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Maliki, Hakim, and Iran’s Role in the Basra Fighting

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

9 April 2008

[Expanded version of an article published in Terrorism Focus vol. 5 no. 14, with added commentary on the Petraeus/Crocker congressional hearings about US Iraq policy.]

One week after the upsurge of violence in Basra, questions about the motives and the implications of the fighting still linger. The issue of Iran’s involvement remains especially obscure.

A recurrent explanation suggests that the operations were an attempt by Nuri al-Maliki and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim to weaken the Sadrists ahead of October’s provincial elections, and perhaps to also further Hakim’s scheme of a single Shiite federal entity, which many Sadrists have resisted. On the surface this seems plausible. This has clearly been a political operation and not a purely security-guided one: Many militia forces in Basra unaffiliated with the Sadrists were left untouched. Also, the Maliki-Hakim axis is the sole remnant of the United Iraqi Alliance; to its backers it would be prudent to stick together and guard against encroachments on their local power bases. As for the United States, as long as it policy remains tied to Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) it can perhaps make sense to give the green light to operations against the Sadrists, even if the timing (on the eve of the Crocker/Petraeus hearings) and the scale of the attack (after one year of trying to differentiate between “moderate” and “hardliner” Sadrists) may not have been of its choosing.

However, the theory of a stable Maliki-Hakim alliance overlooks disagreement between the two on key issues. Crucially, Maliki disagrees with ISCI on federalism, both with regard to the South of Baghdad Region (the proposed nine-governorate Shiite federal entity), and with respect to federalism as a more general principle of government. In an interview in late 2007, Maliki said: “There are two schools on federalism, the first moving in the direction of making the central state extremely weak, no more than a mere instrument for delivering funds and distributing them. Another school moves in the direction of federalism with a strong state capable of controlling the situation. It is this kind of federalism that we in the Daawa support.” Of course, that “first school” – which Maliki went on to criticise as potentially harmful to the unity of Iraq – corresponds perfectly to ISCI’s official policy. ISCI’s recent attempt at reducing as much as possible Baghdad’s power in the non-federated governorates act is the exact antithesis to Maliki’s line.

Once the existence of this kind of friction is acknowledged, it becomes possible to identify additional weaknesses in the theory of a carefully synchronised Hakim-Maliki effort. Among them is the assumption that the Iraqi military and police have already been completely infiltrated by ISCI and that every battle fought between government forces and Shiite discontents over the past year has been initiated at the behest of Hakim. True, ISCI has obtained significant fiefdoms in the security forces. But the party is not omnipotent. For example, ISCI recently complained angrily that the police in Nasiriyya – which has an ISCI governor – were becoming “politicised”, i.e. populated by individuals critical of ISCI. Similarly, the interior ministry long resisted attempts by ISCI to sack a police commander in Hilla whose staunch anti-militia policies ISCI leaders took exception to (the commander was eventually assassinated in December 2007). And in early March, Maliki’s chief of security in Basra, General Mohan al-Firayji, faced angry demonstrators who demanded his resignation; these protestors were mostly ISCI supporters .

The demonstrations against General Mohan can offer insights about Iran’s role. Alongside ISCI, another key participant was Daghir al-Musawi, leader of the small Sayyid al-Shuhada movement. Musawi’s critics have long accused him of close ties to the leadership of the Iranian revolutionary guards. It is noteworthy that precisely in this context, Maliki’s man, General Mohan, complained about “Iranian influence” in Basra. Similarly, as part of the Basra operations, Iraqi forces targeted the pro-Iranian Tharallah militia and arrested its leader. This less known casualty of the Basra fighting has been a loyal ally of ISCI in its campaign to unseat the Basra governor, Muhammad al-Waili of the anti-Iranian Fadila party. In 2006, black-clad members of Tharallah paraded through Basra identifying themselves as the “Martyr Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim Squadron”, a reference to the previous leader of ISCI. Among the groups singled out by Ambassador Ryan Crocker for criticism in the 8 April US Senate hearings on Iraq was “Hizbollah in Iraq”, another stalwart ally of ISCI (this Hizbollah should not be confused with “Hizbollah of Iraq” headed by Abd al-Karim al-Muhammadawi, or, for that matter, with the Lebanese Hizbollah) .

In sum, it appears that Iran may have made an input on both sides during the Basra showdown. The smaller pro-Iranian parties within ISCI’s umbrella organization put pressure on Maliki and may have nudged him towards taking stronger action against the Sadrists than originally contemplated. But the conclusion of a ceasefire on Iranian soil shows that Tehran’s ability to influence the other end of the spectrum – the traditionally Iraqi nationalist Sadrist movement – may now be stronger than ever before, quite possibly the result of Muqtada’s relocation to Iran at the beginning of “the surge”, when he may have felt cornered by US policy.

