Robin Yassin-Kassab

Turf War

with 12 comments

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

And this one:

Thanks to the fanonite for this.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 1, 2008 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Iraq

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12 Responses

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  1. what I do not get is who is supported by Iran. Is it Sadr or Badr? If it is Badr, as you suggest, Iran and the USA would be accomplices,and this is difficult to believe given the current relations between the two countries and given the fact that Sadr is studying in Qom, not to mention the fact that an Iranian, according to McClatchy has mediated the ceasefire. Or are they both supported?


    April 2, 2008 at 4:57 pm

  2. Carlo – Both are supported by Iran to some extent. This doesn’t mean that Iran controls either. But Iran is a regional superpower, and is THE Shia state. Iraqi Shia have cultural, religious, business and sometimes familial links with Iran. For example, Ayatullah Sistani lives in Najaf and is the most followed Ayatullah by Iraqis, but he is Iranian-born. He is a ‘quietist’, and opposes the Khomeini model of government. There’s an example of how being linked to Iran doesn’t necessarily mean being a tool of the Iranian govt. I do think that the Badr Brigade is more clearly linked to official Iran than the Sadrists. The Badr Brigade was established and trained in Iran. The fact that it is allied with the US is one of the many contradictions of US policy. But it’s also realpolitic: the Americans have to deal with whoever will deal with them. They’d prefer to deal with non-Islamists, with Iraqis more linked to American culture than Iranian, but there aren’t many Iraqis who fit into that category. Such leaders would very obviously be imported puppets, and that kind of obvious imperialism wouldn’t work for five minutes.


    April 2, 2008 at 8:37 pm

  3. what do you make of the claims — which Petraeus is reported to be prepared to give credit to– of Iranian forces actually fighting with Sadrists in Basra against the Iraqi-USA attacks? It is scary. The USA scares me to no end.


    April 7, 2008 at 10:38 am

  4. Carlo – I’ve copied the below from Juan Cole’s excellent Informed Comment (see my links):

    “The Times of London reports that US Gen. David Petraeus will report to the US Congress that Iranian fighters fought alongside Mahdi Army militiamen in Basra.

    This fixation on Iran just doesn’t make any sense to me. The poor slum kids and Marsh Arabs in Basra who follow Muqtada al-Sadr don’t even like Iranians. The primary Iran-linked force in Basra is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq with its Badr Corps militia, which most Basrans code as Iranian puppets. One of my Iraqi correspondents told me that when the Badr Corps was fighting Marsh Arabs, local Basrans characterized it as ‘Iranians fighting Iraqis.’ The Badr Corps, according to the Iraqi press, fought alongside al-Maliki’s 14th Division against the Mahdi Army. The Badr Corps was trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and it is alleged that many Badr Corps fighters are still on the Iranian payroll.

    Iranians come through Basra on their way up to Karbala and Najaf on pilgrimage to sacred Shiite shrines, and a handful may have gotten caught up in the fighting. This sort of thing has happened before. [8,000 Iranian pilgrims caught in Iraq because of the fighting have just been recalled home, and a temporary halt on the pilgrimages has been called.) But that Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei of Iran deliberately sent Iranian troops or agents into Basra to undermine ISCI, Badr, and al-Maliki’s Da’wa (Islamic Missionary) Party on behalf of the Sadr Movement just strikes me as daft. It flies in the face of everything else we know about the relationship of these groups with Iran.

    In fact, the Iranian leadership benefits from a united Iraqi Shiite community and the head of the Expediency Council, Akbar Rafsanajani, expressed concern about the faction-fighting among Iraqi Shiites. Iran brokered the cease-fire. If it wanted Shiite on Shiite fighting, why would it do that?

    Neither the US nor Britain any longer has good intelligence on what is happening in the slums of Basra. If Petraeus is getting his information from al-Maliki on all this, he should be careful. The Da’wa and ISCI are perfectly capable of doing propaganda to embroil the US in their fights. In fact, their lies helped draw the US in, in the first place.”


    April 7, 2008 at 11:31 am

  5. Iran is a regional superpower

    you really make me laugh:))

    That regional power was crushed in 1988 by the much smaller Iraq and Iranians went out in the street of Tehran crying sieze fire.

    its military is obsolete and lacks al foundations of modernity.

    Iran with all these huge oil and mineral wealth is far behind the oiless and recourcless country like Egypt which spent the entire 20 century going into eal wars against super powers ( not just mpouth pieces to cover their occupation of Iraq) in almost all aspects. Mna look at your GDP per capåita and comapre to your resources and you will know what sort of losers you are :))))))))

    Iran is bragging like an idiot about some miislies it bought from North Korea LOL and thinks that would make IT a super power( which was developed by Egyptian technology, check global security and and NTI). Man you are really medieval

    So you are actually admiting that Iran is co-occupying Iraq.

    Face it dude you are not part of the middl east! simply because you are not Arabs. The so called Persian culture belongs to the Indian civisation sphere. so why dont you impose your Iranian selves on someone who wants you:))

    I ma sure that you will never go away, though!

    Amre El-Abyad

    April 12, 2008 at 1:52 pm

  6. Amre – I’ve noticed and sometimes responded to your hysterical comments on other blogs. And now here you are on mine, and really outdoing yourself. I won’t respond to all your strange ideas, except to express wonder. How, for instance, did you become convinced that I am an Iranian (or perhaps I should say Indian)? I’m not Iranian. In this post I expressed a lot more sympathy for Moqtada as-Sadr than for Hakeem, partly because as-Sadr is much less closely linked to Iran. I don’t want Iranian domination of Iraq (neither do I want Saudi or Turkish or American domination of the country). I recognise that the Iranian system has many faults, but of course it is much more developed, better educated, and more democratic than Egypt – which is also a country I love dearly. Now calm down, Amre habibi, and try to think clearly.


