Targeting Sadrists, Targeting Iraq
International affairs experts have been puzzled by recent newspaper reports that Ambassador Khalilzad has had several meetings with representatives of the Iraq militants including “Ansar al_Sunnah” and ‘‘Islamic Army of Iraq.” President Bush has often characterized these groups as extremists and enemies of freedom. According to the Times of London (December 10), the groups told Khalilzad: “just provide us with weapons, we [will] clean up the city and regain control of Baghdad in 30 days.”
While such revelations may confuse ordinary citizens, those who are familiar with the neoconservative thinking and their end goal in Iraq are not surprised. The neoconservatives have always considered a stable and functioning Iraq a threat to their design for the Middle East and are determined to take whatever actions to win. As Michael Ledeen, a neoconservative strategist, wrote, “Don't worry about how the world will judge your strategy. Just worry about winning.”
Ledeen made a powerful argument that instability in the Middle East is the preferred political state. He argues that “Stability is an unworthy American mission and a misleading concept to boot. . . . The real issue is not whether, but how to destabilize.” Furthermore, he asserted that instability facilitates U.S. control of the region, stating, “We must be imperious, ruthless, and relentless. No compromise with evil; we want total surrender.”
Neoconservatives project their role in the invasion of Iraq as a divine mission. David Klinghoffer observed in 2004 that in conducting their Iraqi enterprise, the neoconservatives and President Bush “have found [the Bible] to be a repository of ancient and tested wisdom.” He asserted that the Bible identifies Iraq as the land of lies. And where “you find evil, you find lies . . . America must not lose heart in this conflict, for our involvement in Iraq, critically important, is about nothing less than the struggle of truth against lies.”
In their early campaign to invade Iraq, the neoconservatives strengthened and widened their network of influence among exiled Iraqi groups and indoctrinated them into thinking that creating semi-independent sectarian/ethnic units would further their interest and secure their power. Consequently, the neoconservative thought the invasion would be an easy task. Ken Adelman, a former assistant to Donald Rumsfeld wrote in 2002 that the invasion of Iraq “would be a cakewalk” and that measured by “any cost-benefit analysis, such an operation would constitute the greatest victory.”
Emboldened and ruthless, the neoconservatives did not give even the slightest consideration to the possibility that the Iraqi people might resist their design and would defend their freedom. The neoconservatives’ euphoria, however, encountered Iraqi reality-- immediately after the chaos and looting which took place in several Iraqi cities following the collapse of Saddam’ s regime, a home–growing social organization, the Sadrist Movement, stepped in to maintain law and order and its leaders vehemently denounced any destruction of public properties.
This show of discipline and patriotism alarmed the neoconservatives and placed the Sadrist Movement on their list of the most targeted groups. Members of the movement and its leaders were either arrested or were subject to assassination. Dan Senor, a senior member of the Coalition Authority and a rising neoconservative star, was quoted saying that a plan was set to assassinate the outspoken leader of the Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr: "We were down to figuring out the mechanisms of ensuring that the operation was seen as Iraqi, executed on an Iraqi arrest warrant. I remember it was late afternoon and we had just received a snowflake [U.S. Defense Secretary ‘s memo] from Rumsfeld ... with nine different questions, rehashing how we were going to do this, to make sure it was not seen as an American operation."
The neoconservatives appeared to misunderstand the nature of the Sadrist Movement and its deep grassroots among the poor and the alienated and disenfranchised segments of the Iraqi society. The movement was originally social in nature and has its roots among the working classes. The fathers and grandfathers of many of its supporters were mostly followers of the Iraqi progressive and liberal organizations who either vanished or resigned from politics during Saddam’s oppressive era.
The Movement initially started as a response to the brutal oppression and humiliation that was inflicted by Saddam upon the majority of the Iraqi people. Alienated and subjugated, these people displayed an unwavering loyalty to their country and maintained a deep-rooted hope that the future of their children would be bright. During the dark years of Saddam’s era and after the collapse of the Iraqi progressive movements, these people found in the message of late Ayatollah Mohamed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed by Saddam in 1999, a comforting refuge.
Ayatollah al-Sadr cultivated relationships with ordinary Iraqis and made a connection between their suffering and tyranny. He made clear that no decent ruler would oppress his people, unless he had an allegiance to foreign powers. In his sermons he incorporated the slogan, “No, No, to America; No, No, to Israel” which was widely understood by ordinary Iraqis as a code message; Saddam was an instrument of both countries.
Ayatollah al-Sadr’s message of social and economic justice and his insistence that al-Hawzah (the learned religious community) should be led by Arabs rather than foreigners, made him the most popular religious leader. Oppressed people found hope in his message and admired his patriotism and courage. After his death, these same people passionately identified with the political message of freedom, liberty, and dignity proclaimed by his son, Muqtada al-Sadr.
