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Iraq today

Guest post by Bruno Mota

The thesis up front: I believe that the most important dynamic in Iraq today is not the fight between Americans and insurgents. It hasn’t been for a long time. For a while it was sectarian conflict, and it nearly destroyed the country. Although the latter dynamic remains significant, it is now secondary to the conflict between parties currently ‘inside’ the structures of power of the Iraqi state and those totally or partially outside who want in. How this tension is resolved will largely determine whether Iraq will move toward a decent outcome or return to civil war.

Insurgent attacks will probably continue for a long time (albeit at a much lower rate than before); but the insurgency has failed strategically and has been largely defeated tactically, and is no longer very significant. Some of the groups previously involved in it still have a significant role to play, but in a different context.

The Sunni nationalist insurgency’s strategic goal was to suppress the resurgent Shia, restore Sunni hegemony, and expel the Americans. The Sunnis lost the civil war to the Shia, no longer hope to rule Iraq alone, and increasingly turn toward the Americans for protection against the ‘Persians’. Most of them flipped sides or went home, with the remainder gravitating towards the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, which incidentally shares the ideology but is only loosely associated with AQ itself).

AQI’s strategic goal went a bit beyond Iraq’s borders, and included inspiring an Afghan-style jihad to expel the Americans (thus making them useful allies to the Sunni nationalists), and leveraging this victory into turning the Sunni parts of Iraq into a proto-caliphate (the Islamic State of Iraq, declared in late 2006, which their erstwhile local allies were less keen on). AQI nearly succeeded when the Samarra bombing and other atrocities deliberately ignited a bloody ethnic war that nearly destroyed (or finished destroying) the country. Eventually, however, it lost too. Significantly, its defeat is due in large measure to the rejection, in Anbar and elsewhere, of its ideology by what was supposed to be its core constituency: conservative Sunni Arabs under American occupation.

Although totally opposed to the American presence, the heterogeneous Mehdi army (or Jaysh al Mahdi, JAM for short) was never primarily, or consistenly, a proper Shia insurgency. After staging two uprising in 2004, which the Americans put down after some hard (if lopsided) fighting, direct confrontations subsided. JAM insurgent activity was minor compared to attacks by Sunni groups until late 2007, which is also when the EFP started appearing in greater numbers. Indeed, most of JAM spent most of its time either ethnically cleansing Sunnis in eastern Baghdad or running various criminal enterprises, rather than fighting the US. Mind you, the Sadrists are extremely nationalistic and no friends of the Americans (their rank and file are also far more anti-Iranian than, say, Badr cadres). But it is a different dynamic from that of Sunni insurgents. First, JAM has more of a return address, or at least has arrestable public faces and some physical infrastructure. Second, they have a constituency which demands protection from AQI tender mercies and goodies from their patronage network. Thirdly, they are or were in the government.

The latter point is significant. After the Najaf uprisings, the Sadrists quickly realized that, while going against American firepower head-on was very efficient, martyrdom-wise, it got them nowhere on the material world. Instead, they concentrated on leveraging the Sadr name, and their nationalistic and anti-American credentials, into government positions, which they used for systematic plunder and to further their sectarian agendas (local police forces and the ministry of health being the most egregious examples), and for solidifying their patronage networks and/or criminal enterprises (selling Sunni property, black market petrol, ‘protection’, etc.). After the Samarra bombing, they joined the escalating civil war enthusiastically, protecting Shia civilians from Sunni death squad, and murdering or ethnically cleansing Sunni civilians.

The so-called ‘truce’ was called for several apparent reasons; for starters, the JAM leadership wanted to avoid clashing head on with the newly-surged Americans (bugging out to Iran didn’t enhance Muqtada’s reputation, though); but the fighting never stopped altogether. The American reaction to Sadr’s truce was a thing to behold, however. With evident insincerity, MNF-I (Multi National Forces – Iraq, aka the Coalition) spokesmen kept praising Sadr’s and JAM’s forbearance (even referring to him by the honorific ‘Sayed’ on occasion) in the most enthusiastic terms. Sadrist forces which kept fighting (with Iranian support, and possibly under Iranian rather than Muqtada’s control) were branded ‘outlaw’ and hunted down. It was a smart move by the Americans, as it allowed them to weaken JAM without appearing to be fighting against a nationalistic movement with wide popularity among poor Shia.

