*Here’s my post from Gulf2000 today:
What happened in Karbala this past weekend still seems a little murky. I
am amazed that some enterprising reporter hasn’t gotten the story out (I
haven’t seen a really good account in the Arabic press or the Western).
Although it is murky, it is potentially much more significant than the
deaths of Saddam’s sons.
There was a demonstration on Saturday against Marine patrols coming too
close to the shrine of Imam Husayn, among the holiest sites of Shiite
Islam. The demonstration turned ugly. The Marines fired tear gas, and
one cannister hit the shrine itself. Iraqi demonstrators maintained that
the Marines killed one demonstrator. On Sunday the crowd assembled again,
for another demonstration. It also turned ugly. About nine Shiites were
wounded by US gunfire in front of the Imam Husayn Shrine. Another man may
or may not have been killed, depending on which wire service you follow.
The demonstrations were probably provoked by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr.
The Marines maintain that the man who was killed was armed and had fired
on them. I think it likely that someone did fire on them, to provoke them
into injuring protesters. They fell for it.
Syed Saleem Shahzad, writing for the Asia Times, sees the
events in Karbala as part of a pattern of anti-US forces learning ways of
provoking them and encourages popular discontent. He thinks its emergence
in the South is an ominous sign, given the emergence of well coordinated
guerrilla networks in the north. He maintains that the Pakistani jihadi
organization Ansar al-Islam has infiltrated Kurdish regions and is
He adds of the Shiites:
“According to US authorities the emerging personality of firebrand Moqtada
Sadr, a Shi’ite imam, is widely seen as a new threat in southern Iraq. The
new administration is skeptical about his real designs as he does not seem
to be interested in politics but to be motivated by extreme religious
obsessions. His followers consider him a mehdi (a promised messiah before
the arrival of Christ, according to Islamic faith) and he seems to
encourage these trends. There are suspicions that he is stirring up
anti-US sentiment with his vehement speeches to further his religious
This is the first report I have seen of Muqtada being considered the
Mahdi, and it is possible, though I suspect it is a minority view. If
true, it confirms the sectarian character of his movement.
Ned Parker of AFP reports today that some of the problems derive from
misbehaving US troops, who are beating up suspects and over-reacting.
Some are frustrated, others just bullies. But it seems to me
that in Karbala the Marines were just tricked, with someone deliberately
firing on them from the crowd or just beyond them, to produce this result.
Shahzad says, “”A US official says: “The Islamic groups in Karbala and
other southern cities have been advised to keep their demonsrations
peaceful and restricted. If these demonstrations continue to be violent
and to be held every day, US forces would consider them as a threat for
them and would be justified in taking action.”
If the US military does not know better than to fire on civilian
protesters in front of the Shrine of Imam Husayn, it is a very, very bad
sign for the future. Those nine wounded and one (or two) killed at that
particular site have enormous anti-US propaganda value for the Sadrists,
Hizbullah in Lebanon, and the hardliners in Iran. So far, urban Shiites
have not proved willing to come out in a big way for the repeated Sadrist
demonstrations, which have been 10,000 strong at most and more often have
peaked at 2,500, in Baghdad, Najaf and Basra. But Shiites killed at the
shrine of Husayn, that has the potential to get people out. It would be
as though foreign occupying troops in New York shot down protesters in
front the the Statue of Liberty.
I do not think the reaction will come in the short term. But people are
going to start keeping accounts of grudges against the US if this sort of
*Helena Cobban remonstrates gently with me at her Weblog over my comment, “Look, I want the US to succeed in Iraq, just as I think all responsible Americans do.” She asks what I mean by “success” and whether I think it is unpatriotic to hope for failure. Her comments are at: http://justworldnews.org/
The bottom line is that I was very conflicted over the war in the first place. I don’t like wars, on principle, and think they should be a last resort. The only wars I’ve wholeheartedly supported were the US interventions against Milosevic in the Balkans (to stop a genocide against Muslims and Croats), and the Afghanistan campaign, to get rid of those horrific al-Qaeda training camps. Helena accuses me of a bit of American triumphalism. I fear I am far too cynical and critical for that. But I freely admit that September 11 had a big impact on me, and I am a hawk in the war on terror. If I had been a younger man, I would probably have joined the military on September 12. I know all about blowback and the Reagan administration policies that helped set that stage, but the practical task of keeping more buildings from being blown up is in my view a noble and heroic one and I a make no apologies for that much patriotism.
