Mediation with Muqtada and the Limits of Tolerance
The Scotsman reports that the standoff between the American forces and those of Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf continues. Muqtada appears to be seeking a compromise.
I thought the following anecdote typical of the dry humor of the ayatollahs, even in parlous times. It concerns Muqtada’s negotiations with the sons of two of the grand ayatollahs in Najaf (Muhammad Ridha Sistani & Ali Bashir Najafi, joined by Shaikhs Ali al-Sabzavari, Mahdi al-Qusayfi, and Baqir al-Ayrwani):
‘ Sources close to the delegation said Sadr has proposed that he will disband his Mehdi Army if told to do so by the religious authorities. “The delegation answered that as he did not ask the Najaf elders before forming his militia, why is he asking for an edict to disband it now? But the negotiations are ongoing,” an aide to leading cleric Mohammad Bahr al-Uloum said. ‘
az-Zaman says today that the delegation whill choose a representative who does not serve on the Interim Governing Council to conduct negotiations aimed at bringing the crisis to an end; the appointee would have to be acceptable to the IGC and to the Coalition Provisional Authority. An unnamed official of the al-Da`wa Party said that the US had accepted the principle of mediation with Muqtada. He said that any agreement reached would necessitate that Muqtada recognize the rule of law and cease using his militia to inspire fear and coerce consciences. He proposed that Muqtada demonstrate his sincerity by calling for these things in his next Friday sermon. Then the members of the militia would be asked to vacate their positions and surrender their weapons. Another element of the settlement would be for an Iraqi court to undertake an inquiry into the charges against Muqtada, of instigating murder. The al-Da`wa official said that the results of the inquiry will inevitably be postponed until after the transfer of sovereignty on June 30, since such investigations take that sort of time. (The point seems to be that Muqtada might object less to being investigated and tried if it were done when Iraq is not formally under foreign occupation).
Al-Qabas, the Kuwaiti daily, says that mediators report getting mixed signals from the Americans. They say that military figures appear to want to “kill or capture” Muqtada, whereas civilians like Paul Bremer say they want to “restore calm.” Is a power struggle going on over Muqtada between the generals and the viceroys?
Jonathan Steele of the Guardian has a thoughtful report on the negotiations. He says the Coalition Provisional Authority is trying to justify having cracked down on Muqtada on the grounds that he was planning an uprising even before the closure of his newspaper. I do not agree. Muqtada was the leader of a sectarian movement, and it was certainly proselytizing, coercing, and organizing. But all the indications are that he was being careful not to confront the CPA with violence, until he became convinced that they were coming after him. He may have planned violence or at least political coercion for next year, but we do not know that. We only know that he was organizing, including organizing a militia. In that he was no different from pro-American figures like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim (who heads the Badr Corps militia), Ibrahim Jaafari, whose Dawa Party has a militia, or even Ahmad Chalabi, whose militia was flown into Iraq by Rumsfeld on Pentagon aircraft and given perquisites by the US.
Az-Zaman also reports that Dawa Party leader Ibrahim Jaafari, who is in Tehran for talks with President Khatami and Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei, has sought and received Iranian support for the arrest of Muqtada. In return, Washington would stop accusing Iran of supporting him (an accusation intended by the Neocons to lay the groundwork for a US war on Iran), and would allow the Iranian ambassador to return to Baghdad. (This report seems to me shaky. I don’t think the quid pro quo is commensurate, and don’t see why Khamenei would cooperate in such a thing.) What does ring true is the report that the Iranians are absolutely refusing to take Muqtada as a political exile. Sending him into exile in Iran would be one way of resolving the current crisis, but apparently the Iranians, already surrounded by the US and suspicious that it plans a conquest of Tehran, view Muqtada as a sort of Trojan Horse that the US might later use as a pretext to harass them. High US military officials keep saying Iran backs Muqtada, but it is not clear that they back him more than they do other figures; even Ahmad Chalabi is rumored to get money from Tehran.
Jack Fairweather of the Telegraph notes the strong class divisions over Muqtada in Iraqi society, with the poor often supporting him but the educated middle class despising him.
Anyone who wants to understand the discontents of the poor Shiites who support Muqtada should read Tod Robertson’s report on Shiite attitudes toward the American occupation and the ways in which they have soured.
The problems should be obvious. The unemployment rate is still very high among Shiites in the south. The Great Depression in the US was defined by an unemployment rate of about 25%. That among Iraqis is much higher, perhaps still twice that in a lot of places. Those who complain about the proliferation of militias should remember that militiamen get stipends, and joining one is often a way to make some desperately needed money. Higher employment would make such dangerous work less appealing. Despite the bright promises of American rule, sewage still flows in the streets in the Shiite slums, and there often is not clean drinking water. Most important of all, the Americans promised democracy, but have consistently shut down attempts to have free and fair elections, even (for the most part) at the municipal level. (John Bourne’s experiment with open municipal elections in the small towns around Nasiriyah is a praiseworthy exception, but it is an exception). There is a growing fear that the Americans intend to turn the country over to their corrupt cronies, such as fraudster Ahmad Chalabi, and there will be a new, neo-colonial “soft” dictatorship like that in Egypt (also a regime propped up by the Americans).