Friday, May 27, 2005

The New Shiite Iraq aka Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle.

Iraq was traditionally the counterweight to Iran in the Middle East. Since its creation by the British, Iraq has been a base for pan-Arab nationalism - the idea that the ideal situation for the Arabs is to have one state from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. This ideology has traditionally been followed by the Sunni Arabs in the Middle East and is the intellectual source of much of the region's rhetoric. The Arab League was the institution that was created to execute the goals of pan-Arabism and its avowed purpose is to bring the Arabs closer together until a pan-Arab state can be created. Fortunately however there has never been a single Arab leader who has had the power to create such a unified state over the objections of the others, though Nasser came close in the early 1960s with the creation of the United Arab Republic. Under Saddam this rhetoric was even more pronounced and most propaganda that came out of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war was fitted with the message that Iraq was leading the Arab nation in its struggle with its Persian Shiite enemies. The reason why the government in Iraq has followed this ideology was because it has always been ruled by Sunnis strongmen and the Shiites had little voice in the formulation of the country's identity. Many Shiites bought into the rhetoric and during the Iraq-Iran war, the mass defections that the Shiite Iranians expected from the Iraqi side did not take place (though isolated cases did take place). It would seem then, that Saddam succeeded in educating the Shiites to be more attached to their Arabism than to their Shiism.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, the only way of maintaining Iraq's traditional role was to leave it in the hands of the Sunni Arabs. Ideological constraints forced the United States into pursuing a democratic experiment in that country. This included the dismantling of the Sunni army, the de-Baathication of the government and the bringing into the power structure of the Shiite parties. The elections of 2005 pushed this trend further along when the Shiite coalition - the United Iraqi Alliance took more than half the seats in the National Assembly. With the amount of airtime given to the Iraq election it is very surprising that very little research was done into the make-up of the UIA. If anybody had done the research they would have noticed that the biggest parties in the coalition were the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the al-Dawa party, and the party of Moqtada al-Sadr. The last seems to be more of a party based around a temporarily popular young firebrand. The other two are entities of long-standing.

Both SCIRI and al-Dawa have their origins in the religious seminaries of the holy Shiite city of Najaf. In the 1950s and the 1960s the clerics there devised an ideology to counter the left-wing ideologies that were gaining ground in the Shiite community. The mostly young clerics, rather than following the traditional Shiite theology of abandoning the world to its ills until the return of the 12th Imam (think Messiah), became convinced that all the answers for proper Islamic government were already in the Islamic teachings and that it was their job to create a state based on Islam and to rule it in its name. They believed that such a state would need to be ruled by a hierarchy of clerics answering to the all-powerful head of state who as the supreme source on the interpretation of the Koran would hold all authority, both secular and religious. The most prominent Iraqi founders of this ideology were Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr. The most widely known scholar who adopted this ideology was the Ayatollah Khomeini. This ideology gained notoriety when it was implemented in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. During the reign of the Baath and of Saddam in Iraq leaders of the al-Dawa took refuge abroad, mostly in Iran. SCIRI was formed in Iran out of some al-Dawa activists and some Iraqi POWs and fought on the side of the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. SCIRI maintains a close relationship with the clerical establishment there, including cooperation between the SCIRI's armed wing - the Badr Brigades and the Islamic republic's hard-core parallel army - the Revolutionary Guards. The al-Dawa as an organization does not have as close relations to the Iranians as SCIRI. This stems from a basic theological difference between SCIRI and al-Dawa. SCIRI believes that the supreme authority for the institution of an Islamic state is the Supreme Religious Ruler of the State of Iran. al-Dawa never accepted Khomeini's claims to supreme authority in the Shiite world. It is more interested in an independent supreme Iraqi Shiite cleric. Their relations with the Iranians are nonetheless warm.

Clerics from the al-Dawa movement were also prominent in the creation of another notorious organization. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the new Baath government in Iraq started throwing out the firebrand clerics who preached this ideology. Many of the clerics were Lebanese and made their way back to that country where they soon created several organization that after 1979 would merge to become the Hezbollah.

Another aspect of this ideology relates to the grand view of the relations between the world and Islam. Strangely enough the Shiite clerics of Najaf came to essentially the same conclusion as the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, whose ideology forms the basis for much of the beliefs of Sunni Islamists. Their conclusion was that Islam is fighting a war against the ideologies and forces of the West. They did not differentiate much between Communism, Capitalism and Democracy, pointing out that all these ideologies are secular in their base formulation, whereby they are not derived from an absolute source. The capricious and non-absolutist nature of these ideologies, according to these scholars, make them unsuitable for the world of Islam, which already has a ready constitution, economic system and form of government in the form of the Islamic system. The attempts by the West to hold up their ideologies as models for imitation put the West into conflict with the Muslims, creating a need for the Muslims to fight back.

