Sunday, May 1, 2016

West of Eden: Green Zone update

Sadrists invading the legislature. Photo via Al-Jazeera.
Faithful readers had a chance to learn about this weekend's startling news from Baghdad a month before it happened (as blogfriend MBouffant showed up to notice in comments there), or sort of, when I reported the beginnings of a mass joint Sunni-Shi'a protest movement threatening to break into the Iraqi capital's high-security Green Zone, where foreign VIPs and local politicians are normally able to cut their deals without fear of getting blown up or kidnaped. Or contemplating the faces of thousands of victims of their corruption and irresponsibility.

And now they're in the Green Zone, after I'd more or less thought the whole thing must have fizzled out already, and they're attracting the attention of the New York Times. They've busted in in the hundreds and perhaps thousands, mostly nonviolently and perhaps with the collusion of sympathetic security forces, and rioted inside the Parliament itself, breaking some furniture. So you can say you heard about it here first, if you did.

I seem to be virtually alone in regarding this as a positive development. Atrios and BooMan are sadly rolling their eyes and shaking their heads, and with good reason, over this new evidence of the endless chaos caused by George W. Bush and his companions. I agree it's that, but I think it's something more, as I've been trying to say...

I've long thought—long before I started blogging, probably since 2005 or so, when Muqtada el-Sadr, the "young firebrand cleric", was first becoming famous in the US press—that the best outcome, for Iraq and the US both, would have to involve the US losing the war.

Not just working out some kind of stable instability of the kind we've had most of the last eight or ten years, but really being defeated, apologizing and paying some kind of serious reparations if possible, not just in the hope that Americans would finally come to understand what I thought we'd have understood after we lost the Vietnam War, that it's not the conduct of the war that's the problem but the war itself, but especially that Iraqi people could begin to see themselves as possessing some kind of plausible history through which they could emerge as an autonomous kind of thing, to overcome the damage Americans had done. Not with America as a kindly, patronizing sponsor as in Germany and Japan (but of course doing it on the cheap because it's only Arabs), but as the fuckup who needs to atone for his crimes.

But then who would they lose to? I mean whom? It wouldn't have helped to lose to some reconstituted Baath or Saddamist movement that would be restoring Sunni minority rule over the distressed Shi'ites, or puppets of Iran to administer the country as a colony in a Shi'ite empire. Certainly not all those Shi'ites running the government we'd installed in 2006 under Nouri al-Maliki either; they were all too eager to make the US feel it had already won the war, and to pick up a share of the profits. And as Bush's hallucination of a Mesopotamian al-Qa'eda began to turn into a horrible reality, not them either, and certainly not the awful pair of things it has split into since, the Da'esh and the Nusra front.

Which is where the Sadrist movement rising among the oppressed poor of the Baghdad Shi'ite slums came in. It had been one of the few forces able to show some resistance to Saddam Hussein, until Saddam had its leader—Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr—assassinated in 1999; and in 2004-08, it was resisting the Americans, under that Ayatollah's young son Muqtada, who also had an extremely awkward relationship with Iran, in spite of his being a Shi'ite cleric; the authorities of the Islamic Republic preferred to work with the American-anointed Shi'ites of the Maliki government.

Muqtada was the enemy of all the outside bad actors, and he also cultivated an alliance with one of the most respected figures in all Shi'a, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf. But at an early point in the war, in 2004, he also became almost the first important member of the Shi'ite community to advocate collaboration with Sunnis, sending help to the besieged Fallujah, and by 2007 he was preaching Shi'a-Sunni unity against the invaders, more intensively from 2012 to now.

What he is up to right now is extremely interesting, and not very well reported in the mainstream press, though it's not hard to get a feeling for it if you have enough preconceptions to make a coherent picture but not so many as to make it inevitably wrong. The background, which I noted in some posts of last summer, is the prime ministership of Haidar al-Abadi, who finally replaced the vile Maliki in fall 2014 and has been trying to repair the most significant damage—getting rid of the war-created corruption with which the government is infested, and bringing the Sunni population into the mainstream of government and the military—without a whole lot of success (though he did manage to install a technocrat Sunni defense minister, Khaled al-Obaidi).

Muqtada, who seems to have an almost Gandhian or King-like sense that he shouldn't be inside government himself, has now taken to working with Abadi in a distanced way, to help him achieve these central reforms. The US papers will tell you that the effort anti-government, but that isn't quite right: they aim at providing pressure for what Abadi says he wants. Last August, Sadrists mounted huge demonstrations in cities from Baghdad southward to this effect, getting Abadi to press a reform proposal, and the demonstrations that started this March seem like a kind of extension of that program.

The US papers will also tell you that Muqtada's main demand is to "eliminate the quota system" in the Iraqi government, as if the program was to get rid of all the Kurds and Sunnis, but this is exactly wrong; the aim is to get rid of the mafia of special-ethnic interest groups including Shi'ite ones in favor of a technocrat cabinet that will get the electricity running and things like that. Abadi has agreed to do it, too (keeping Obaidi, the only Sunni in a significant position), and he seems to be encouraging the cops and military to keep their hands off and not interfere with the demonstrations unless they turn violent, but he hasn't succeeded in getting the Parliament to vote on the new list; they like the system, and the systemic corruption, the way it is. That's what the protests are about; they're in support of the prime minister against the dilatory and sleazy backbenchers.

(So is the US government, too, by the way, at least as long as Obama and Biden are in office, using threats and promises of military aid to the central government as sticks and carrots to help the integration along, something the Stupid Shit caucus has been absolutely unable to comprehend; I'm afraid possibly including Hillary Clinton, partly because Biden was essentially Secretary of Iraq when she was Secretary of State.)

If the mobs in Baghdad can frighten those MPs into voting on the reforms, it could be the start of a better deal for the Iraqi people. It wouldn't in any way justify what the Bush administration did, but it could allow the long horror to ease; it could be the beginning of the US losing this war (in a relatively quiet and comfortable way) at last.

Update: A great piece by Professor Cole has different emphases (on economic rather than ethnic aspects) and less respect for Abadi, but agrees that it could be "The End of American Iraq".

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