Iraq's Moment of Truth in Baghdad and Basra
The battle between criminal gangs and the state continues, yet the war is far from being over. Public statements keep coming from both sides and they don't seem to promise a diplomatic resolution for the crisis. The latest exchange included a pledge for a "final battle" by Sadr's spokesman Bahaa Aaraji and an assertion by Maliki that the government will not stop pursuing gangs militarily and politically. Telling Sadr that his movement cannot take part in elections unless he disbands his militias and surrenders weapons is a turning point in Iraqi politics, especially because a broad political front including leading Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish powers emerged to back this new trend in dealing with this issue.
I think what encouraged Maliki to push the limits of the conflict to this unprecedented level was the first-of-a-kind success of the Political Council for National Security -- an entity that includes the president, PM, and leaders of major parliamentary blocs -- to reach consensus on a decision. This entity managed for the first time a week ago to overcome the impotence that had halted its mission since its inception. Evidence of the newfound potency of this entity is that Ayad Allawi, who had refused being part of it for a long time, is now sending delegates to negotiate terms for his membership.
The ongoing confrontation highlights a dramatic change in the inclination of the Iraqi leadership, which decided to face the challenge with unwavering resolve instead of shrinking away. We have learned from the experience of the last five years that unresolved fights tend to be very costly in the long run, as we will have to deal with recurrent fights over and over again. It can be understood from Maliki's words that he came to realize that the decision to disband or exterminate illegal military entities should have been made a long time ago.
At this point neither side is happy with the results and I think that both have made up their minds to go to war because each one thinks his side is closer to winning and has greater backing from the public than his rival. However, I believe that Sadr is making the mistake of thinking that what worked for previous battles would be equally effective in future ones. I strongly think that if a final battle is to take place, it will unfold with a bitter defeat for Sadr militarily and politically; the balance of power by far favors the state in spite of the difficulty of the situation.
The Iraqi leadership represented by Maliki is standing before a historic opportunity to strengthen the foundations of the rule of law. This opportunity has been made available by the decision of the Shia to renounce and expel the extremists amongst them, a decision that was long avoided because of sectarian considerations that were proven wrong later.
Everyone has come to realize that allegiance to the country provides more security in the long run than sectarian entrenchment does, and in my opinion the awakening of the Iraqi west and the uprising against the perverted violent practices of co-religionists have provided an example for a similar awakening among the Shia -- of course, with the main difference we outlined in an earlier post; that is, while in the west we had a tribal uprising against extremist religious powers, in the south the uprising is religious-on-religious, with the target highly identified with one particular group.
I believe that another promising sign further emphasizes, to the government and people alike, that putting sect and tribe above country is a bad idea. Today 1,300 police and soldiers who disobeyed orders or, worse, sided with the enemy in Basra will get to taste the consequences of that, the same way that the commanders who were in charge of recruiting them did.
This housecleaning is not limited to security forces; Maliki also issued an order to fire Habib Sadr, the director general of the Iraqi Media Network, obviously over the disgraceful coverage of the battle. I didn't follow the coverage of Iraqiya TV, but there was a lot of misplaced sympathy for Sadr on the government-owned al-Sabah, and the reader could indeed feel that the network was apologizing for, if not defending, the militias.
Back to the awakening theme. In both cases, extremists did not look after their brethren and tried to impose their radical views and practices upon everyone else around them. That's why although the sect was perceived as a source of security in the first place, people got to realize with time that those extremists who held the banner of the sect had a different agenda from the provision of security for their people.
No Iraqi leader since 2003 has had the same broad support for a policy that Maliki has right now. For the first time a leader has the support of a majority of Shia, along with the approval of the Sunni and Kurds in addition to the sympathy of the public, which has grown tired of the recklessness and violence of Sadr's movement. For the first time the leader appears more like a leader of Iraq than a leader of a particular sect, party, or ethnic group. Moreover, he has won the support of the coalition to further build an unprecedented consensus among all concerned parties.
I see that Maliki and the government are standing before a chance that will not come again to move the country forward. I'm optimistic about Maliki's promises and determination more than ever and I totally agree with him that the solution is in disbanding the Mahdi Army (or al-hal hoa al-hal; literally, "the solution is in the [dis]solution," in a play on words of which Iraqis understand the implicit meaning). Again, the main element in a resolution for the battle should not be exclusively military through disarming the Mahdi Army, nor exclusively political by excluding the movement from the political process. It has to be also judiciary.
The rule of law must be established and emphasized through prosecuting the heads of the movement who are involved in major atrocities. Evidence is abundant and damning; the movement repeatedly took up arms against the state and caused the deaths of many thousands of civilians and security personnel. In fact the movement itself keeps offering free confessions every time they boast of their militiamen's performance in battle. If we actually succeed in putting the leaders of the militia on trial, then I believe that all others who illegally carry arms will be facing a serious challenge. As the Arabic proverb says, "Hit the big and the little will be frightened." Right now the Mahdi Army is the biggest among insurgents, so defeating it will make others think more than twice before they take up arms against the legitimate institutions of the state.
I hope the Iraqi leadership benefits from this moment of unity, not only to quell violence but also to promote political reconciliation. I agree with observers in Baghdad who say that we're witnessing a political spring. The most important event so far has been Maliki's meeting with VP Hashimi to discuss the revival of the national unity government. Actually, a political breakthrough is now more likely to take place than ever, especially since all rivals have acknowledged Maliki's role as a leader of a central government that has the exclusive right, and the obligation, to restore the prestige of the state and establish the rule of law.
Again, it's a great opportunity for making substantial progress in the process of building the state and we must not waste it.
Mohammed Fadhil is PJM Baghdad editor. His own blog is Iraq the Model.