We went out for dinner last night with Iraqi friends, refugees from Basra. Muhammad received a call from his family conveying some fairly typical Iraqi news: his sister’s son had made the mistake of walking in a public area. As a result, a random bullet became lodged in his lower leg. At the hospital they sent him away, telling him his wasn’t a serious case.
Our Basrawi friends describe the recent fighting as a war of vested interests, gangs fighting over turf and plunder, with one side backed by the greatest militia presence in Iraq: the Anglo-American occupation. They don’t recognise the mainstream Western media explanation, of the ‘government’ – as if Iraq were an independent nation – ‘clamping down’ – as if the attackers were a consensually accepted authority – on ‘militias and criminal gangs.’
That fairytale, that simple-minded narrative for simple-minded folks, would in itself be enough to warrant the dismissals of journalists and news editors – if the media were free and informative rather than corporate and servile. Such ‘news’ isn’t worth switching the dial for. It isn’t worth the electricity, or the paper. It isn’t designed to inform but to lull, and many of us, evidently, are thoroughly lulled. It’s not as if it’s hard to stumble across the contradictions: mass defections from the police to the Sadr movement and hundreds of thousands in the streets carrying slogans like ‘we don’t want the new dictatorship to kill us’ suggest that the media’s is a simplified version. And the people who churn out the fantasy have neither shame nor fear of being found out.
All explanation is simplification, I know, and this is a complex situation. But still, allow me to explain (trust me, reader..).
Many militias operate in the Iraqi south. All contain a criminal element guilty of extortion and extra-judicial violence. And all the politically-relevant militias are angrily Islamist. But the Battle of Basra is essentially between two of them.
On the one hand, the Badr Brigade, which is the armed wing of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, led by the Hakeem family, founded in Iran but now solidly allied with the American occupation. The SIIC represents the merchant class and the conservative clergy. Because it led the list which was blessed by Ayatullah Sistani (who has since distanced himself) it did very well in the national elections, and so is the dominant power in the ‘government.’ The Badr Brigade staffed death squads unleashed on rebellious Sunni areas by the occupation (Negroponte’s Salvador option), a move which was a major contribution to catalysing the civil war. The SIIC also believes in a southern super-province which would keep southern oil revenues out of central government hands. This is the militia for which prime minister Maliki and ‘the government’ is a cover, and which serves, and depends on, the US military.
On the other hand, the Jaish al-Mahdi led by Moqtada as-Sadr (who, by the way, reminds me of the always-angry Abu’l’azz in Bab al-Haara – afficionadoes of the Syrian series will know the lovable man with the stick). Moqtada’s organisation was formed in Iraq after the invasion. While the Hakeems came in on American tanks, the Sadr family had always been in Iraq, and most of them died at the hands of Saddam Hussain’s torturers. The Sadrs represent what they have called the ‘vocal clergy’ – Shia ulama who take outspoken stands on behalf of the oppressed.
Unsurprisingly, Sadr’s movement is wildly popular amongst the Shia poor. The Jaish al-Mahdi confronted the occupation in Najaf in 2004, and went some way towards building a resistance alliance with Sunni groups. After the attack on the Samarra shrine in April 2006, however, the Mahdi Army’s defence of Shia areas from Wahhabi-nihilists often spilled over into retaliatory ethnic cleansing. This, and Moqtada’s tenuous control over the wilder and more criminal fringes, has seriously damaged the organisation’s reputation, but its nativism and anti-occupation pedigree means that it could perhaps reconcile with Sunni forces in the future. The Badr Brigade never could.
Why has the attack come now? Because the SIIC fears the Jaish al-Mahdi’s growing power. Moqtada has lately devoted himself to studies in Qom. When he achieves Ayatullah status he will have supreme religious clout as well as familial prestige and political influence. His nine-month-old ceasefire has allowed him to purge the Mahdi Army of some of its uncontrollable elements. There are reports that the Sadrists are receiving organisational and military help from Hizbullah. If true, this means that they will be a much more formidable force in the future. Finally, and crucially, local elections are scheduled for the autumn, and the increasingly unpopular SIIC worries that there will be a Sadrist landslide.
The attack on the Jaish al-Mahdi followed a visit by Dick Cheney to the Iraqi client militias and other regional clients, which suggests American direction as well as encouragement.
In the Guardian, Sami Ramadani connects the conflict to “the fact that oil and dock workers’ unions, declared illegal, are in full control of the ports and the major oil fields. These unions are strongly opposed to the US-backed oil law to privatise the Iraqi industry and allow the major oil companies to control production and marketing. The law is also opposed by the Sadr movement.”
The attack may also be connected to plans for Hizbullah in Lebanon. If a client government, pretending to be democratic but not in fact representing the majority, is able to provide propaganda cover for American firepower as it destroys a popular resistance movement, why not repeat the exercise in the Lebanese south? But the SIIC-American turf war against the Sadrists has already failed, and to imagine the destruction of Hizbullah requires several lines of Cheney cocaine in addition to the usual media fairytale.
Sami Ramadani’s article:
Watch the Real News report on Moqtada
Thanks to the fanonite for this.