17 October 2007

Asia Times Says What?

Note: This is double posted at Let's Do This.

There seems to be some confusion as to whether certain new political developments in Iraq are a help or a hindrance to the American effort. This confusion is very apparent at the Asia Times, where Pepe Escobar says its bad news, and Sami Moubayed says its good news.

The event in question here is the recent uniting of Moqtada al Sadr and Abdul-Aziz al Hakim under the blessing of Ali al Sistani. The key considerations here:

1) al Sadr and al Hakim have been kinetic enemies for the last 4 years; they seem to be setting this rivalry aside.
2) This merger is widely believed to be the creation of a new Iraqi Nationalist bloc.
3) Should this alliance work out, it will effectively merge the Mahdi Army (al Sadr's militia) and the Badr Brigade (al Hakim's militia).
4) al Hakim is backed by the US as well as Iran (which seems odd).
5) While al Sadr and al Hakim do not agree on the role of US forces, they do agree that AQI is a mutual enemy.
6) This new bloc is unified under a plan that denounces foreign interference (by all actors, not just the US) and the right to armed resistance to occupation forces.

Exactly what this means to US interests in Iraq does not seem to be entirely clear. About the exact same thing, the two authors have these opening statements:

Pepe: "The ultimate nightmare for White House/Pentagon designs on Middle East energy resources is not Iran after all: it's a unified Iraqi resistance, comprising not only Sunnis but also Shi'ites."

Sami: "Good news came from Iraq this weekend - the best news for the US, probably, since Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the prince of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was killed by a US air strike in June 2006."

There's no debate as to the facts of what's happening, as outlined above. However, over the course of his article, Pepe seems to be putting a preponderance of importance on the fact that this new bloc reserves the right to armed resistance, whereas Sami seems to believe that the alliance itself, along with al Sadr's 6-month stand-down of the Mahdi army, carries more importance.

I would suggest that at this point, the right to armed resistance has been exercised constantly but hasn't really been enumerated; even Sunni actors that are currently cooperating with the American forces accept that their cooperation is a means to an end of American presence. They may still want to kill us, but not right at this moment. As with all handshake-COM deals that Petraeus endorses in FM 3-24, there is going to be more ambiguity than might be comfortable.

As far as a union between the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade, this seems to be a mixed bag given al Sadr's opportunistic tendencies. But there's simply no way that al Hakim isn't aware of those tendencies, so he must have taken them into account. Grand Ayatollah Sistani has also given his blessing to this pact, which may suggest that this truce between the two is genuine.

There's a gap in whether this is good or bad news, and the gap looks to be centered around what a surge in Iraqi nationalism means in the context of this potential merger. Those who thing that the Americans are championing a soft partition suggest that this is a bad thing, as it bespeaks a rejection of that very principle. But that's nothing that the Iraqis haven't made clear already: they categorically do not want to be partitioned.

On the other side of the debate are those who see a unified and independent Iraqi state as a necessity, and the current goal of the American effort. A rise in nationalism and the creation of a powerful nationalist party would in this case be an excellent thing, even if it would be nice if the militias weren't attached to it.

However, in all of these considerations, it is worth noting that Pepe Escobar is described as an "extreme traveler," while Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and analyst.

Ultimately whether this is good news or bad news is largely dependent upon how the American effort reacts to it. Tolerating al Sadr is not high on my list of things to do, but a stable, unified and free Iraq trumps everything else.

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