From the description given of the main Shiite political parties it should seem clear that an Iraq that is run by SCIRI and al-Dawa is unlikely to confront a surging Iran, as it would be expected to do under pan-Arabist Sunni minority rule. Due to the ideological constraints of both parties (i.e. neither party is a big fan of democracy) it also seems unlikely that a secular Democratic government will last long in a United Islamic List governed Iraq. Because the new Shiite-led government will probably try to implement some aspects of Islamic rule, it is also unlikely that good relations can be maintained between the Sunni minority (both Arab and Kurd) and the Iraqi government.

All this leaves the US up shit creek without a paddle... I am still trying to come up with a good outcome scenario as far as the Iraqi situation goes.


Anonymous Mixed Humor said...

Interesting read, lot's of good points in there about the religious and ethnic dynamics. I'm glad to see you mention the difference between the Arab Shia in Iraq and the Persian Shia in Iran. While ties between the communities exist, there is a segment of the population in the United States, most notably those that opposed the current policy in Iraq, that fails to understand the dynamics and has already arrived at the conclusion that Iraq will be operating in Iran's best interests, or allow power to be usurped by the mullahcracy in Tehran. In fact, there are several Europeans I've conversed with that are convinced this is an inevidiblity.

Of course nothing is impossible, but it remains highly unlikely in my opinion that they are going to exchange the shackles of Saddam's tyranny for those of Tehran's.

I think Saddam's pan-Arabic ambitions were one aspect of why that regime posed a threat. Even back in 1998, Senator Kerry proclaimed Hussein was "attempting to become a modern day Ebuchadnezzer", or a "unifying force in that region." He added, "I think we need to stand up to that."

Numerous popular Islamic conferences in Iraq during the 1990s drew Islamists and arab fundementalists from all over the region, who all viewed Hussein as the great defiant Arab leader who had stood up to the west.

I remain convinced that military action to remove Saddam Hussein was the better choice from a bad list of options. By the time Bush was sworn into office, he had inhereted an Iraqi policy that was fatally broken. Some of the post-war criticism is legitimate, and like every war or armed conflict there were mistakes.

12:14 AM  
Anonymous Mixed Humor said...

I meant to add this link from this weekend:

12:17 AM  
Blogger Bubba said...

thanks for the comment,

It is true that there is a lot of ignorance about the differences between the Persians and the Arabs. Most people seem to believe that Iran is an Arab country..

Unfortunately however there are very strong connections between the Iranian Shiites and their Arab Iraqi Shiite co-religionists... The border between the two states was rarely enforced prior to the 20th century and people often migrated in both directions. Even in much of the 20th century the border was porous. Many of those crossing it were clerics that were going from Iran towards the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala. Khomeini spend much time in Iraq. Sistani is another Iranian who came to Najaf to study (and stayed). The elements that became SCIRI and al-Dawa also crossed the same border in 1979, though in the other direction. The flow of clerics had by this time reversed, with Iraqi and Lebanese Shia clerics coming to the religious seminaries of Qom in Iran to study.

There are Iraqi Shia forces opposed to Iraq becoming an arm of the Iranians. The secular followers of Iyad Allawi and the followers of the al-Sadr family are probably the most notable. However, the SCIRI faction, considered by many to be the strongest Shia faction, is heavily influenced by the Iranians and their Vilayat-e-faqih ideology. Ideologically they owe their primary religious and political allegiance to the Supreme Ruler of Iran - Khamenei... Though they might be limited in their influence by the other Shia factions and by the Kurds , it seems very unlikely that SCIRI would allow the new Iraq to ever play its traditional balancing role in the region.

Saddam's pan-Arabic ambitions did exist, however after Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel the realization of such an idea became essentially impossible and all the talk about it became just that - rhetoric.

Following the 1st Gulf War Saddam was very isolated. He was facing enemies on every side and had major internal problems. In order to shore up his legitimacy he turned to the Islamist factions that were almost the only ones (other than the Palestinians) that had supported him against the Americans. After an initial flirtation during the time when Iraq was most unstable in the early 1990s this relationship ended...

Saddam was a genocidal maniac. Few shed tears for him... The question remains as to how the United States can withdraw from Iraq without leaving the Iranians as the dominant regional power. At present it seems that the only way this question is solved is by leaving American troops in Iraq and in the Gulf permanently.

Additionally there is the problem of ideological constraints ont the American government. We have declared that we are going to bring democracy to a unified Iraq. Considering the make-up of Iraq, again it leaves us in a situation where we must stay in Iraq in large numbers to maintain some semblance of a unified Iraqi state. If we leave the state will splinter.

Now if we were just trying to balance the Iranians and cared little for what happened to Iraq we can be satisfied with deploying troops in the relatively safe areas of Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and in Iraqi Kurdistan (where they are welcome). If we want democracy in Iraq we have to stay in Iraq itself.

We need to drop the 'crusade for democracy' and focus on more achievable objectives...

I read the article on kurdishmedia... Its an interesting development. However the fundamental differences in what the Kurds, Shia and Sunnis want are so profound that no document can paper over them. Would the Kurds ever allow Iraqi soldiers on their lands? Would the Sunnis allow Shiite Iraq army troops to patrol Fallujah or Ramadi?

1:15 PM  

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