Friday, April 2, 2010

The headline from Sadr City, March 10, 2004:

Militants take control of huge Baghdad slum / Sadr City locked up by gunmen loyal to rebel Muslim cleric
The headline today?
Iraq's Sadrists hold vote for prime minister choice
What a difference an effective COIN operation makes.

Sadr City, the Shia dominated slums of Baghdad -- long oppressed, forgotten, and marginalized under the Ba'athist regime of Sadam Hussein, was once the most dangerous area of Baghdad. The powerful, yet irregular mehdi army, under the command of Muqtada al-Sadr, once rejected the new Iraqi government -- and American forces -- to the last. They attacked armed patrols and civil servants alike, and directly opposed the central government of post-invasion Iraq.

Today, the story is very different:
(Reuters) - Supporters of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stood in long lines on Friday to vote their choice for prime minister of Iraq in a two-day referendum that carried no government sanction or legal weight.

The unusual plebiscite is organized by Sadr's political movement, which won about 40 seats in a March 7 parliamentary election and stands to play a kingmaker role in the next government, was intended to determine the public favorite for prime minister after squabbling among election winners.
The background?

(more after the jump)

While Ayad Allawi's non-sectarian Iraqiya party has won a victory over the Rule of Law Party of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, that victory is paper thin -- 91 parliamentary seats to 89 -- with neither party gaining enough to secure the requisite 163 seats needed to control a majority of the Iraqi parliament.

This has placed the "king maker" title squarely on the Sadrists -- who won 40 of Iraq's parliamentary seats. Many expected back-room deal making and cronyism to gain the Shia/Sadrist support. It was a situation that many felt would not favor the Sunni supported, but non sectarian, Iraqiya party. It was a situation that again thrust Muqtada al-Sadr into a unique position of power.

But today we discovered that may not be the case.

From Muqtada al-Sadr:
"According to political developments, a mistake might occur in choosing the next prime minister, and for that I think it is in the (national) interest to assign it directly to the people,"
He then called for a 2 day plebiscite to determine the will of Sadr city residents, which he intoned would sway his party's decision as to which party to form a coalition majority government.

So why is this such good news?

In 2004, the Sadrists were unwilling to even involve themselves in non-violent political action -- instead choosing armed revolt and hybrid sectarian warfare to seek out dominance in the Iraqi political scene. Today, their leaders sought democratic, non-violent input from their constituents to ascertain what future democratic governance they would prefer.

This may be a bright day for Iraq, and is certainly a credit to the super-human effort to the men and women of the 4th Infantry Division and Major General Jeff Hammond -- who in partnership with Sadr city leaders, USAID, and a multi-national coalition of NGO's and development workers, showed how an effective COIN operation can be won.

Not only is Sadr city not gripped in an armed sectarian insurgency, today its inhabitants took to the streets to line up and peaceably vote for the path they hope their democratic political party will take in forming a national coalition government.

That being said -- things are far from perfect in Sadr City. The area is still surrounded by Iraqi troops, and chaos is still not banished from the region. While all Iraqis were invited to take part in this census, it is unclear how anyone other than Sadrists will gain access to those ballots.

Also, it is very unclear as to whether the measured will of the people will be honored by the Sadrists party, or whether the leaders of the movement are simply seeking to appear democratic -- but I ask you, is that not a good step to take? Time will tell.


homelesseus said...

If these events are considered improvements--a young fundamentalist cleric who studies in Iran is the kingmaker. Only the most optimistic assessment would see it your way, however cautiously you close it. As Muqtada, with the US leaving, wouldn't you play nice? How his ascendancy could be construed as a positive development only points to how much of disaster our policies (there might have been a few successes throughout in limited scope given the breadth of the disaster) created. His referendum establishes legitimacy among his followers even further. This kind of democracy could be the worst thing for American interests in the region.

Matt said...


I think your analysis is off the mark. OMS holding a poll in Sadr City does not indicate an embrace of non-violent political action or democracy. The internal "dialog" of the Sadrist trend has never been substantially violent. It seems to me this poll in Sadr city more indicates developing skill at masking illiberal machination with the trappings of democracy.

It is naive to believe that holding a poll in Sadr city indicates a departure from violent action. This poll is more likely a mask for continued violence. Remember this is a group that was extremely active in the murder and intimidation of Sunnis in Baghdad; who's leader is in Iran and has all appearances of an Iranian puppet. And, it is still a highly sectarian group that continues to to intimidate and murder Iraqi Sunnis.

It is certainly an improvement to have them a part of the political system rather than outside of it. But, we can't forget the history and nature of the Sadrist trend. To say they are now a "democratic political party" does just that.

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