Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Juan Cole analysis of the uprising

Buried in Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog is an updated analysis that he initially posted on Sunday in which he describes the current moment as "Phase 2 of the Anti-Occupation Uprising." It's worth quoting at length here, as it's the most substantive analysis I've yet seen:

The always tense relationship between the Sadrist movement among Iraqi Shiites and the US and its Coalition partners has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Perhaps a third of Iraqi Shiites are sympathetic to the radical, Khomeini-like ideology of Sadrism, and some analysts with long experience in Iraq put it at 50%. Earlier Muqtada Al-Sadr, the movement leader, had called on his forces to avoid violence against Coalition forces. As of Saturday and Sunday, he appeared to have feared that the Coalition meant permanently to exclude his group from power, and had decided to launch an uprising. This uprising involved taking over police stations in Kufa, Najaf, Baghdad and possibly elsehwere

…So far, about 60% of clashes with Coalition troops had occurred in the Sunni heartland of Iraq. But the violent clashes in Najaf, Baghdad, Amara and Nasiriyah may signal the beginning of a second phase, in which the US faces a two-front war, against both Sunni radicals in the center-north and Shiite militias in the South. The clashes come at a pivotal moment, since on Friday April 9, the Shiite festival of Araba'in will take place, coinciding this year with the anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The protests on Saturday and Sunday were sparked by the Coalition arrest on Saturday of Sadrist cleric Mustafa Yaqubi, the head of the Najaf office of Muqtada al-Sadr. Initially the Spanish denied the arrest, which provoked large demonstrations in Baghdad on Saturday led by Muhammad al-Tabatabai, a key aide of Muqtada al-Sadr there. But AP now says that the Coalition Provisional Authority admits that it has indeed arrested Yaqubi. Sadrist spokesmen in Baghdad complained that no reason was given for the arrest, and promised to reply "with every means necessary," according to ash-Sharq al-Awsat.

…The problem began in some ways on Sunday March 28, when Paul Bremer decided to close the main Sadrist newspaper, al-Hawza, purportedly for publishing material that incited violence against Coalition troops. Many observers in Iraq said that move was a mistake, since no specific violence could be traced to the newspaper, and closing it was itself a provocation. As it turns out, it seems clear that the newspaper closing played into Muqtada al-Sadr's apocalyptic mindset. He became convinced that it meant the US planned to silence him and destroy his movement, leaving him no choice but to launch an uprising. The Coalition, which just closed a newspaper for 2 months, probably thought of it as a relatively mild response to Sadr's own provocations. But Muqtada saw his father and brothers cut down by Saddam and he is clearly a paranoid personality deeply traumatized by Baath terror against Shiites, and he views the Americans as little different from the Baathists. Saddam also sent warnings to Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, in January of 1999, which were a prelude to Sadiq's assassination in February of that year. Then the pursuit of the al-Khoei murder, which many in the CPA lay at Muqtada's doorstep, even raise the specter that he will be arrested and executed for it. In Muqtada's own mind, the Coalition 'warnings' were perceived as a prelude to removing him. The US army appears to have seriously threatened him with arrest or worse last October, so he has seen this phenomenon before. At that time he backed down.

Why did the CPA take this risk? The US is aware that since it is turning over sovereignty to an Iraqi government on June 30, indigenous Iraqi political forces have begun jockeying for position in the post-occupation phase. Closing Muqtada's newspaper and arresting a key aide in Najaf are probably actions aimed in part at attempting to curb the influence of the Sadrists, who otherwise might well sweep to power in an elected Iraqi parliament next January.

The outbreak of Shiite/Coalition violence is a dramatic challenge to US military control of Iraq. The US is cycling out its forces in the country, bringing in a lot of reserve and national guards units, but will go from 130,000 to only 110,000 troops. It is too small a number to really provide security in Iraq, but the country has not fallen into chaos in part because the main attacks have come in the Sunni heartland and because the Coalition has depended on Shiite militias to police many southern cities. If the Shiites actively turn against the US, the whole military and security situation could become untenable. The US is already losing its Spanish coalition partner. The Japanese and Korean contingents are explicitly not there to fight. The Thais may decamp. The coalition partners probably provide a division altogether, and if they pulled out, the US would have to find a division to replace them. It only has 10 itself, and nobody else is going to come in under these circumstances--certainly not the UN and probably not NATO.

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