Saturday, March 29, 2008

George W Bush made Moqtada al-Sadr

Among the unplanned, unintended consequences of the incompetent prosecution of the war in Iraq by this administration, and they are legion, is the elevation of Moqtada al-Sadr from a low-level Baghdad cleric and neighborhood thug, to a major player in Iraqi politics, an actor on the world stage and potential future leader of Iraq. No one has had more to do with the meteoric rise in popularity and power of Moqtada al-Sadr than George W. Bush and his administration.

As this post is being written, we are escalating our military intervention in an internal Iraqi political struggle between Nouri Maliki and Moqtada al-Sadr. Moreover, we chose to intervene on the side of the unpopular Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki against the very popular Shiite Moqtada al-Sadr, who helped put Maliki in power. And Maliki is failing.

While we watch this disaster unfold, it is worth looking back at how the Bush administration helped provide al-Sadr with such an extraordinary career advancement opportunity. Let us count the ways:

1) Bush administration frees Moqtada al-Sadr from the oppression of Saddam Hussein.
Let us be clear. We in the US don’t like the Mahdi Army, we don't like what they stand for, we don't like their extreme beliefs, and we particularly don’t like their thuggish leader Moqtada Al-Sadr. However, it is important to keep these facts in mind: They are not Al Queda and they are not Baathists and they are not Sadaamites. They are not the people we went into Iraq to fight. In fact, they are the very Iraqi’s, the exact oppressed religious sect that we went into Iraq to offer the gift of democracy at the point of a gun. After we did not find WMD's, imposing a democracy inspiring "regime change" became the rationale for the Iraq misadventure. So we succeeded. When the statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down in 2003, it was in the in the middle of what is now know to be "Sadr City." It was the supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr that we cheered dragging Hussein's head through the streets. When Saddam's portraits and statuary were ripped down during the fall of Baghdad, it was posters of al-Sadr that immediately went up in their place.
2) Bush administration indecision prevented al-Sadr's arrest and capture in 2003

Paul Bremer was appointed by the Bush administration to lead the "Coalition Provisional Authority" from the time of the occupation of Iraq until the Iraqi interim government took over in June 2004. This from a Bremer interview with NPR Frontline:
Q: You didn't mention Moqtada al-Sadr.
BREMER: "Moqtada al-Sadr became a very clear problem. ... Before I was even selected to go over there, he had been involved in the murder of a highly respected ayatollah, Ayatollah [Abdul Majid al-]Khoei, who had just returned to the country [after] liberation. An Iraqi judge had investigated the murder and issued an arrest warrant for Moqtada al-Sadr. We learned about this when the arrest warrant was issued, which I think was in late July of 2003. I urged my government and the coalition to allow the Iraqi police to exercise this warrant, to arrest him for murder, and I was unable to persuade the coalition to do that. I think it was a mistake, because at that point Moqtada basically had fewer than 200 followers. It was not an important militia at that time at all."

Q: And who resisted?
BREMER: "Well, we had resistance from the American military and some pushback as well from the Department of Defense [ed.- Rumsfeld]. We were unable to move in August. In October, Moqtada's forces killed some American soldiers in Najaf and in Karbala, the other holy city. I again encouraged us to allow the Iraqis to exercise the arrest warrant; I was unable to. This happened again in March. It happened again in April. It was a constant battle. And of course every time we did not move against Moqtada, he was able to use the time to collect money, because he was controlling some of the collections at the mosques and using the money to hire more and more people into his Mahdi Army, as he called it, so that he grew from a force of probably fewer than 200 in the summer of 2003 to several thousand by the spring of 2004."

Q: And you had specific conversations with Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld about al-Sadr?
"I had conversations with Secretary Rumsfeld and with the commanders on the ground and with the commanders at CENTCOM and so forth. And my colleagues had conversations. It wasn't just me."

Q: And they told you, "We just don't have the resources to go after him, to take this on at this point."
BREMER: "There were three or four different occasions where this came up, and there were different reasons for each ..."

Q: What difference would it have made, in your view, had you taken him and put him behind bars?
"I think it would have made a very substantial difference if we had moved against Moqtada almost any time in 2003, ... because the Mahdi Army, his militia, is really the fundamental problem today in Iraq. The reason he's able to get people to join his militia is that he had a lot of money. He was able to intimidate people, he was able to hire people, and he was able to make the argument that the coalition forces and the Iraqi forces have not protected the Shi'a from the Al Qaeda terrorist car bombings and attacks. If he had been taken out of the picture, the whole militia situation would be, in my view, considerably less complicated."
3) Bush administration prioritize GWB reelection ahead of on-the-ground military recommendations in Iraq, permitting al-Sadr to escape US attempts to kill him and his supporters in Fallujah.

