September 28, 2006


Infidel Documents: Intelligence, jihadists and the Iraq war debate (FOUAD AJAMI, September 28, 2006, Opinion Journal)

It was inevitable that the Arabs would regard this American project in Iraq through the prism of their own experience. We upended an order of power in Baghdad, dominated as it had been by the Sunni Arabs; and we emancipated the Shiite stepchildren of the Arab world, as well as the Kurds. Our innocence was astounding. We sinned against the order of the universe, but called on the region to celebrate, to bless our work. More to the point, we set the Shia on their own course. We did for them what they could not have done on their own. For our part, we were ambivalent about the coming of age of the Shia. We had battled radical Shiism in Iran and in Lebanon in the 1980s. The symbols of Shiism we associated with political violence--radical mullahs, martyrology, suicide bombers. True, in the interim, we had had a war--undeclared, but still a war--with Sunni jihadists. But there lingered in us an aversion to radical Shiism, an understandable residue of the campaign that Ayatollah Khomeini had waged against American power in the '80s. We were susceptible as well to the representations made to us by rulers in the Sunni-ruled states about the dangers of radical Shiism.

The case against the war makes much of Iran's new power in Iraq. To the war critics, President Bush has midwifed a second Islamic republic in Iraq, next door to Iran. But Iran cannot run away with Iraq, and talk of an ascendant Iran in Iraqi affairs is overblown. We belittle the Iraqi Shiites--their sense of home, and of a tradition so thoroughly Iraqi and Arab--when we write them off as instruments of Iran. Inevitably, there is Iranian money in Iraq, and there are agents, but this is the logic of the 900-mile Iranian-Iraqi border.

True, in the long years of Tikriti/Saddamist dominion, Shiite political men persecuted by the regime sought sanctuary in Iran; a political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and its military arm, the Badr Brigade, rose in those years with Iranian patronage. But the Iraqi exiles are not uniform in their attitudes toward Iran. Exile was hard, and the Iranian hosts were given to arrogance and paternalism. Iraqi exiles were subordinated to the strategic needs of the Iranian regime. Much is made, and appropriately, of the way the Americans who prosecuted the first Gulf War called for rebellions by the Shiites (and the Kurds), only to walk away in indifference as the Saddam regime struck back with vengeance. But the Iranians, too, averted their gaze from the slaughter. States are merciless, the Persian state no exception to that rule.

We should not try to impose more order and consensus on the world of Shiite Iraq than is warranted by the facts. In recent days a great faultline within the Shiites could be seen: The leader of the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq, Sayyid Abdulaziz al-Hakim, has launched a big campaign for an autonomous Shiite federated unit that would take in the overwhelmingly Shiite provinces in the south and the middle Euphrates, but this project has triggered the furious opposition of Hakim's nemesis, the young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Hakim's bid was transparent. He sought to be the uncrowned king of a Shiite polity. But he was rebuffed. Sadr was joined in opposition to that scheme by the Daawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, by the Virtue Party, and by those secular Shiites who had come into the national assembly with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. A bitter struggle now plays out in the Shiite provinces between the operatives of the Badr Brigade and Sadr's Mahdi Army. The fight is draped in religious colors--but it is about the spoils of power.

The truculence of the Sunni Arabs has brought forth the Shiite vengeance that a steady campaign of anti-Shiite terror was bound to trigger. Sunni elements have come into the government, but only partly so. President Jalal Talabani put it well when he said that there are elements in Iraq that partake of government in the daytime, and of terror at night. This is as true of the Sunni Arabs as it is of the Shiites. The (Sunni) insurgents were relentless: In the most recent of events, they have taken terror deep into Sadr City. The results were predictable: The death squads of the Mahdi Army struck back.

It is idle to debate whether Iraq is in a state of civil war. The semantics are tendentious, and in the end irrelevant. There is mayhem, to be sure, but Iraq has arrived at a rough balance of terror. The Sunni Arabs now know, as they had never before, that their tyranny is broken for good. And the most recent reports from Anbar province speak of a determination of the Sunni tribes to be done with the Arab jihadists.

It is not a rhetorical flourish to say that the burden of rescuing Iraq lies with its leaders. No script had America staying indefinitely, fighting Iraq's wars, securing Iraq's peace. The best we can do for Iraq is grant it time to develop the military and political capabilities that would secure it against insurgencies at home and subversion from across its borders.

...if they just thought of the Shi'a as the Jews of the Arab world.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 28, 2006 3:04 PM
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