I don’t think this Iraq war was a last resort, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with the way the war fever was whipped up with very dubious claims by powerful Iraqi expatriates and the right in Washington. However, and this is the big “H,” I have lived with Baathist Iraq since I got into the Middle East field, and being a specialist in Shiism and a friend to Iraqi Shiites meant that I knew exactly what the Saddam regime had done to them. So, I refused to come out against the war. I was against the way the war was pursued–the innuendo, the exaggerations, the arrogant unilateralism. But I could not bring myself to be against the removal of that genocidal regime from power.
Now that the war has taken place and Iraq is under Anglo-American occupation (that is the legal situation according to the UN and even according to US officials), it is important that Iraqis aren’t double-crossed yet again by the US. Americans, having caused the old order to collapse, have a responsibility to nurture a new one before they decamp. The new order should be a parliamentary democracy with an independent judiciary and press. (Actually, both of the latter are already showing signs of vigor). It would be unfortunate if Iraq were just delivered to nouveau riche robber barons, as happened in post-Soviet Russia. I am therefore heartened to hear that Bremer is taking seriously the idea of an Alaska-style dividend for ordinary Iraqis from the country’s petroleum.
It would be highly irresponsible for the US military simply to suddenly withdraw from the country at this juncture. I have called (on national television, some months ago!) for the US to get a UN mandate for its reconstruction efforts and to conduct them multilaterally. I don’t think this way of proceeding would in any way represent a US failure in Iraq, quite the opposite. But internationalizing the effort is different from leaving the Iraqis high and dry and at the mercy of budding militias. Helena and I were both in Beirut, and I can’t imagine she wants that fate for the Iraqis. That is the sort of outcome that I called “irresponsible.” I didn’t bring up anything about patriotism one way or another.
As for the “white man’s burden,” the fact is that tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, have died trying to overthrow the Baath, and the war was spearheaded by the Iraqi expatriate community (4 million strong). My Iraqi neighbors in Dearborn staged a celebratory march of 100,000 persons when Saddam fell. There is a real sense in which Iraqis convinced the US to wage this war and rebuild their country, at significant expense to the US. So I don’t think 19th century binary oppositions of a racial sort are really very helpful to analyzing the situation, and they hold a real potential of depriving Iraqis of their own agency. And, if you listen to Iraqis like Muhammad Bahr al-`Ulum, they don’t think that the UN or the 96% were terribly helpful in stopping Saddam’s genocide.
The evidence I have been able to gather suggests to me that the Iraqi health system is back to functioning at a basic level, and that the hospitals have been resupplied with medicines and equipment on the whole. No one I know is suggesting that there is a medical health emergency in Iraq. The sanctions regime had been manipulated by the Baath so as to cause enormous harm to the health of Iraqi children, and this harm is now ceasing. Iraq is now pumping over a million barrels of oil a day, and there is reason to hope that it will be back up to pre-war levels in the near future, providing income that can be used to ensure public health, schooling, and so forth.
Helena asks three questions:
*1. He seems to be arguing that a state of affairs in which Iraqis can replicate India’s success” would, for him, constitute a US “success” in Iraq. Does he have any reason to believe that that goal is the one that this US administration is actually pursuing there? In particular, does he have any reason to believe that the political empowerment of the Iraqis themselves is what the Bushites are aiming at?
I see camps in the Bush administration. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz seemed to want to just turn Iraq over to corrupt financier Ahmad Chalabi, making him the Karzai of Iraq, without very much evident concern for whether Chalabi would ever conduct free and fair elections. The State Department and the CIA, in contrast, don’t like Chalabi at all, and have tried to sideline him. Bremer, who is closer to State, diluted Chalabi’s power. The Governing Council Bremer appointed would not even let Chalabi address the UN, giving that privilege to Pachachi and Bahr al-`Ulum instead. Bremer at first was going to try to be proconsul of Iraq for two years, but the outbreak of guerrilla war in the Baathist/ Islamist triangle forced him to give up some power in favor of an Iraqi transitional governing council.