As well as sacrificing more American soldiers to retake Fallujah after insurgents have months to organize and build defenses.

Wikipedia - First Battle of Fallujah - April, 2004
"The resulting engagements set off wide-spread fighting throughout Central Iraq and along the Lower Euphrates, with various elements of the Iraqi insurgency taking advantage of the situation and commencing simultaneous operations against the Coalition forces. This period marked the emergence of the Mahdi Army, the militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada as-Sadr, as a major armed faction which, at that time, actively participated in anti-Coalition operations...

On May 1, 2004, the United States withdrew from Fallujah, as Lieutenant General James Conway announced that he had unilaterally decided to turn over any remaining operations to the newly-formed Fallujah Brigade, which would be armed with US weapons and equipment under the command of former Ba'athist Army General Jasim Mohammed Saleh. Several days later, when it became clear that Saleh had been involved in military actions against Shi'ites under Saddam Hussein, US forces announced that Muhammed Latif would instead lead the brigade. Nevertheless, the group dissolved and had turned over all the US weapons to the insurgency by September,[47] prompting the necessity of the Second Battle of Fallujah in November, which successfully occupied the city."

Press, political pressure helped 'lose' Fallujah, report says
"A secret intelligence assessment of the first battle of Fallujah shows that the U.S. military thinks that it lost control over information about what was happening in the town, leading to "political pressure" that ended its April 2004 offensive with control being handed to Sunni insurgents...
During the negotiations that followed, top Bush administration officials demanded a solution that would not require the Marines to retake the town, according to the assessment."
On November 7, three days after Bush was re-elected, Marines were permitted to again re-take the refortified, better armed, booby-trapped and more stongly defended town.
Wikipedia - Second battle of Fallujah November 7, 2004
November 6, 2004: U.S. Marines stage just north of Fallujah. The city, having now been under complete insurgent control with no American presence since April, there are a large numbers of booby traps and IEDs constructed and set in place. Additionally, elevated sniper positions were created along with heavily fortified defensive positions throughout the city, in preparation for a major offensive. November 7, 2004: Operation Phantom Fury begins... The U.S. military called it "the heaviest urban combat since the Battle of Hue City in Vietnam."
95 US soldiers were killed and 560 were wounded re-taking Fallujah after the election.

4) Bush Administration mandates Iraqi elections thereby providing Moqtada al-Sadr political legitimacy.

Now elections are a good thing. Democracy is a good thing. But the thing about elections, is that majorities win. So when we insist on imposing Democracy on a population that is comprised primarily of Shiiite Islamic fundamentalists, we reap what we sow. The Mahdi Army and Moqtada Al Sadr enjoy majority support in the largest religious sect in Iraq - The Shia. They voted in the elections we insisted they have and under the constitution we made them write. Maliki only formed his government with al-Sadr's support. From the Coucil on Foreign Relations:
"Muqtada al-Sadr's Power Grab"
"Once a renegade cleric with a ragtag militia fighting US forces, Sadr has transformed himself into a statesman. He controls a key bloc in the Iraqi Parliament and he was a kingmaker in the selection of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as prime minister... By the time elections were held in December 2005, Sadr managed to turn his strength on the Iraqi streets into political influence, with his supporters winning thirty seats in the 275-member Parliament—the largest share of any single faction. Over the past year, US forces have again targeted Sadr’s militia, and in protest he withdrew his ministers from Maliki’s government. But Maliki still relies on the cleric’s support in Parliament. In the end, Sadr proved himself to be a better politician than a militia leader."
5) Bush Administration agrees to military truce with Moqtada al-Sadr, while launching a campaign to kill Moqtada al-Sadr's enemies.

Ceasefire has strengthened Iraq's Sadr: analysts
"Moqtada al-Sadr's six-month freeze on attacks by his Mahdi Army has strengthened his hand and allowed him to purge dissidents from the ranks of the militia, analysts and aides of the Shiite cleric said.Sadr, long a thorn in the side of US-led forces in Iraq, is expected to announce on Friday whether he will renew his unilateral ceasefire, set to expire on Saturday... Sadr ordered the six-month freeze in his militia's activities last August 29 after allegations that his fighters were involved in bloody clashes in the shrine city of Karbala, near Najaf. Under the Muslim calendar, the ceasefire expires on Saturday. The pause has given Sadr a chance to strengthen his power base and purge his ranks of rogue fighters."
Net net, this is a case where it is literally true that “What does not kill you, makes you stronger.” The Bush administration bungled or interfered in opportunities to kill al-Sadr in ’03,’04, and ’05. The Bush administration facilitated the means by which he could acquire political power. As a result, the Bush administration are the agents of and reason for his emergence as the most popular political figure in Iraq, and quite possibly, soon to be the most powerful.

