The ‘Intifada’ That Wasn’t
I won that wager. I had written that “the Iraqi Army’s military operation in Basra will be a spectacular win against disorder and Iranian influence”. And I was right.
Of course, most western media outlets are declaring Muqtada al-Sadr and Iran as the victors of Operation Cavalry Charge. Nothing could be furthest from the truth.
The United Alliance List delegation comprising Ali al-Adib of the Da’awa Party, Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Organization and (I think…) Qasim al-Sahlani representing a group that had splintered from the Da’awa Party, evidently made al-Sadr an offer he couldn’t refuse when they sat down for a friendly chat in Tehran two days ago: the Iraqi state was willing to go all the way in smashing the Sadrist movement—arresting all the leaders and shutting down all the offices—if he didn’t play along with Operation Cavalry Charge and hand over those operatives whose names appear on the wanted lists.
See Maliki went to Basra with a long-ish list of names comprising all those involved in oil smuggling, drug dealing and the various other crimes that have wracked Basra. It just so happens that many of them claim to be Mahdi Army commanders.
This is what I wrote a couple of days ago:
The Mahdi Army in Basra is only an army in the sense that ‘soldiers’ and ‘cappos’ are rankings in the Cosa Nostra. These organized crime cartels serve many purposes, chief among which is getting rich quick. There’s ample opportunity for mischief in Basra and plenty to pilfer and smuggle: oil, arms, drugs, and whatever happens to fall off a truck leaving the port, after the truck itself had been “re-routed”. So there’s plenty of money and very little law enforcement—kind of like that Scorsese movie, Gangs of New York. Maliki made the calculation that he can take on these cartels and withstand the wrath of the other affiliated Mafiosi ‘familias’ that got unleashed in other parts of Iraq. The criminal syndicate knows that once Operation Cavalry Charge squashes their sweet set-up in Basra, then other pockets of criminality are going to be next, so that’s why they are going to the mattresses.
Well, so far several dozen of these Most Wanted folks have been killed, while tens of others are wounded or in hiding. At least 50 of them are under arrest. The outbreak of violence in places other than Basra was an occasion for the Iraqi Army and police to act on arrest warrants that have been outstanding since 2004, for example, several such dangerous outlaws were taken into custody in Karbala and Hillah.
The only complaints that I heard today came from people who were disappointed that Maliki did not go for the kill: he did not snuff out the Sadrist movement from Iraqi politics. These were people who felt that the time was right to go all way to the point of stripping Sadrist parliamentarians of their immunity and throwing them behind bars for being members of an outlawed party. What is incredibly interesting about this extremist sentiment is that such voices actually now think that Maliki and the Iraqi state have the wherewithal to do such as thing as outlaw the Sadrist movement and smash it. We’re not talking about some weird millenarian movement (…okay, we kinda are), this is the SADRIST MOVEMENT, admittedly much diminished but still, these are the bloody Sadrists, who even Saddam tiptoed around during his time!
Maliki was a political nobody before he ‘accidentally’ became Prime Minister almost two years ago, but today he is perceived as a statesman commanding a strong and motivated army that can impose law and order on once-powerful forces that have run amuck. If that’s not a benchmark of success, then what is?
The western media operating in Iraq regurgitated the Mahdi Army’s bravado as fact thereby serving as useful propaganda tools for the criminal cartels. I’d single out the New York Times, the Associated Press, McClatchy and CNN as the worst transgressors. Many journalists were positively orgasmic in anticipation of another ‘intifada’ or uprising to crease Bush’s message of hope and regeneration. But as the dust began to clear and the real scope of the battle was revealed, these journalists were reduced to alarmism of the “What if Martians decide to invade Basra too?” variety. Understandably, some of these journalists wanted the Iraq scene to heat up so that the public back in America would pay attention to Iraq and consequently to the careers of those reporting on Iraq for their once-glamorous war zone beat that was sure to land one a book deal a couple of years back had gone dull and dreary.
What then did these journalists do when they didn’t get their ‘intifada’? They couldn’t further imperil their careers by admitting that they were wrong—hell no!—so they’ve decided to brand Maliki and the Iraqi Army as the losers.
Really, there’s nothing one can do about this level of shamelessness. These journalists will make the rent this month, but all this spin will inevitably do much damage to their souls.
The weirdest talking point out of this whole episode was that Iran somehow ended up the victor. Tell that to Ahmadinejad who offered a long list of economic projects that the Iranians were interested in doing when he visited Iraq last month, but was politely rejected by Maliki’s team. The UIA delegation that visited al-Sadr went public in denouncing any media talk of Iranian intervention in calming down the situation and described such talk as “enemy propaganda”. I hope the Iraqi parliament would hold an emergency session to immediately revoke the visas of all these foreign journalists who are engaged in “enemy propaganda”, a justifiable measure especially since Iraq is in a state of war, if the foreign media is to be believed! While they’re at it, they should also pass a law that says that cocaine possession by foreign journalists is a crime punishable with unanesthetized nose-realignment plastic surgery.
