Sadr and the Coming Coup in Iraq

Posted by Cutler on August 27, 2006

The media is full of Moqtada al-Sadr these days. In fact, even Sadr City’s own Keyser Söze–the mythical Abu Dera (or, Abu Dereh, or most recently, Abu Diri)–has made it to the big time.

Ellen Knickmeyer has a big profile of “Abu Diri” in today’s Washington Post entitledDisavowed by Mahdi Army, Shadowy ‘Butcher’ Still Targets Sadr’s Foes.” And Newsweek asks, “Iraq: Is Moqtada Losing His Grip?” in an article about alleged divisions within Sadr’s ranks. For some background, see my previous posts (especially, here and here).

The Knickmeyer article on Abu Diri is part of a larger series of reports on Sadr and the Mahdi army, including a front-page August 24, 2006 report entitled “‘Shiite Giant’ Extends Its Reach” and front-page August 25, 2006 report entitled “Sadr’s Militia and the Slaughter in the Streets.”

It is interesting to note that even in Knickmeyer’s Abu Diri article, the lead quote goes to a US military official who asserts an ongling link to Sadr, not tension with Sadr.

U.S. military officials, distrustful of Sadr after battling his Mahdi Army in the first two years of the war, believe Abu Diri is linked to the militia.

He’s the enforcer,” said 1st Lt. Zeroy Lawson, the intelligence officer with a small U.S. Army unit that works in Sadr City and is responsible for helping train the Iraqi army there. “He goes after specific targets” of Sadr and the Mahdi Army.

Lawson called him Sadr City’s agent “for external affairs,” going across Baghdad in pursuit of Sunnis or any others seen as enemies.

The strange thing about some of this high-profile Sadr chatter is that it doesn’t directly emerge out of “news” events. These are more like feature stories.

So, one is tempted to ask: why all the attention to Sadr?

One answer is that there is a battle going on within US policy circles about how to deal with Sadr and/or splits among the Sadrists. Is Sadr still a force for “nationalist, anti-occupation” energy, potentially aligned with Sunni insurgents? Or is Sadr losing control of his base precisely because his nationalist focus looks weak in the climate of sectarian violence? Perhaps his base wants to fight back against and/or avenge anti-Shiite attacks, unwilling to blame such attacks on the “occupier.”

Are Sadrists more dangerous as one wing of a nationalist, anti-occupation insurgency? Or as a violent Shiite sectarian force that fans the flames of civil war?

If there is US factionalism in the response to these questions, I am not yet able to trace the lines of that dispute (e.g., Right Arabists fear him more/less than Right Zionists do as a sectarian Shiite force than as a “nationalist” insurgent?)

The Cry of Anarchy

In a previous post from June 2006, I discussed a big “pronouncement” from Thomas Friedman in the New York Times entitled Insurgency Out, Anarchy In (subscription required). This article seemed to signal a political turning point for US policy toward Iraq.

You see, the insurgency in Iraq is in its “last throes” just like Dick Cheney said. Unfortunately, its being replaced by anarchy in many neighborhoods not democracy

Indeed, there has been a subtle but important change in the violence in Iraq. The main enemy in many places is no longer the Sunni insurgency. It is anarchy.

We are not losing Iraq to the Iraqi Vietcong–traditional nationalists. Iraq has a freely elected nationalist government. No, we are losing in Iraq to sectarian theocrats, Islamo-fascists and local and regional tyrants.

Of course, I thought then and still think now that the whole “last throes” thing is way off the mark. However, I think it is interesting that Friedman adopted the line that the “main enemy” in his view is “no longer the Sunni insurgency.” In other words, even as they fight on, he seems confident that they can be coopted.

Instead, the main enemy now is Sadr, his Mahdi Army, and various splinter groups of “local and regional tyrants.”

The cry of “anarchy” is, often enough, the prelude to a coup. Someone–perhaps an ex-Baathist like Allawi declares a state of emergency to restore order and save the nation with a group of military officers who call themselves a “National Salvation Front” or some such thing.

And there has been chatter about a coup. Count on Robert Dreyfuss (who I have criticized here) to both notice–and celebrate–signs that the US is preparing to support a coup in Iraq.

Those who scoff at the mainstream media will have trouble explaining the page 1 story in the Times today, a blockbuster expose. And, it saves its biggest punch for the end. I wont do that. Here it is:

Some outside experts who have recently visited the White House said Bush administration officials were beginning to plan for the possibility that Iraqs democratically elected government might not survive.Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy, said one military affairs expert who received an Iraq briefing at the White House last month and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.

Get that? Considering alternatives other than democracy. That can mean a lot of things, and Id like to see some fairly intensive follow-up. Does that mean that the United States is thinking about a coup detat in Iraq? If so, by whom? There has been a lot of chatter in Baghdad over the past several months about a coup, usually said to be plotted by disaffected Sunnis. There has also been talk of a national unity-type government by fiat, sort of a collective coup, but who knows what that might mean. One thing for sure: the title of the piece I wrote for recently (Maliki: Dead Man Walking) could not be more appropriate. Hes history.

In some respects, the US has been walking away from “democracy”–i.e., rule by a Shiite majority–for some time, under pressure from Right Arabists long opposed to the US tilt away from dependence on minority rule by Sunni authoritarianism. A coup would just be a final step in this direction and one mainly designed to dump Maliki on account of his dependence on Sadr.

There are big questions here.

For example, would Sistani back such a coup (not because he supports a restoration of Sunni authoritarianism, but only insofar as he may see Sadr as his greatest/nearest foe at the moment)?

But I am even more haunted by a more general question: does the Maliki government even matter? Is it necessary to have a coup against an empty shell of a government?

These questions come, most directly, from Swopa at Needlenose:

But can they really be fantasizing about an anti-Shiite coup? Aside from the fact that it would multiply the U.S. occupation’s enemies well past the ability of our military to handle them, what would be the point?

Since nearly all of the relevant power in the country is essentially outside of government control already, or at best only paying lip service to it, staging a coup in Iraq would be like trying to steal a car that’s already been stripped for parts and is sitting on wooden blocks. Or maybe like trying to hijack a flight-simulator game in an arcade.

Funny. But also potentially accurate?

Michael Schwartz has often argued–if I understand his argument correctly–that the US essentially gave up on the idea of empowering an Iraqi state some time ago, probably around the battle over Jaafari that gave us his aide, Maliki. In a recent post at Tomdispatch entitled “7 Facts You Might Not Know about the Iraq War,” Schwartz hammers away at this point in Fact #1:

1. The Iraqi Government Is Little More Than a Group of “Talking Heads”

A minimally viable central government is built on at least three foundations: the coercive capacity to maintain order, an administrative apparatus that can deliver government services and directives to society, and the resources to manage these functions. The Iraqi government has none of these attributes — and no prospect of developing them.

Indeed, this argument goes quite a distance toward explaining what I noted at the time: the formation of the Maliki government avoided the kind of bitter battles that met all prior US efforts to form a government.


Because nobody cared about the balance of sectarian forces for a government that was not destined to be viable.

I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by this argument. And I think it is a very different thing to imply that nobody in the region or in Washington now cares whether Iraq tilts toward Iran or toward Saudi Arabia. Or to imply that the US doesn’t care about Iraqi politics.

But I think it is worth pondering. Thoughts?

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