Looking for What’s Not Broke Down
By Greg Moses
As the United Nations takes up investigation into the traffic of oil coupons in Iraq, it is beginning to look like nothing’s not broke down. The great managing institutions of democracy are sliding very rapidly toward pure marksmanship, or what Arab News calls the new paradigm of “murder and malevolent mapmaking.”
In all this mess, I find only one remaining shred of hopeful analysis that a pacifist can cling to, that there is still a basis for moderation on the ground in Iraq, if the US does not blow it away. But first:
Even the desperate cheers for UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, mine included, seem not to notice how unlikely will be his chances for putting Iraq back together again.
Editorial boards are just catching up to the promise that was made last week when President Bush announced in his press conference: “That’s what Mr. Brahimi is doing. He’s figuring out the nature of the entity we’ll be handing sovereignty over.”
Among observers in the West, Brahimi is winning points for straight talk about US failings. Sam Hamod summed up with approval Brahimi’s candid communication. The US has managed to alienate Iraq through a strange form of liberation that includes mass arrests and punishments. Brahimi is able to say such things.
“The large number of political prisoners in Iraq and the large number of office workers who have been fired more than once without any clear reason, are a big problem for the international community with regard to the peace process and their efforts to pacify the country,” said Brahimi this week from Italy.
But conservative pundit Michael Rubin reports that, “Kurdish and Shia leaders say privately that the Brahimi plan is dead-on-arrival.” On the ground in Iraq, reports Rubin, Brahimi is perceived as a Baathist sympathizer, too close to the old regime.
Thus, when the Italian press agency AGI this week wired the above Brahimi quote about the mistreatment of office workers and political prisoners, it served the emerging audience of hopeful Westerners looking for a candid broker and human rights advocate. But it very likely also warned non-Baathist contenders for power inside Iraq, who might very well perceive Brahimi’s concern for old “office workers” and “political prisoners” as sympathy for Baathists deposed.
As the UN heads into an oil-coupon scandal, it is difficult to see from what source Brahimi, the former undersecretary of the Arab League, is likely to draw his legitimacy.
This is bad news for Fallujah and Najaf, the so-called “flashpoint cities” where US troops stand ready for further fighting. Brahimi was able to say things like, “Collective punishments are not acceptable – cannot be acceptable, and to cordon off and besiege a city is not acceptable.”
So what now stands in the way of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who sees the resistance in Fallujah and Najaf as nothing more than a “final stand”?
Vaguely defined “civic officials” in Fallujah have promised to disarm their rebels during a ceasefire. But according to three Iraqi journalists who sneaked into the city’s back door, there really is no cease fire in Fallujah if you count the F16s, the Apache gunships, or the smoldering Humvees.
“Bush doesn’t need to dig mass graves – he collapses our houses on top of us,” shouted a man at the edge of town. What are the prospects of disarming rebels under these circumstances?
In the Shi’a holy city of Najaf, things look more worrisome still. Sam Hamod says that short wave reports buzz with news that many Shi’a pilgrims from throughout the world stayed on at Najaf as volunteers.
Yet US commander Gen. Sanchez says he’s ready to resume the attack on the holy city of Najaf and kill the insurgent commander Moqtada al-Sadr. “We’ll be applying the same levels of constraint that we’ve always applied in operating in this country and making sure that we respect the people and that we respect their religious shrines,” he said.
Does Sanchez know what he’s saying? Is he under orders to draw the Shi’a into holy war, thereby drawing involvement from Iran?
On the Iraqi side, al-Sadr is simply not to be considered a criminal for defending the holy city. ‘We are trying to solve the problem. The US wants a guarantee that Iraqis will try him. But it is impossible for us to arrest him,” said one mediator quoted by the Guardian. He’s an important source, as we’ll see.
Now that the US has provoked a popular military opponent in the figure of al-Sadr, would it not be the wiser course to draw him in? Remember, for example, the Alamo? There was fine bunch of insurgents engaged in illegal defense of a mission town. Their “final stand” did not do away with that movement.
So I have wanted to be hopeful about last week’s dispatches concerning ceasefires, Brahimi, and local mediators. But it looks like “ceasefire” means “US air attacks continue.” And with Brahimi on the ropes already, leaning into a scandal-tarnished UN, we are back to the unilateral threats of Rumsfeld, and provocations that seem intent to fight a holy war.
Near term hope lies with Washington vs. Washington. Is there a hand inside the beltway that can restrain Rumsfeld and company? Perhaps. And maybe that’s why a researcher with the US Congressional Research Service is releasing his report on the vestiges of moderation in Iraq. Here, finally, is that one shred of hopeful analysis that I was talking about at the start.
Kenneth Katzman begins his survey of “moderation” in Iraq with the emergent leader of Iraq’s Shi’a, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who will resist secularization in Iraq while favoring “curbs on women’s rights, alcohol consumption and Western-style entertainment.” Yes, that’s the state of moderation into which Bush has liberated the Iraqis. But there are other moderate forces at play.
The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) may be Iraq’s most established Shi’a group, with a 10,000 member militia, the Badr Corps, but Katzman says the group has been weakened by an August 2003 assassination of its leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim, and by “suspicions” that the organization is Iranian inspired.
Al-Daawa, on the other hand, is older and more wary of Iranian influence. It’s leader, Ibrahim Jaafari, is already a member of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). Above, it was an Al-Daawa negotiator, Jawad al-Maliki, who told the Guardian that the rebel leader of Najaf is simply not to be arrested.
Finally Katzman drops the name of Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, “a former Al-Daawa activist turned human rights activist”, who also serves on the IGC. Here is a name that warrants further investigation.
After surveying these “moderate” groups, Katzman clearly warns that further US aggression against al-Sadr might collapse the middle ground. And that ground has been made all the more brittle by surprise announcements from Bush that portions of the West Bank could be ceded to existing Israeli settlers. And that, by the way, he’ll be sending John Negroponte to Iraq, too.
My conclusion from all this: that a shred of hopeful evidence can still be found in the Katzman report when it points to Al-Daawa and other moderate groups. Right now, Al-Daawa negotiators are saying that al-Sadr deserves US respect. Therefore, the ability for the US to respect al-Sadr is the tiny prospect that remains for rebuilding Iraqi peace. At the very least, American war makers have this chance to not have an Alamo on their hands.