Where do we go from here?
When all is said and done, Nouri Maliki can only remain Prime Minister and stay in power with the political support of Moqtada al-Sadr -or- by using active US military support to quash and intimidate al-Sadr's political base. By attacking al-Sadr, Maliki has abandoned the political path, and is attempting to preempt an unfavorable electoral result with military force. He made this decision immediately after a visit by Dick Cheney where he was presumably given the green light and the assurance that we will back him in this effort. So now the Bush administration has the United States taking sides in a internal Iraq political struggle, and putting us on the side of unpopular leader attempting to subvert the popular will with military force.

Americans in general and the Bush administration specifically continue to underestimate Moqtada al-Sadr and the depth of his popular support in Iraq. No one should be surprised that Maliki (who did not even live in Iraq for 23 years before the fall of Saddam), has far less popular support than a nationalist majorityfirebrand who both fought Hussein and now rails against the "foreign occupiers" of his country (that would be us). No one should be surprised that Maliki's Iraq Army forces will switch sides when ordered to confront the Mahdi Army. We learned from Michael Totten last August that the Mahdi Army had infiltrated the Iraqi Army.

End State
As I said in my post "The face of victory in Iraq", "victory" or "defeat" are meaningless concepts in the context of our military posture in Iraq. The only meaningful concept now is to define an "End State" that will permit us to leave. This statement of the "End State" hung on the wall of Rear Admiral "Fox" Fallon in Iraq one year ago:
"Iraq at peace with its neighbors, with representative government that respects the human rights of all Iraqis, and security forces sufficient to maintain domestic order and deny Iraq as a safe haven for terrorists. "
Note that there in nothing in this "End State" description that precludes a Moqtada al-Sadr led Iraq, as long as al-Sadr chooses to play along with us. He did play along with participation by proxy in the parliamentary elections, and was a key pillar of support for Maliki to form a government and be selected as Prime Minister. We can expect him to play along again, as long as he sees a path to his end goal - power.

Ominously Admiral Fallon resigned a few weeks ago.

The reason why this war never ends, is that the Bush/Cheney administration specifically and the American people generally do not want to admit that the face of "majority rule", and "regime change" and "victory" in Iraq is the face of Moqtada al-Sadr. We will leave Iraq when Moqtada al-Sadr takes over, and not before.

A realistic "End State" scenario is an “accommodated” (or if you prefer “co-opted” or “bought-out”) Moqtada al-Sadr, or someone just like him. A popular theocrat, elected into leadership in Iraq, still railing at the “Great Satan” from his bully pulpit to maintain his popular support, but behind the scenes working with the US at the precise intersection of US interest in a stable Iraq, and his lofty personal ambition for power on a world stage. This scenario would work for Iraq and would work for us.

This scenario does not work well for the legacy of George W. Bush. So it cannot happen until we have a new president.

NOTE: This is a working draft and will be edited, cleaned up and updated as events unfold over the next 24 hours.

Divided and Balanced.™ Now that is fair.


Sweating Through fog said...

Great piece - as I wrote here, we've missed several opportunities to get out on our terms. We'll just wait until we are driven out.

Gustavo Herrera, staff writer said...

Good story but the "End State" scenario isn't complete with just an al-Sadr figure in Iraq.

Really the "End State" would involve some kind of rough partition of Iraq, with Kurds in the north. Oil wealth would be distributed on some kind of equitable basis that all three factions -- Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis -- agree to.

All the provinces would retain a large degree of autonomy, but would have representation in Baghdad, to the central government, which will probably be supported by the U.S., behind the scenes.

Production of oil in Iraq is fragile. The recent Basra fighting has destabilized production of oil, and the province of Basra sits atop nearly 20% of the oil in the Middle East.

For our (darkly) amusing look at Iraq after 5 years, check out --

mw said...

Sweating, Gustavo,
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the comments. Checked out both your blogs, both are interesting reads and now blogrolled. Although, Gustavo - the specific link you left was truncated and I couldn't find it. You've got to learn to use a little HTML for links and embed them.

John said...

Just wanted to say this is a great piece. It highlights the hypocrisy of Republicans in America who continued to support George Bush through his 2nd term. The Grand Ole Party who is so high on values supporting a president who supports Islamic clerics that kill US Serviceman.......traitors in my opinion.