Basra Has New Governor And It Is

*Basra has a new governor, and it is Denmark’s former ambassador to Syria, a convert to Islam. Ole Woehlers Olsen will be put in charge by the British, who conquered the southern river port of 1.2 million. Apparently it is hoped that his being a Muslim convert will make him acceptable locally. The appointment is seen by some as a way for the coalition to reward Denmark for its support of the Iraq war. My guess is that Olsen is a Sunni, and the Arabic press says his Arabic is fluent, which is a plus. He is said to be married to an Algerian physician. It is also a plus that he will be seen as potentially even-handed and not bound to promote his relatives the way a local tribal sheikh or businessman would be. But he will be administering a largely Shiite city, and he is a foreigner, so he has a lot of hearts to win. It is, by the way, remarkably difficult to find out what is going on in Basra; some enterprising reporter should survey the emerging new power structures. I know that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq has opened offices in the city, but there has been little reporting on what the city’s Shiites think.

*L. Paul Bremer III, a former State Department counter-terrorism expert and a protégé of Henri Kissinger with some rightwing credentials, will be the civilian administrator of Iraq. I’m not sure how this affects the reporting line of Jay Garner, the head of the reconstruction effort, who currently reports to the Department of Defense. I’m also not sure what exactly Bremer’s relationship will be with the provisional Iraqi government scheduled to be elected in late May. If I am confused, imagine what the Iraqis feel like.

*More confusion. The holy city of Najaf, which some reporters are now saying has a population of 900,000, has several rulers. The military mayor is Lt. Col. Chris Conlin. He has apparently appointed a former Baathist officer who is a Sunni from Basra—Abdul Munem—as the mayor of Najaf, according to Megan Stack of the LA Times. He apparently switched sides and launched an anti-Saddam mutiny, and this is his reward. But Najaf also has a town council that includes leading clerics and local tribal sheikhs, from what previous reports in the Arabic press indicate. And, it has some 5000 local militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shiite firebrand. Abdul Munem appears to be organizing a police force loyal to himself.

I’ve been following Lt. Col Conlin in the press, and he seems really bright and well informed. But this idea of putting a former Baathist Sunni in control of Najaf strikes me as a harbinger of trouble. His police are likely to come into conflict with the al-Sadr militia. They may well win, being well paid and well armed via the Americans. But that won’t make them or us loved.

*Yet more confusion. According to the Washington Post, the city of Amara is now ruled by one Karim Mahoud, a Marsh Arab who fought guerrilla style against Saddam. He runs the city’s militia. Amara, with a population of 283,000, is a major Shiite city in the South. There is some support there for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and there looks to be a budding competition between that party and Mahoud’s militiamen. Of course, some Marsh Arabs support an Islamic state, and the WP did not reveal Mahoud’s position on such matters. Stay tuned.

*Charles Krauthammer, that great Middle East expert, has ridiculed those of us who are concerned about theocratic tendencies among the Shiites. He says that Shiism is not hierarchical. (Compared to what? It is hierarchical compared to Sunnism). Anyway, rival ayatollahs with militias that fight among one another is not a promising picture. Then he says that the Iraqi Shiites don’t want Iran-style clerical rule. He points out that most Iranians don’t want that. This is an example of a little bit of knowledge being a dangerous thing. Countries have political rhythms. Iraqi Shiites are not where Iranian ones are. Iraqi Shiites have had decades of authoritarian secular nationalist rule by a Sunni elite, followed by a Western occupation. A lot of them, certainly a plurality, are responding to all this by demanding an Islamic government. It may not be clerically. But they want Shiite law to be the law of the land.

The Algerian and Egyptian governments have fought tooth and nail for years to prevent the installation of Islamic law as the only form of law in their countries. The people who have implementation of shariah or Islamic canon law as their project know very well that power goes in such a system to the interpreters of the law. And those will be Muslim clerics. Shiite law in Iraq will put the judiciary in the hands of the ayatollahs.

Although Sunni and Shiite Islamists are at the moment united in calling for Islamic law, the moment the Shiite version of it is ensconced in the Iraqi system, the Sunnis are going to realize that they have been had, and there is going to be fighting about it. We have seen these things before. In 1980 General Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan implemented the governmental collection of alms (zakat), giving it to the Sunni clergy to distribute to the poor. The Pakistani Shiites were outraged that their alms were going to the Sunni clergy, and a 100,000 Shiites demonstrated in Islambad. Zia backed down and exempted Shiites from the governmental alms tax. (Some Pakistani rich families then promptly converted to Shiism).

So, Mr Krauthammer, Iranian-style clerical rule is not the only danger inherent in the rise of Iraqi Islamism. And, yes, you guys have unleashed it. Deal with it.