Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Clutching at Straws

Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), visited the Whitehouse yesterday to attend a meeting with President Bush. The President told al-Hakim that "the US supports his work... to unify the country". Good grief.

Is Bush going to invite al-Sadr too? In actual fact, that might be more useful (except that he would refuse to meet the President). Al-Sadr is far more open to dialogue with Sunni groups than al-Hakim is ever likely to be. He often calls for calm and reconciliation. He hates the occupying forces far more than he hates Sunnis and he has attempted to work with them to achieve peace in order to bring an end to the occupation. He's also an Iraqi nationalist and believes strongly in preserving a unified Iraq (he opposes federalism, unlike the SCIRI). It is true that his Mahdi army participates in revenge attacks but that appears to be mostly due to its relatively loose structure. The Mahdi Army formed after the invasion on a sort of ad-hoc basis. Al-Sadr undoubtedly has firm control of members of the militia in his close vicinity and a degree of control over the rest but he's probably unable to stop reprisals when emotions are running high after an attack.

The armed wing of the SCIRI, the Badr Organisation, is rather different. Set up by the Iranians and based there for two decades, it's a proper organisation with well established command and control structures. It's members have been well trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Unsurprisingly, it still has close ties with the Iranian regime. In fact, the SCIRI is by far the most Iran friendly of all the parties in Iraq today. It is highly likely that they are still receiving support of one form or another from the Iranians. They are not Iranian puppets but they are very close allies.

The SCIRI is also the faction which was accused of running death squads from the Interior Ministry when they had control there. Their Badr Organisation have long since thoroughly infiltrated Iraq's security forces and they are certainly still running death squads today. They are also almost certainly responsible for abducting and torturing Sunnis. This is a very deliberate policy designed to intimidate Sunnis into submission. It's a doomed policy unless they are prepared to be as brutally efficient in this task as Saddam was before them (mostly in the opposite direction in Saddam's case, of course). Unfortunately, they may very well be.

In a speech he gave after the meeting, al-Hakim explained his solution to Iraq's troubles.
The only way to stave off civil war in Iraq is for U.S. forces to strike harder against Sunni-led insurgents, a leading Shi'ite politician said on Monday after talks with President George W. Bush.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the biggest party in Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government, put the onus on Washington and its allies to take tougher action in Iraq, and denied that majority Shi'ites were stoking sectarian violence.
Tougher action against the Sunnis? Who could have predicted...

For the SCIRI, reconciliation with the Sunnis is not on the agenda. Al-Hakim, although he might not say it openly, believes that the only way to solve Iraq's security problems is to win the nascent civil war. His organisation is not yet powerful enough to do that on its own. He has, however, got a cunning plan. What he needs is a large powerful army, preferably one led by someone who doesn't really understand the situation, to act as his proxy and crush the Sunnis once and for all. Fortunately for him, there's just such an army very close at hand. It's hard to tell whether Bush and his advisers will see this.

And what is President Bush doing inviting this man to the Whitehouse anyway? At first, I wondered whether he didn't understand quite who he was dealing with. On reflection, it seems more likely that he wants al-Hakim to take a message to the Iranians. If so, he chose the right guy.

I'm all for dialogue but it seems hugely unlikely that anything useful will come from engaging Iran on this issue. I don't believe they are stoking the violence as some do but do believe they're quite happy to see their great enemy bogged down in Iraq. What does Bush expect from the Iranians? If the recent comments of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are anything to go by, they will insist on U.S. troop withdrawn as a prerequisite before they will consider helping to quell the violence. That's going to be a very short conversation.

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Anonymous said...

Top explanatory post. One of the reasons why al-Sadr is getting attacked is that his militia has splintered so much that groups once associated with it have become autonomous, carrying out their own killings etc. Whether he can regain control of them or not is going to be a major part of stopping the violence.

CuriousHamster said...

Thanks. *Blushes*

Yesterday's Time coverage of the meeting was interesting. No mention of the Badr Organisation's involvement in sectarian violence. Instead, they decreed that the meeting was "part of an effort by the US Administration to marginalise Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric whose Mahdi Army militia is blamed for much of Iraq’s sectarian violence".

The fact that al-Sadr is hostile to the occupation forces seems to be enough for the Times to decide that he's to blame for everything bad in Iraq. Likewise, the fact that al-Hakim is more amenable to the continued presence of U.S. forces (for reasons which seem to have escaped them entirely) is enough to make him a moderate.

This sort of lazy narrative doesn't seem to have much to do with honest news reporting.