Iraq: Maliki’s Gamble

1 April 2008

Maliki Blinked First, If Anybody Cares

By Gwynne Dyer

Suppose the shoe were on the other foot. Suppose that the former United States had splintered into half a dozen fragments after the South won the Civil War 145 years ago. Suppose all the Arabs lived in a single, powerful state, but had no oil. Suppose an Arab military force was currently bringing peace and freedom to the oil-rich, violence-torn country of Texas. What would they be reading in the Arab newspapers five years after the occupation of Texas?

They’d be learning about the minute doctrinal differences and the irreconcilable rivalries between Catholic Hispanics and Protestant anglos, and even between Southern Methodists and Southern Baptists. They’d all know about Texas’s long love affair with guns, as if that explained why Texans were killing Arab soldiers.

They’d constantly be reminded that the dominant minority in east Texas is African-American, while in west Texas it is Hispanic, as if that explained anything. Leader writers in Arab newspapers would be speculating about which of the many Texan militias could be persuaded to side with the Arab troops in the task of pacification.

Everybody in the Arab world would know far more about Texas than any sane non-Texan should ever want to know — without understanding anything at all. And then the Arab troops would go home sooner or later, and everybody in the Arab world would forget all those intricate details about Texas again.

Well, the shoe is not on the other foot. It’s American troops in Iraq, not Arab troops in Texas, so it’s the Western media that are filled with minutiae about the rivalries among Iraqi sects, parties and militias. We’ve just had a fairly intense week of it, with the Baghdad government that is dominated by two Shia parties, Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, using the national army to attack the militia of a third Shia faction, that led by Moqtada al-Sadr.

There are also the Kurds (aligned with the United States but divided among themselves) and the Sunni Arabs (who were fighting the Americans last year but are mostly allied with them at the moment, though that alliance may now be fraying). But the main event last week was between the Shias.

For the record, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s attempt to shut down Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi army, has failed. Maliki’s offensive against the Mahdi army in Basra stalled after four days, with three-quarters of the city still in the hands of the militia. Meanwhile heavy fighting spread to four other cities in the south and to Baghdad itself, and US ground troops were drawn into the fighting to cover the Iraqi army’s failures.

Maliki, who had been full of bluster at the start, declared himself surprised by the strength of the resistance (although nobody else was). He stopped the offensive and extended his deadline for disarming the militias by ten days. Then, after frantic scurrying around behind the scenes, a deal emerged in which Moqtada al-Sadr gently let him off the hook.

Sadr declared on Sunday that he was ordering the Mahdi army to stop fighting and get off the streets. But he coupled that with a demand that the government stop “illegal and random raids” (that target his followers)and release all detainees (including hundreds of Mahdi army members) who have been arrested without formal charges. And Sadr’s spokesman made it very clear that no weapons would be handed in.

Maliki did not argue. The offensive has been called off, and the Mahdi army is still intact. As Maliki’s spokesman put it, “the government will…implement the law against those who do not obey the instructions of the government and of Sadr.” The latter comes out of this confrontation stronger than ever, having faced down Maliki (with the full weight of the United States behind him), and then winning extra points for being the peace-maker

But the saga of the past week is just more minutiae, of no great relevance to the future of Iraq, let alone of the United States. No matter who ends up running Iraq, all the American troops will go home in the end. And whatever happens in Iraq after that, although of great importance to Iraqis, will be of little interest to Americans.

This does presume, of course, that post-occupation Iraq will not be run by bloodthirsty and intolerant fanatics whose only goal in life is to attack the United States. But that was never remotely likely at any stage of the game. The notion that this is anybody’s primary motive in the Arab world, even that of the bloodthirsty and intolerant fanatics who run “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia,” is just a self-centred American fantasy.

Ten years from now, all that painfully acquired knowledge about the details of Iraq’s internal rivalries will be long gone from American minds. Even in Iraq, few people will remember what happened last week in Iraq or give a damn about it. And the main conclusion of the American public about the Iraq adventure, as it has long been about Vietnam, will be (as Talleyrand said about one of Napoleon’s stupider decisions) that “it was worse than a Crime; it was a Mistake.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“There are…Shias”; and “This does…fantasy”)