Indeed, after the occupation, the Sadrist Movement gained considerable influence among Iraqis as many perceived it as the only credible force which could stop the partition of the country, protect people from terrorism and sectarian violence, and prevent using Iraq as a staging ground to invade neighboring countries. This development, however, put them on a collision course with the neoconservatives.
Facing strong public dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, neoconservative thinkers have embarked on a smear campaign to discredit the Sadrist Movement and to blame it for the unrest in Iraq. Even though the majority of the American soldiers who lost their lives were killed in the al-Anbar Province and Mousl where the Sadrist Movement has no presence, the neoconservatives keep focusing on the Sadrists. Apparently, they are preparing the public psychologically to accept a new military assault on the popular movement.
Indeed, the leading neoconservatives’ publications, the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal have intensified their call to attack the Sadrists. Senator Joe Lieberman, in his recent visit to Baghdad, demanded that the Iraqi government breaks its tie with the Sadrists and disarm them. A leading neoconservative, Charles Krauthammer, accentuated the need (December 15) to "Double down" our military effort and suppress Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Nir Rosen who spent considerable time in the occupied Iraq has suggested that unlike other Iraqi political organizations, the Sadrist Movement has much in common with Washington’s official pronouncements (e.g. a unified Iraq that can defend and sustain itself and defeat terrorism, etc). Nevertheless, Washington directs most of its effort to marginalize this popular movement. The reason according to Rosen is the Movement’s insistence on setting a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.
Those who are intimately familiar with the Iraqi political scene believe that the neoconservatives, from the beginning, view the Sadrist Movement as a threat. The Movement’s uncompromised and passionate attachment to the liberty and freedom of Iraqis and the fact that it is a home-growing patriotic force agitates the neoconservatives. Its three major qualities-- popularity, independence, and resistance to outside control-- do not recommend themselves to neoconservatives and certainly endanger their design for Iraq.
The latter has been manifested on several occasions. Immediately after the invasion, the Sadrist stepped in and foiled the apparently planned chaos and looting in major Iraqi cities. Later on, it insisted on open general elections and the withdrawal of foreign troops, and questioned the rationality of having a divisional and sectarian constitution, a federalist system, and prevailing government corruption. In recent months, it vehemently denounced sectarian and ethnic cleansing and provided refuge and assistance to more than 40,000 displaced families.
The most significant and possible decisive act initiated by the Movement in safe-guarding Iraq is when it foiled the plan to cleanse Baghdad of its indigenous people and separate it from the center and the south of the country. The Independent reported (November 1) that the plan to partition Iraq is cemented. The report reveals that armed groups have held major highways leading west to the Jordanian border and east into the Diyala province and are boldly moving to take over routes leading north and south of Baghdad to effectively encircle the capital.
Furthermore, sectarian cleansing went smoothly in some districts in Bagdad (e.g., Amariah, Gazalia, Dowrah, etc). With the complete knowledge of the major players in Iraq, terrorists and extremists attempted, too, in early fall, to accelerate cleansing in cities adjacent to Bagdad such as Bald to the north, Mahamodia to the south, and Diyalya to the east. The Sadrist Movement, relying on volunteers, sent reinforcements to help and protect families from forced evacuation.
This latter development constitutes a major blow to the neoconservatives’ plan to partition Iraq. The cornerstone of breaking down Iraq into three semi-independent antagonistic regions is the sectarian “purification” of Baghdad. Leslie Gelb, a veteran neoconservative, strongly advocates that a practical transition to partition Iraq requires that the majority of people living in Baghdad are induced to leave either through compensation or force.
There is a deep fear among the leaders of the Sadrist Movement in parliament that their followers are being targeted. They believe that the call for a surge in foreign troops in Baghdad goes beyond intimidation. Foreign troops, they argue, will not direct its power against terrorists. Their fears have been reinforced since government security experts discovered that the bombs in Sadr City on November 23 and the one that followed two weeks later in al-Tayrin Circle in central Baghdad, which slaughtered Sadrist supporters, were made of highly sophisticated materials that neither foreign terrorists nor Iraqi groups have access to nor the skills to assemble them ( Azzaman, December 13).
The Sadrist Movement has been infiltrated and recently some violent acts have been attributed to its members. Nevertheless, the Movement is the only force that reasonably expresses the aspiration of Iraqis for freedom and dignity. In fact, it is unimaginable that preserving Iraqi political and cultural integrity is possible without free and full participation of the Sadrist Movement in the political process.
Iraq is on the verge of collapse and a full-scale civil war is certain to erupt if the Sadrist Movement is attacked. The country is in need of genuine reconciliation and maximum reduction of the use of force. Leaders of organizations who are interested in merely exercising power for its own sake, in sheer political survival, and who thrive either on foreign support or on sectarian and ethnic division simply won’t be up to the challenge of building a functional and unified democratic Iraq.