Shiites Versus Shiites and the Presidential Election
Fighting between Shiite elements in Iraq—the Iraqi army loyal to the al-Maliki government and dissident members of the Mahdi army loyal to Muktada al-Sadr—adds another complication both to popular conceptualizations of what is evolving in that country and to the contentious debate over the effects of American withdrawal from Iraq. Because whether or when to withdraw is the most visible foreign policy in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Shiites fighting Shiites resonates in the American political debate as well.
What exactly happened in Iraq last week? Without going into details not widely available, the ceasefire between al-Sadr and the government which has been one of the three pillars of the downturn in violence in Iraq recently (mentioned earlier in this blog space, “Moral Hazard in Iraq?”) broke down. Al-Sadr, from his exile in Iran, apparently ordered his followers (the Mahdi army) into the streets of Basra and later Baghdad to force the al-Maliki government to accede to certain demands regarding suppression and incarceration of some of his followers. Al-Maliki responded by unleashing the Iraqi army on the Mahdi army, and the result was a week of street fighting, with the United States supporting the government forces. It ended on March 31, 2008 with the declaration of another ceasefire by al-Sadr. On the ground, neither side convincingly won (itself a setback for the government, as al-Maliki had vowed to push the Basra campaign to a military victory over the Mahdi army).
What does all this mean? At one level, it demonstrates that Iraq is internally still a very unstable place and that the sources of instability run deeper and are more complex than the simple Shiite vs. Sunni vs. Kurd vs. Al Qaeda depictions with which all have become familiar. In case anyone had missed it previously, the fighting revealed that the Shiite majority in Iraq is not a monolith, but is instead a faction rife with contending sub-factions willing to use violence to achieve their ends. If the political tapestry of Iraq were not already complicated enough, this simply showed how Byzantine the whole landscape is.
What does this mean to the United States, and especially the prospects of American withdrawal? The response of the American political campaigns to these events is revealing, if almost entirely predictable.
The McCain campaign, as discussed in a March 31, 2008 New York Times article by Michael Cooper and Larry Richter (“Iraq Offensive Revives Debate for Campaigns”), reacted by arguing that the incident was both encouraging and cautionary. It was encouraging because, McCain said, the government’s response “is a sign of strength” of the government. On the other hand, McCain’s senior foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, argues the incident demonstrates that “there are very powerful forces that still remain that do not want to see the success of the central government and that would relish the prospect of the American withdrawal so they could fight or shoot their way to power.” He concludes with the debatable rhetorical question, “Would you rather have the Maliki government in control, or the Iranian-backed groups in control, or Al Qaeda in control?” This set of options is debatable—to say the least—because the Iranians have support among and have backed essentially all the Shiite movements in Iraq, and because no one seriously thinks Al Qaeda in Iraq will be a serious player in the struggle for post-American occupation Iraq.
The Obama and Clinton campaigns, predictably enough, see the whole incident as additional evidence of why withdrawal is the right policy. For Obama, it demonstrated that the presence—including the continuing presence—of American troops does not change the underlying calculus of power in Iraq. That presence, he says, “has not resolved the underlying tensions that exist in Iraq.” The Clinton campaign agrees. Lee Feinstein, her national security director, concludes from the outbreak that “the only way to get the Iraqis to accept responsibility for their future is by no longer extending them an indefinite blank check.”
Does this incident, or response to it, clarify anything about what to do in Iraq? Not really, because no matter what lessons one derives about Shiite versus Shiite violence in March 2008 for the future, it requires extrapolating into a future that cannot be entirely known. Projections are thus easy to make when there are no facts against which to measure them. As former State Department official Aaron Miller puts it in the NYT article, “It’s very much a question of what the ending is and whether it is clear cut.” Since hardly anything in Iraq is ever clear cut, that leaves plenty of room for speculation.