The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back?

Posted by Cutler on July 10, 2006
Iraq

Two of the best Iraq news bloggers–Juan Cole at Informed Comment and “Swopa” at Needlenose–have assembled details on the news reports of explicitly sectarian, Shiite-led executions of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad.

Juan Cole offers the following details about the cycle of vengeance:

Shaikh Abd al-Samad al-`Ubaydi, the prayer leader at the Fakhri Shanshal Mosque in the al-Jihad district, accused the Mahdi Army of committing this crime. “Everything is clear, now,” he said. He added, “When I left the mosque after the crime had been committed, I saw ten bodies of ten men, all of them killed with a bullet to the head, and all of them bearing signs of torture.” He said many of the early-morning killings were carried out in front of the Husayniyah of Fatimah al-Zahra, a Shiite mourning center.

The prayer leader at the Fatimah al-Zahra Husayniyah, Shaikh Hamud al-Sudani, for his part told the AFP that the attacks were carried out by relatives of victims killed in the quarter during recent months. He said, “During the past 5 months, Shiites have been the victims of killings in and expulsion from the al-Jihad district.” Guerrillas, presumably Sunni Arabs, had set off a bomb near the Fatimah al-Zahra center on Satuday evening, wounding 4, which Shaikh al-Sudani said was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Reuters also mentions the bombing of the Fatimah al-Zahra center Saturday evening in its summary of the violence.

Most news sources carry reports that Sadr and his camp deny any involvement in the ambush and execution of Sunn Arabs. The Washington Post:

Other officials in Sadr’s organization condemned the killings in al-Jihad and denied that the Mahdi Army was involved.

“We regret the statements made by some Sunni Arabs who said that the Mahdi Army militia had conducted the raid at Jihad and killed the innocent people there,” said Riyadh al-Nouri, a top aide to Sadr and his brother-in-law. “If the Mahdi Army wanted to enter into a fight, Iraq would become a blood bath.”

I find it interesting, however, that Juan Cole’s post includes a citation of an AFP report that has a local Shiite prayer leader–Shaikh Hamud al-Sudani at the Fatimah al-Zahra Husayniyah prayer center–explaining rather than denying Shiite (if not Mahdi Army) involvement in the ambush and executions.

A similar statement–by an unnamed “senior Shiite politician” of unknown political loyalty–appears in the International Herald Tribune coverage:

A senior Shiite politician said the Mahdi Army fighters from eastern Baghdad had moved into Jihad on Sunday but insisted they were only taking on Sunni militants responsible for killing Shiites. “There are many terrorist groups in Jihad who are killing Shiite families so they went to fight them,” he said.

Which Axis: Nationalist or Sectarian?

Although the Saturday night bombing of the Shiite prayer center may have been the final “straw,” it was certainly not the heaviest–not even the heaviest of the past week, which included a car bomb that killed Shiite pilgrims in Kufa.

All of this seems so plainly “sectarian”–a local cycle of vengeance in a mixed Baghdad neighborhood–that one could almost forget that the final “straw” just happened to coincide with US raids on Sadr City.

The Washington Post article, “Scores of Sunnis Killed in Baghdad,” situates the ambush in the context of US policy toward Sadr:

Iraqi officials and residents of the neighborhood identified the gunmen as members of the Mahdi Army, the powerful militia controlled by the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In the past three days, Iraqi troops, with the support of U.S.-led forces, have raided the homes of militiamen and detained some of their leaders.

U.S. commanders and diplomats say Sadr and his militia constitute one of the gravest threats to Iraq’s security.

In a previous post, I suggested that these US raids in Sadr city could inaugurate a new round of violence between the US foreces and the Mahdi Army. And, to be sure, the US-Sadr axis of violence–which is a battle over the future of the US occupation– is alive and well.