The upshot is that the Bushies are divided as to what they want in Iraq, and that they probably can’t have what they want, anyway. The best exit strategy for Bush is now just to hold elections in 2004 before the US elections, and turn power over to an elected Iraqi government. So, yes, I think it now looks as though Bremer, Powell and Bush all favor Iraq having a parliamentary democracy in the short term. I have no illusions as to why they have ultimately tilted in this direction, but I think they have. And if they don’t, every evidence is that the main Iraqi political forces will demand it in ways that the Americans will find difficult to resist.
* 2. How does he assess the considerable weight of counter-evidence that there is out there, regarding this administration’s policies in Iraq, elsewhere in the Middle East (where “empowerment” of local pro-democracy forces seems nowhere to be on the effective agenda), or at home here in the US (ditto)?
Things are changing, and Iraq policy represents a break with the past efforts to shore up regimes like that of Mubarak in Egypt or the royal family in Saudia. The Washington elite has decided that those regimes are breeding Islamist terrorism that targets the US, and that they have to be reformed in the direction of parliamentary democracy. Thus, it seems to me clear that Musharraf held the Pakistani elections of October, 2002, in large part under pressure from the US, and the recent election in Bahrain was also supported by the US.
Of course, parliamentary governance can be more or less democratic. Domestically, the Bushies favor a form of it that melds it with plutocracy. (This is only possible, however, because the non-rich don’t bother to vote in sufficient numbers and so allow themselves to be screwed over). I am not sure an Iraqi haute bourgeoisie unconnected to the Baath even exists, and so it will be difficult for them to play the plutocrat card in Iraq. Bremer had it explained to him that Iraq is a welfare state, and if you just charge in and abolish all that, it will make for trouble. Bremer is said to have been convinced. As I said, I don’t think the outcome is entirely his to decide, anyway (it is not clear that Gen. MacArthur was trying to produce a corporatist state in Japan, either).
All I would say is that parliamentary governance is a good start, and it is a system that has the potential to become more democratic if the people become exercised enough about it, whereas the Baath Party was just going to go on producing its mass graves and destroying the Marsh Arabs, etc. If the no-fly zone had been dropped by the US, the Kurds would have been massacred in an instant.
3. Equally or even more importantly: How about the precedent set for Iraqis, for that 96 percent of the world’s people who are not US citizens–and for the four percent of us who are US citizens– if the US administration is seen as “successful” in imposing its will on the actions of a large and distant sovereign nation purely through the force of arms and the waging of a war that was quite unjustified by any criteria of “just war” or international law?
If the US acted illegally in international law, then the international community should punish it. (In fact, the refusal of India, Egypt, France and Germany to send troops despite US pleading is already a form of punishment). But the Iraqi people do not deserve to be punished, and the rebuilding of the country so that it ends up being a parliamentary democracy with a free press and an independent judiciary would be a good thing for Iraqis, the world, and even for the US.
My main concern is that a success in Iraq not encourage further adventurism. I think, however, that the furor over the missing WMD, the outbreak of the guerrilla war, and the unexpectedly high costs of the Iraqi occupation have made it rather unlikely that Congress will give out any carte blanches for going on to Damascus and Tehran. I don’t think it is very likely that the neocons are actually going to get what they wanted in Iraq. Pachachi has already said that Baghdad won’t recognize Israel until the Arab League does. The forthcoming Iraqi parliament is going to have lots of Sunni and Shiite Islamists in it. The Lebanese Hizbullah is likely to pick up parliamentary allies. This looming failure of the project may disillusion the architects of it, themselves.
I suppose I just think the world is complex, and even wrong-headed actions can sometimes have beneficial outcomes. I don’t deny that it is entirely possible that the Iraq adventure will go very badly wrong, and then you get Lebanon 1975-1989 or Iran 1978-79. I just personally hope that doesn’t happen.