    April 12, 2008 at 6:11 pm

  7. I’ve smiled at Amre so far, but on Wassim’s Maysaloon blog I found grotesque comments by him, which I responded to – and I include them here to show why I won’t allow any comments from him on my blog in the future:

    Amre El-Abyad said…

    An Iranioan is saying Egypt is irrelevet:))

    Man compare the two countries and you will realize that your country Iran is a big zero.

    I am talking technological advancment, women rights , individual liberty, military efffciency.

    And if we are really irrelevnt, then ask someof your country men who fought in 1988 about what missiles, and technlogies that slew Iranians in thoudsands in 1988 iam talking El-Fao.

    The Iranian qunfuz is talking about sectariansim.

    You have actually, qunfuz, reinforced my point abpout the structural defiecincies in this entity so called Iran. you a really one dimensional minded and totally incapable of serious thinking.

    The head of the Egyptian regime fought Israel with his own hands 5 times and contributed in bringing on its first defeat.

    Th eregime of Hosni Moubarak, provided staregic and technical suport to Iraq when it was going through an 8 years n behalf of the Arab nation against the Irania enemy.

    Now let’s look at the BABOON- AYATOLLAH KHOMEINI which you worship and his mistress- Ayatollaj Ali Khameini.

    First Khomeni was installed by the CIA which encouraged him to call for bringing down the regime in Bagdad, it cracked down onArab nationalism and started al over the old habit of the sticky Iranians imposeing themslves on Arabs, that resulted in an 8 years war that destabilised the region.


    However Egyptian regime took the homourabnle stand againsty the Irania enemy.

    Despite of all my reservations against Egyptian regime, comartively speaking I have to say that an old shoe of Moubarak i equal to the entire Iranian nation.

    Qunfuz- get out of the land of your masters:)) or you will be gassed gain. some times chemical insecticides is best way to handle LOCUST no matter how harmful it is to the environment.

    For thousands of years Iran is nothing but trouble enforcing itself on Arabs , we have civilised you all the time bring you alphabet and letters, but it doesnt work, you never scram!!!!!!!

    1:59 PM

    qunfuz said…
    Amre – you have just posted a similar bout of hysteria on my blog. I’ve taken it with a smile so far, but when I read your rants about ‘locusts’ (on my blog you say that Iranians are really Indians) then I stop smiling. Racism isn’t funny. And if you think such hatred of Iranians is going to help solve our region’s problems you are even stupider than you seem. Also, your pride in Saddam Hussain’s criminal Western-backed genocidal use of poison gas against Iranian cities, as well as against Iraqi civilians is simply disgusting.


    April 12, 2008 at 6:28 pm

  8. Hi there, pleasure to meet you too!

    I am not very well informed about the Iranian/Iraqi confluences but it seems to me that the bifurcation of shiite factions in Iraq is paralleling that in Iran’s clergy!

    Iran’s clergy are also of two breed: those who are pro-American (call the Hashemi gang) and those who are pro-chaos (who are in a turf war with the Hashemis; and teh backers of Ahmadinejad!)

    As you know, shiism in Iran has served a major “resistance” purpose since almost 1100 years ago. I am very curious to know what teh trajectory of shiite politics has been in Iraq, that until recently has been under sunni-secular rule.
    If you know of a good book, drop it my way!


    April 12, 2008 at 9:40 pm

  9. :)) I had teh amusement of reading Amro’s comments just now! Man he is not even half as rude here as he is on my blog!

    But I am grateful he is helping me meet enlightened people.

    You are making a very good point about Basrawis not liking the Iranians. To be honest, Arab-Iranians of Ahwaz also do not like Iranian regime (neither the islamist one, nor the monarchist one preceding it)

    The grand project is to dissect Basra and Khoramshahr and hand it to Cheney! And this is not new.

    I am sure Iranians want an amicable regime running Iraq, and I am sure they will not “deny” their influence, and will barter with Americans if the must. But as you rightly mention, a lot of Iranian “influence” flowing towards Iraq is by way of Iraqi-Iranians who were expelled from Iraq, and who are simply going “home”.

    Iranian influence in Iraq is more of microeconomic nature; and yes they are also making a buck by exporting infrastructure. But Iran is exporting infrastructure to a lot of places in the world.


    April 12, 2008 at 9:53 pm

  10. “Comartively speaking I have to say that an old shoe of Moubarak i equal to the entire Iranian nation.” – Amre

    Amre! Ya Habibi! Egypt, the mother of civilisation, the greatest, most victorious!

    For God’s sake, what an embarrassment. This is a classic example of someone who boasts and glorifies his own tribe to himself to make himself feel good. Step outside into the real world and you and your ideas paint you as a total ass.

    This jahili praise of one’s tribe and cursing of other tribes definitely does not belong on a blog like this. Our friend Amre should keep his ideas to himself and perhaps some the uncles at his local sheesha bar. I am sure he will have a captive audience there. Qunfuz, you are right to not post his embarrasing tribalist garbage here.


    April 13, 2008 at 6:36 am

  11. Naj – I can recommend ‘The Shia Revival’ by Vali Nasr, an excellent book on the various Shia communities and their political experiences. On Iraq, but not specifically on the Shia, Anthony Shadid’s ‘Night Draws Near’ is moving, informative and eautifully written.


    April 14, 2008 at 8:34 am

  12. Thanks Robin, should add your book to the list too!


    April 14, 2008 at 4:42 pm

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