The Washington Post reports (“Troops Raid Iraqi Mosque with Ties to Shiite Cleric“) that on Saturday, amidst all the “sectarian” strife, US forces moved against a Sadrist mosque:

Following a tip from a local resident, Iraqi security forces cordoned off the Sadrain Mosque in Zafraniya, southeast of Baghdad, at 5:45 p.m., the U.S. military said in a statement. Four hours later, national police searched the mosque, detained 20 people and seized six AK-47s.

Among those detained were mosque guards, two servants and a librarian, said Col. Abdul Razzak Mahmoud of the ministry’s operations room.

The military did not mention any involvement by U.S. troops, but Mahmoud said the raid was conducted by American forces. U.S. troops frequently provide air or ground support for Iraqi military operations.

The reason for the raid remained unclear Saturday evening.

Last week’s US raids in Sadr city seemed likely to be the final “straw” that broke the camel’s back of Sadr’s cooperation with the current US-backed government.

Certainly some US commanders and diplomats seem to have been spoiling for this fight–a direct confrontation between the “national unity government” and Sadr. In this scenario, Sadr would be isolated and targeted by Prime Minister Maliki and the major governing Shiite political parties.

Why, then, have the Sadrist seemingly responded to a new US offensive with an explicitly sectarian act of vengeance?

The sectarian axis of violence–the cycle of Sunni-Shiite retaliation described by Shaikh Hamud al-Sudani at the Fatimah al-Zahra Husayniyah prayer center–seems far more likely to provoke a very different scenario: civil war.

In its article on the US-backed raid on the Shiite mosque in Zafraniya, the Washington Post reports:

Riyadh al-Nouri, Sadr’s brother-in-law and a top official in his organization, criticized U.S. involvement in the recent raids against Sadr.

Nouri said in an interview that the council of top Shiite religious leaders in Iraq could lose patience with attacks against Shiites and call for an uprising.

It depends on the people. If they are angry, they will fight,” said Nouri. “Until now the Shiite giant has not begun to move.”

What I find most surprising and potentially significant in this quote is that Nouri responds to a US raid in explicitly sectarian–rather than nationalist–terms. A “Shiite” uprising, not a “nationalist” uprising.

In the past, Sadrists responded to US offensives with appeals to Iraqi nationalism, including joint action with Sunni insurgents. Here, Nouri responds to a US raid with an appeal to “the council of top Shiite religious leaders in Iraq” and to “the Shiite giant.”

In other words, if Sadrists once sought an end to political isolation through a nationalist alliance, they seem to think that their present isolation demands a sectarian alliance. The reference to “the council of top Shiite religious leaders” is an appeal to Sistani for help.

Sistani, as Nouri suggests, “has not begun to move” against either Sunni or US provocation.

Nouri is not the only one who has noted that “the Shiite giant has not begun to move.”

Back on November 24, 2004, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer made a similar observation in his essay, “A Fight For Shiites.”

People keep warning about the danger of civil war. This is absurd. There already is a civil war. It is raging before our eyes. Problem is, only one side is fighting it

This is the Shiites’ and Kurds’ fight…

Seven months ago I wrote in this space that while our “goal has been to build a united, pluralistic, democratic Iraq in which the factions negotiate their differences the way we do in the West” that “may be, in the short run, a bridge too far. . . . [W]e should lower our ambitions and see Iraqi factionalization as a useful tool.”…

Where are the Shiites?… It is their civil war.

Well, now it may finally be.

According to Reuters, Sadr himself is calling for restraint.

“I urge all government and popular forces to exercise restraint and take responsibility in front of God first and society secondly,” cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters are part of the national unity government, said in a statement…

Sadr, whose supporters have waged two rebellions against U.S. forces in Iraq, has made repeated calls for an end to the U.S. occupation. He blamed Sunday’s violence on a “Western plan aimed at sponsoring a civil and sectarian war between brothers”.

The problem, for Sadr, may be that his only chance to avoid political isolation in the face of a US-backed crackdown by Maliki’s “national unity” government may be to unleash the sectarian forces that would bring Sistani and the “Shiite giant” to his side.

Either way, Sadr now risks acquiescing to one or another “Western plan.”

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