To the US, the good news is that Maliki still seems to insist on a certain independence vis-à-vis ISCI and Iran. A look at the composition of Maliki’s entourage during his previous mission to Basra when he imposed emergency rule in May 2006 suggests that his power base is evolving. Then he arrived with the chief of the ISCI-linked Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri, as well as a former Sadrist minister from Basra, Salam al-Maliki. This time his aides consisted of independents, interior ministry staff, and Shirwan al-Waili of the Tanzim al-Iraq branch of the Daawa. The constant in all of this seems to be Maliki’s desire to come across as a strong leader: In 2006, he promised an “iron fist”; this time he announced “the assault of the knights”. Through the process, he may well have rediscovered the usefulness of siding with ISCI, but there is nothing to suggest that Maliki acted as he did for the sake of the nine-governorate Shiite federal entity.

The bad news is that Maliki’s current survival strategy does not appear to be compatible with the declared US objective of achieving national reconciliation in Iraq. Maliki’s vision of national reconciliation seems largely theatrical and not focused on profound constitutional revision. So far, it has failed to appeal beyond the small ruling minority of the Sunni Tawafuq bloc, the Kurds, and the Shiite ISCI – of whom the two latter also disagree deeply with Maliki on federalism. Conversely, Maliki’s view of the Sadrists is altogether unrealistic. The Sadrists are far too deep-rooted in Iraqi society to be ignored; ideologically both they and the Fadila (which similarly criticised the Basra operations) are an important part of the centre in Iraqi politics that Maliki is seeking. All too often it is forgotten that the benchmark of a fixed date for local elections was met mainly due to pressure from the Sadrists and Fadila in alliance with Sunnis and secularists, the very forces that are consistently being sidelined by Maliki and the United States.

Finally, there is Maliki’s continued reliance on the support of the breakaway Hizb al-Daawa (Tanzim al-Iraq). Having been set afloat by Iran in 2002 (rather than being a product of the Iraqi underground, as is sometimes claimed) this chameleon-like outfit may well have as its principal objective to create as much confusion in Shiite Iraqi politics as possible. The party was probably designed as a counterweight to the mainline Daawa movement which always maintained a certain distance to Iran; whereas it supported ISCI’s ideas about a single Shiite federal region back in 2006 it has gradually reverted to an Iraqi nationalist rhetoric, raising yet more questions about its own loyalties and aims.

To the US, the best way of rectifying these problems would be to abandon the current policy of unquestioningly going after whomever Maliki defines as a terrorist. Instead Washington could emulate the Iranians: talk to as many Shiite factions as possible, which could be done simply by supporting free and fair local elections in October without giving in to very predictable schemes by Maliki and ISCI to exclude or obstruct the Sadrists and other undesirable competitors. Unfortunately, however, Washington appears headed in a different direction. The Bush administration fails to acknowledge that Iranian influences in Iraq operate through several channels, including some of Washington's best friends. In reality, the Iraqi nationalist component of Maliki’s government is wafer-thin, and unless this problem at the Green-Zone level is addressed and anti-Iranian currents among the Shiites are better represented, no amount of bottom-up progress, “breathing room” or American material support in the provinces will be sufficient to achieve national reconciliation.

In sum, the Iraqi system is locked at the top level. The artificial constellation of the so-called “moderate coalition” under Maliki is to a large extent the result of a weaponry-focused American misreading of the many channels of Iranian influence. This was best summed up by Ryan Crocker’s comments in the US Senate on 8 April: in an attempt at playing down the significance of Mahmud Amadinejad’s popularity in Iraqi government circles, Crocker referred to the staunch anti-Iranian attitude of the Iraqi Shiites during the Iran-Iraq War. What Crocker failed to mention was that his own administration’s main Shiite partner in Iraq, ISCI, is the only sizeable Shiite party that fought on the Iranian side. Moreover, the confusion about the relationship between Iraqi Shiites and Iran is equally widespread on the Democratic side. Top Democrats are among the foremost proponents of the view that strong Iranian influence is a perfectly natural aspect of Iraqi politics and entirely unrelated to US policy decisions, and that it cannot possibly be reversed. This particular kind of defeatism is an affront to those nationalist Iraqi Shiites who fought against Iran in the 1980s and whose marginalization is the result of US policy decisions rather than of internal Iraqi dynamics. Nonetheless, it is a view shared by everyone who limits the discussion of Iranian influence to arms traffic and “special groups” and refuses to consider the Iranian influence in Green-Zone politics – in other words, it has the backing of George W. Bush, General Petraeus and Barack Obama alike.

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