But perhaps more significantly, the truce also came after clashes with the Badr left dozens of dead in the holy cities. JAM was losing support even among its core supporters due to lawlessness and increasing criminal behavior. Muqtada wanted to reorganize JAM and turn it into a more disciplined force. By all accounts, he failed; what is left of JAM is more heterogeneous than ever, with some parts becoming wholly-owned Qods Force subsidiaries, others degenerating into pure thuggery. When the government forces (often just Badr-in-uniform, especially the National Police) moved into Basrah,Sadr City and even the staunchly Sadrist Maysan, many people were visibly glad to be rid of JAM.

Muqtada al Sadr was kingmaker for the past two Iraqi prime ministers (before Maliki, his votes helped Ibrahim Jaffari narrowly defeat the candidate preferred by both Abdel Aziz al-Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council [SIIC] and the Americans; in exchange, all charges against Sadrists relating to the murder of Abdul Majid al-Khoei upon his return to Najaf in 2003 were dropped). Up until a few months ago, despite his ‘occultation’ in Iran, Muqtada’s position seemed secure; but the central government has recently taken JAM head-on with increasing efficiency (more for the intersectarian benefit of the other Shia parties [Maliki's own Dawa and Hakim's SIIC] than for abstract republican ideals).

JAM is not beaten, but it has taken a beating. Unlike AQI, however, it still retains substantial popular support. As I will attempt to show, the most significant factor determining what happens next in Iraq is whether the Sadrists and the remains of the Sunni nationalistic insurgency, who are currently marginalized by the central government, can be brought back into something resembling a political and social compact.

For a decent outcome to happen, it is necessary that these outsiders be given enough of a stake, both in terms of government services (or, more realistically, patronage), and political participation. In that regard, the obduracy of the Maliki government (by dragging its feet on the hiring of Sunnis, or in providing them with governmental services) is probably one of the most worrisome (and intractable) problems in Iraq today.This is compounded by widespread corruption, and the absence of a competent civil service or a functioning civil society.

In the same vein, cracking down on the Sadrists’ criminal activities and parallel quasi-government is fine, even if the motives for such are less than noble; but to exclude them altogether (or to impose hurdles so severe they are effectively excluded) risks disenfranchising a large contingent of poor Shia. In fact, in the medium term, what Iraq needs more than almost anything else is an effective non-sectarian opposition. Such opposition would give voice and a measure of power to groups not currently represented in the ruling coalition, and would provide an incentive for the government du jour to at least try to do a competent job. There is evidence one such group might emerge, comprising Allawi’s secularists, some Sadrists, Jaffari’s Dawa splinter, and other odds and ends. But currently the insiders are far better organized.

Generally speaking, political progress in Iraq has lagged behind military progress, due largely to Maliki’s aforementioned obduracy. Still, lately there have been some hopeful if tentative developments; it is perhaps fair to say that the Iraqi parliament went from being paralyzed to being merely dysfunctional. And at least some of the tools in the hands of the Iraqi government are slowly becoming more effective (particularly the army, but also including a few ministries and a tentative judiciary). There is now at least the possibility of Iraqi solutions emerging within the Iraq political process (such as it is). In years past the Americans had considerable influence in Iraqi politics (and made a complete mess out of it), but currently political progress or lack thereof is largely in Iraqi hands, for better or worse.

Much will depend on the manner in which the upcoming provincial, and later national, elections are conducted. If popular groups or individuals are excluded, or if there is significant vote rigging or voter intimidation, the Sadrists and the various Awakening/Sons of Iraq/etc groups will probably abandon the political process altogether. A fair and well-run election on the other hand will bring into the political process these outsiders and sweep away many of the currently underperforming insiders. A blatantly rigged or eternally postponed election will probably push said outsiders back to a new insurgency, and will lead to either a resumption of the civil war or (more likely, in my view) the imposition of a Dawa/SIIC/Kurdish co-dictatorship.

