The real power in the Middle East

Conflicts Forum, May 17:

American troops entering Baghdad on April 9, 2003 noted the strange quiet that enveloped large parts of the city. While Baathist gunmen continued to launch spoiling raids north of the the city, large segments of the population remained calm. This was particularly true in the largest Shia neighborhoods to the east, where Baghdad’s population seemed almost eerily nonchalant about the American victory. Two days later, and at the express orders of their enterprising commanding officer, two Arabic-speaking American lieutenants were escorted by a small fireteam of U.S. soldiers into the heart of the newly renamed Sadr City. Their assignment was to listen to Friday prayers — and give an assessment of the mood of the city’s Shia population.

What they heard should have warned American leaders that they faced an organized movement that was dedicated to redressing the wrongs of the Saddam era. A disciplined militia, clothed in black, had been deployed along the major thoroughfares of Sadr City to keep order, the lieutenants reported. The lightly armed militia was under the control of a fiery, young and charismatic leader name Moqtada al-Sadr. The lieutenants reported that al-Sadr was responsible for shaping the message of the the open-air sermons they heard that day: that all Iraqis must live by Islamic law, that all Iraqis must oppose foreign domination, that Iraqi clerics living in Iranian exile were not qualified to lead the people, that clerics not born in Iraq were not fit to speak on Iraq’s future, and that “Allah and not the United States has freed us.”

From that moment, the United States should have been put on notice that they faced a strong, home-grown Iraqi Shia opposition that was dedicated to speaking for Iraqis and forming the new Iraqi government. With just a little research, American commanders might have concluded that this new movement — “the Sadrist current” as it is now called — had rejected the leadership of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani (born in Iran) and Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (then living in Tehran), and had organized a formidable network of mosques, schools and community centers, the centerpieces of a rooted and credible political party. But instead of focusing on Sadr, the Americans paid homage to Ayatollah Sistani, in the whimsical hope that the quietist cleric would be able to speak authoritatively for the Shia community. This was a fatal mistake.

Speaking of power shifts, it seems, according to Tony Karon, that the current troubles in Gaza are the result of “Mohammed Dahlan, the Gaza warlord who has long been Washington’s anointed favourite to play the role of a Palestinian Pinochet.”