de facto ownes Iraq (aside the Kurdish north). If al-Sadr gets a bloody nose after annoying the US a bit, the better for them.

  • I believe you are mistaken at several points here –

    – Al Sadr has been building connections with various Sunni factions, most notably the Association of Muslim Scholars and in fact organized a gathering of 300 tribal leaders from both Sunni and Shia factions last week, issuing a call for an end to the occupation and (rightly) blaming the occupiers for the instigation and continuation of sectarian tensions.
    – Al Sadr leads a movement that to a large extent opposes Iranian actions in Iraq and he warned Iran to stay out of the battle during his interview with Al Jazeera this weekend. The Sadrists in general are the Shia who did not leave Iraq but instead stayed and fought Saddam while US allies like Hakim and his Badr Brigade fled to Iran and continue close relations with Iran. This alliance with Iran is one key reason for popular, and more particularly Sadrist opposition to SIIC which they see as opposing Iraqi nationalism.
    – I’d suggest a closer look at the events of the fighting – Sadr’s forces not only held off the attacking Maliki/Hakim forces, cutting their supply lines into Basra and forcing them to withdraw (which was acknowledged in statements by Maliki associates).

    US media’s misreading or deliberate attempts to portray Sadr as Iranian friendly may serve Bush’s interests, but is dangerous for understanding the reality on the ground.

    And the continuing poking of the Sadrists by US forces with apparent collaboration from Maliki does not suggest a lengthy truce.

  • forces are more motivated and have more elan than Maliki’s. It’s not even close. Remove US forces and Sadr could overthrow Maliki tomorrow. Sure they aren’t “professional” in the US sense, but unlike Maliki’s forces, they believe in what they’re doing. That counts for a lot. As Siun points out the axis to watch out for is a “nationalist” one, combining Sadr with Sunni nationalists who don’t want a weak Iraq central state, but a strong one.

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