Operation Cavalry Charge was a reality warp for all those who’ve internalized the rhetoric that Iraq is a failed state. Instead of being dismissed as a ‘Green Zone politician’, Maliki took his war cabinet to Basra and went all Untouchables on the Al Capones of Iraq’s oil-rich south; plenty of journalists and ‘experts’ simply could not grasp these dramatic changes to the political topography of Iraq.
Maliki won, pure and simple. The western media invented the narrative that Maliki was at war with the Sadrist movement, even though no such declaration was ever made. No one was interested in turning the Sadrists into martyrs when their stocks are sinking faster than Bear Stearns' anyway. Why turn the Sadrists into desperadoes with nothing to loose? Maliki’s approach is piece-meal: he’s taken out the intimidation factor that kept much of the Sadrist sway in place and he’s done that by showing them that they are no armed match for a better-disciplined, better-supplied Iraqi Army with plenty of stamina. The Sadrists are left with some political gains that they’ve accrued from joining the political process, such as government posts and lucrative contracts that they’d be loathe to part with and that’s their collateral for good behavior from now on.
Remember these nuggets of wisdom from last week? Has it been that long since I first made the wager??
Muqtada al-Sadr knows fully well that should a third all-out confrontation erupt between forces associated with him on the one hand and U.S. and Iraqi government troops on the other, then it can only end with his death, arrest or the much more unlikely [ooops, now I caught it, this was supposed to read 'likely'] prospect of escape to Iran from which he won’t return to Iraq for a very, very long time—Muqtada really doesn’t like being in Tehran from what I’ve heard...Now the Sadrist will have to sway voters their way with words and entreaties, rather than threats and drills. Most of the crime cartels are also on notice that the days of the ‘Wild, Wild South’ are over and there’s a new sheriff in town.
...This is the weakest that the Sadrist movement has ever been: they are divided, their leader is absent, some answer to Iran, and affluence has made them slothful and soft. Sadrist leaders today are bejeweled with agate rings, Rolexes and precious worry beads, and sport Turkish-tailored suits. They ride around in the latest-model armored SUVs and have taken their second (…and third, and fourth, and…) wives—in some cases the ultimate Iraqi Shia male status symbol, a Lebanese Shia trophy wife. They have access, through the ministries and governmental departments that they landed in the coalition cabinet, to lucrative contracts with unlimited avenues for corruption of all kinds. These were the same angry, dejected men that one would meet in 2003 wearing polyester dishdashas with sweat-stained towels around their necks. Nowadays, they have plenty more to loose should the all-powerful, all-munificent state turn against them.
The 30 member Sadrist bloc in parliament that rode into power as part of the Shia ‘Alliance’ list is loud, boisterous and periodically stages walk-outs. But they never resign, because to do so would mean that they’d forgo their USD 12,000 a month salaries plus all the other perks such as immunity from arrest that come with being an MP.
Some problems will persist, but their severity had been significantly staunched. Maliki has promised to keep arresting the names on his list, and he has demonstrated that he’s a man who means what he says. The NYTimes does not have much of circulation in Iraq and almost nobody watches CNN, so maybe that’s why the regular folks I’ve been speaking to are so admiring of Maliki. The political elite in Baghdad is freaked out by Maliki’s newfound stature and they must all go back to the drawing boards to recalculate this new dynamic in the political equation.
It is unfortunate that what little news the American public gets to see and read about Iraq gets so distorted by the neurotic contortions of a handful of maladjusted, misinformed journalists. This active disinformation will further confuse those uppity congressmen who’ve made running Iraq from afar their business, and may even sway elections one way or another. But the regular readers of this blog will know that such mistaken perceptions and the actions they may entail no longer worry me, since I see very little that America could do to alter realities in Iraq proper, realities that I find encouraging. Sure, Americans could make things even better had they had the chance to see why Iraq is so worthwhile, but for that to happen integrity would have to be reintroduced into the profession of journalism—don’t hold your breaths. For now, I’d settle for how things are developing on their own accord.
And eventually, Maliki may nab Muqtada over some infraction as banal as tax-evasion. Maliki is not supposed to be a performing monkey for the western media. His job entails doing the very kind of things he’d gone and got accomplished in Basra. Today, Basra is calm and Iraq’s national army is in charge, not the Mahdi’s. Well done, Mr. Maliki.
Mini-Update: I just woke somebody up in Baghdad who usually ends up knowing this sort of thing and he completely dismissed the press report that Iran's 'Sardar Hajji' Qasim Suleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guard's Qarargah Quds (Force), was somehow involved in brokering a 'ceasefire' between Maliki and al-Sadr as a "naive fabrication". The original press report quoted anonymous parliamentary sources.