Although the occupation is the backdrop for this situation, I believe the occupation and the insurgency are not the most significant things going on in Iraq at the moment. Although of course Iraqis almost universally dislike the American presence, according to the polls, ‘Ending the occupation’ is low on their list of priorities (they want security, services and jobs, mostly); a majority support an American withdrawal, but not an immediate one. The fact of the matter is that the gringo soldiers on the ground are not doing anything particularly nasty at the moment (unlike, say, AQI), so the Iraqis seem to tolerate them as long as they act as surrogate providers of that which the government can’t or won’t provide (security, services, jobs).

The ’surge’ (meaning not only an increase in troop level, but also a very welcome change in tactics), along with the application of proper counter-insurgency doctrine, accomplished a few good things, including significant security improvements. Without it, Iraq would probably have
continued its post-Samarra course into fragmentation and perpetual low-level ethnic warfare. It might still resume it.

In all of this, there is plenty the Americans (or, for that matter, the Iranians, should they be so inclined) can do (or refrain from doing) to improve the odds of a decent outcome; but the future of Iraq now lies increasingly in Iraqi hands.


There is a wealth of information and opinion on every aspect of the Iraq war floating around the internet. The sites listed below provide, in my idiosyncratic opinion, a reasonably wide variety of news, opinions and points of view by people who either are or where in Iraq, or have studied it extensively.

Abu Muqawama is a collective blog “dedicated to following issues related to contemporary insurgencies as well as counterinsurgency tactics and strategy”. Not surprisingly, Iraq comes up a lot, usually in an insightful manner. I especially recommend the comment threads.

Small Wars Journal is self-explanatory. More academic and less bloggy, it features interesting analyses and case studies about Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Abu Aardvark is Mark Lynch, an American academic who focuses on Iraq and the Arab media.

Nir Rosen is a freelance writer who has taught himself Arabic, and has traveled extensively around Iraq, and has unequaled access to JAM members.

Reidar Visser is a Norwegian academic who knows a great deal about the Shia and southern Iraq.

Eye Raki is Haider al Khoei, who is the son of the murdered Abdul Majid al-Khoei (see above). He lives in London and has just returned from a visit to Iraq and Iran. As far as Shia clerical politics are concerned, you won’t find a better insider, unless Muqtada himself starts blogging.

Talisman Gate is Nibras Kazimi, an unabashed neocon Iraqi exile. He is extremely well-informed, and his analyses are usually readable despite the thick ideological coloring. He has the annoying habit of launching wild tirades against commentators he doesn’t like.

Missing Links’s author, one ‘Badger’ living in Canada, was separated from NK at birth, and now translates articles from the Arab media into English that portray the Americans as evil, bumbling or failing. He is sometimes informative, more often just plain annoying.

Arabic Media Shack, which I just found out about (from a commentator on AM), is like Missing Links without the bile and conspirazoid silliness.

The Long War Journal provides straightforward military analysis from a US military perspective. It avoid hooha-isms, but tends to report the US official line uncritically. It also compiles detailed Iraqi and Afghan orders of battle, and follows closely the progress of the listed units, down to battalion level.

Iraqi media doesn’t have a large English language presence, but you can check Aswat al Iraq or Azzaman, for instance.

Not much is happening in the Iraqi blogosphere; many of the best bloggers have left the country (and one, Blogiraq, was murdered). The Iraq Blogger Central provides a decent roundup of Iraq bloggers of all persuasions, punctuated by the occasional off-color comment.

There are plenty of American milblogs. Some just blabber inane hooha-ism, but there are plenty that are well-written and informative. A good roundup can be found at mudville. A couple of highlights: Army of Dude was in Iraq in 2006, and took part in the clearing of Baqubah in 2006 (Michael Yon was reporting on the same events from a different perspective). Check his archives for insight on combat from the ground level, and on the difficulties of working with the the former insurgents of the Sons of Iraq (nee 1920 Revolution Brigades). AoD is firmly against the war, which leads to some interesting (and surprisingly polite) comment threads. Acute Politics was part of an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team in Anbar around 2006/2007.

For some hard data, check Iraq Coalition Casualties, which tallies coalition and Iraqi deaths, along with a good up-to-date selection of news stories. Both the US Department of Defense and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) provide Congress with quarterly reports with lots of useful tables. Congress also has its own report-producing shop, the General Accountability Office. The Saban Center for Middle East Policy does something similar.

Well, this pretty much covers it. I hope that, whatever your opinions on the Iraq war are, you will find this list useful.