Peaceful Pilgrimage Day a big win for Obama

President Barack Obama’s withdrawal strategy for Iraq got a big bump this weekend, when the Iraqi military and police presided over massive gatherings of pilgrims from the provinces in the capital, and pulled it off with no bombings. Obama could not plausibly withdraw from Iraq unless Iraqi security forces could keep a minimum of social peace. But if they can do so, the withdrawal could go smoothly. This weekend’s evidence is positive.

What with a hard line Likud government in Israel, a divided Palestinian leadership, an Iran in turmoil, and severe questions about stability in Afghanistan, Obama needs at least one corner of his Middle East policy to go smoothly. Iraq may just afford him that success. I don’t think there is any question that he could campaign on it in the 2010 midterms and the 2012 presidential election. Of course, there is many a slip between cup and lip, and the Kirkuk issue could roil the Iraqi north. But Obama does seem to have a credible security partner in the al-Maliki government and the new Iraqi military. Sunday’s threat by the Kurdish provincial council members in Ninevah to secede is an example of the kind of trouble looming in the north if there is not a Kurdish-Arab Accord.

But let’s talk about the center and the south.

Imam Musa Kazim, the medieval Shiite holy figure (7th Imam) and direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, loomed over the events of this weekend in the Shiite-majority countries of Iraq and Iran. It is the commemoration of his death in 799 CE. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani devoted a good deal of his controversial Friday prayers sermon in Tehran to this Imam.

Imam Musa Kazim’s tomb is in north Baghdad on the west side of the Tigris, around which the Shiite district of Kazimiya has grown up. Pilgrims from all over south Iraq flocked to the shrine beginning on Saturday, raising alarms that the radical Sunnis might strike at them, as they have so many times before.

Aware of the threat, the Iraqi authorities told al-Hayat(Arabic) that they deployed 250,000 security personnel(army, police, etc.) and their own helicopter gunships to ensure calm. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are said to have flooded into north Baghdad on Saturday, the overwhelming majority of them Iraqis, mostly coming from 11 provinces with significant Shiite populations.

Clearly, this was a big, significant security task, and it was successfully carried out to the point that there was no violence against the pilgrims. ( Violence in the Western Sunni city of Falluja and the northern Sunni city of Mosul left 5 dead on Saturday).

(All weekend on CNN, by the way, one of the scroll headlines at the bottom of the screen where they give the real news kept saying there were bombings of pilgrims, which was not true. Does the scroll not have an editor? What was up with that?)

Gen. Abd al-Karim Khalaf, speaking for the Interior Ministry, called the performance of the Iraqi security forces “superb,” and said that they had demonstrated their competency in their first big test.

That is good news for Iraq. It is also good news for Obama.

A more worrisome development is the killing of 3 US troops in Basra by Shiite militants. The incident points ahead to how the US military becomes more vulnerable as its numbers dwindle.

As for Musa al-Kazim, he is a symbol of how you can change your mind and alter destiny. We historians believe that his father, Jaafar al-Sadiq, had originally appointed his elder son Ismail to succeed him. For reasons that are unclear, Ismail displeased his father. Jaafar al-Sadiq therefore set Ismail aside and appointed the younger son, Musa al-Kazim, as his successor to head the House of the Prophet in the next generation. (The Ismaili branch of Shiism does not accept this story, and they insist on following Ismail and his descendants. Some of them say that Ismail predeceased his father, but that he had a son, whom the Ismailis accepted. Many Twelvers [those who believe there were twelve Imams or vicars of the Prophet Muhammad–the majority in Iraq and Iran] insist that only Musa was ever formally appointed, also rejecting the story).

Just as Jaafar al-Sadiq changed his mind about Ismail, Iran could change its mind about the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And Iraq could change its mind about the ongoing drumbeat of social violence. We historians take away from the controversy that you’re not locked in by past decisions, even if they seem on the surface to be divine, unalterable ones.

So the spirit of Imam Musa al-Kazim was abroad this weekend, the spirit of new directions when things are not working out.

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