the Disillusioned kid: Iraq... Again
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Sunday, August 15, 2004

Iraq... Again

The past week or so has seen fighting between "coalition" forces in Iraq and the Mahdi militia loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr reignite. The sight of US soldiers fighting in the holy city of Najaf has enrage large parts of the Shia and wider Muslim world. The situation is worrying, the issues it raises serious and so I've returned once more to the issue of Iraq.

Many on the left have been quite supportive of Sadr's uprising against the occupation, however it is important not to be over simplistic when talking about al-Sadr and his supporters. Juan Cole describes his followers as "narrow-minded, thug-like puritans who impose their power on civilians by coercion," an assessment echoed by Salam Pax in his last blog entry back in April. Similarly the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq described the conflict between the US and forces loyal to Sadr as a "war of terrorists". Certainly the areas under the control of the Mahdi militia have implemented a strict form of Sharia law and you certainly don't want to run an off-licence while these guys are around. It may even be true, as many supporters of the US action claim, that the majority of the population of Najaf oppose Sadr. However, as Cole points out, this is likely to be because "Muqtada's social and political base lies elsewhere. It isn't that he doesn't have one." He appears to have extensive support amongst the ranks or young, poor Shia such as those living in Sadr city, a Baghdad slum named after Moqtada's late father. According to a poll in May, support for Sadr ran at 32% with another 36% saying they somewhat supported him. This made him the most popular man in the country after Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

With US forces massing around Najaf there has been an outpouring of anger and support in Iraq. There have been demonstrations in central Baghdad, Kufa and Samawa. In Diwaniya protesters attacked and occupied the offices of PM Iyad Allawi's party, the Iraqi National Accord. There were even protests in Fallujah, a city described by Cole as "strongly Sunni". At Hilla, Polish troops were apparently surrounded in the police station by demonstrators. Large numbers of Shia are also making their way to the city to act as human shields around al-Sadr (these pictures apparently show people on their way).

When Saddam fell, Sadr was a cleric with limited influence. His paper Al-Hawza was read by something like 10,000 people. It printed conspiracy theories about the occupying forces, but was hardly alone in this practice which occurs in many of the hundreds of papers now available in Iraq. However the US decided to close his paper down, which led to demonstrations and ultimately open conflict (for more on this and some links see my post on the matter from April). Later in the year he made noises about setting up a political party and working through the political process. But laws preventing those with "illegal" militias from participating meant that this did not come to fruition. I can't help but wonder why the US didn't make further efforts to co-opt Sadr which would have made their job much easier. Instead they seem set on getting themselves into fights they cannot win (at least politically: they could have flattened Najaf, but not without losing what support they have within the Shia community and for that matter the world).

The situation in Iraq still strikes me as bleak. There are at this point no good solutions. There is a real risk that when the US withdraw some form of undemocratic theocracy could take power, but I still do not believe that this is a justification for the ongoing occupation or the assault on Najaf. However is seems that Islamist groups are taking legitimacy from their opposition to the occupation as there is no credible secular force filling that role. The longer the occupation continues the stronger they may become. Quoting Noam Chomsky is something of a lefty cliche, but in this case he makes a point so well, I feel it's justified. With regard to the unpredictable consequences of an "expeditious withdrawal" he notes,
We cannot say much with confidence, of course, any more than we could have said anything with confidence about withdrawal of Japanese armies from much of Asia in the early 1940s, or of Russian forces from Afghanistan, and many other cases. But that lack of confidence is not much of an argument for military occupation.
There are, I repeat, no easy answers. However, it seems clear that the US and UK cannot bring peace and stability, let alone democracy to Iraq by force of arms. The occupation is part of the problem (arguably a large part), not the solution. We are going to have to withdraw eventually. If I am right and the presence of the "coalition" is only strengthening the hand of the reactionaries, is it not better that we leave now to maximise the chance of a good outcome, rather than allowing these groups to grow in strength?

Of course if people had listened to me 18 months ago when I warned that the invasion of Iraq would inevitably lead to a quagmire, then we wouldn't be faced with this pretty dire set of choices now.

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