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A Strategy for Dealing with the Sadrists?

Mark Etherington, Revolt on the Tigris: The Al-Sadr Uprising and the Governing of Iraq (London: Hurst, 2005, 252 pages including index).

Reviewed by Reidar Visser (http://historiae.org)

21 December 2006

[This book review was first published in the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, vol. 1 no. 1, December 2006, and is reproduced here with some additional remarks on a recently proposed shift of US policy towards a security “surge” and greater isolation of the Sadrists.]

Mark Etherington’s Revolt on the Tigris: The Al-Sadr Uprising and the Governing of Iraq recounts the author’s experiences as chief civilian coalition official in the province of Wasit in Iraq from October 2003 to June 2004. Three features make this book especially interesting: its level-headed consideration of the complexities of post-war reconstruction as a multi-national effort; its unique geographical focus on a peripheral province of Iraq that does not receive much media coverage; and its insightful discussion of the early rise of the Sadrist phenomenon in Iraqi politics.

Mark Etherington is especially well positioned to discuss the intricacies of joint Anglo-American and wider multi-national reconstruction projects in Iraq. Of British origin but brought up in the Gulf in an expatriate environment with many American influences, Etherington straddles the trans-Atlantic cultural divide and is able to take a detached view of Anglo-American relations. Also his particular assignment in Iraq gave him insights into several camps at once. As a British official, Etherington was appointed as supreme Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) official in Wasit province (to the south-east of Baghdad), an area that was militarily under Polish command, and with a degree of civilian oversight and coordination from a regional CPA headquarters under US control in Hilla.

The author makes no bones about the shortcomings of the colourful carnival that was the “Coalition of the Willing” in Iraq in 2003–2004. Troops had been mustered from small and inexperienced countries to create the image of a strong international coalition behind the war effort, under what some Americans bluntly referred to as a “rent-an-army” scheme. A Republican ideological preference for using subcontractors wherever possible led to a maze of private companies, even in fields normally reserved for the state such as nation-building and democratisation. The result was a Byzantine patchwork of organisations, each with their own values and idiosyncrasies, and each with their own motives for being present in Iraq.

A number of difficulties arose from this particular constellation of participants. Private US subcontractors were not “turned on” to do certain security tasks that would normally have been provided in a traditional military mission (at one point they were unable to fortify Etherington’s headquarters because the process of fortifying them was deemed to be too dangerous). Nation-building experts that had been hired in were knowledgeable about water management, agricultural issues and women’s rights, but included no personnel capable of attending to what Etherington describes as more immediate concerns in the fields of justice and general administration. Ukrainian military forces in the region were robust but hopelessly “wedded to their tanks” and essentially incapable of performing any meaningful security functions at the micro level in Kut, the provincial capital of Wasit. US marines had been in control over Kut for several months immediately following the occupation, but had left no intelligence records and thereby forced Etherington’s team to start from scratch.

Etherington succeeds in describing all these complexities in a frank and convincing manner. He is merciless in detailing errors, and that includes those committed by himself personally. He also manages to bring attention to a very basic point that is lost in many other accounts of this period: the watershed that was felt by CPA staff as a result of the 15 November 2003 agreement on handover to Iraqi civilian authorities by June 2004. Etherington and others with him had foreseen a much slower and gradualist process towards the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty, but due to the sharp handover deadline in the new agreement, any aspirations about a thorough and systematic process were effectively crushed.

The original geographical focus is another strength of the book. Wasit is a mainly Shiite province on the Tigris south-east of Baghdad, with little claim to fame: it has neither holy sites nor copious amounts of oil. Etherington describes in considerable detail how he worked to set up the rudiments of political and administrative structures in this region and provides rich information about the politics of a largely unknown Iraqi periphery during a crucial period of a transition. Particularly interesting is the portrayal of Wasit society as divided between a minority of politically active “political” opportunists (some party apparatchiks, some tribal leaders) and a large mass of silent “middle classes” who at first were passive in politics. Anecdotal information from other parts of Iraq suggests that such patterns were widespread beyond Kut, but in other books this important point often drowns in accounts that focus exclusively on the “formal” political stage. Etherington provides an illuminating description of attempts to interact with and engage the silent majority, and also discusses the dangers involved in the perhaps more convenient solution of surrendering to the loud cries from professional and tribal politicians. By staying focused on Kut, Etherington manages to produce an insightful account of local politics that doubtless is of relevance to Iraq more generally, and indeed to post-war democratisation in a wider global perspective.

The third important theme in the book is contained in the title: The Sadr uprising of April 2004. US accounts of this episode are often focused on the military modalities of the crisis, and tend to be characterised by an uncompromising view of the Sadrists. Etherington seems to have had an open mind at the outset and is clearly aware of the dangers of facile essentialisms as regards religion – at one point he accuses American officials of harbouring “an almost visceral suspicion of Islam”. He is also conscious of other problems involved in post-war operations in foreign cultures, declaring that he mistrusted his own “cargo of Western values” and speaking of unease about “inflicting more turbulence on a society I did not yet understand”. So how did Etherington interact with what was perhaps the most native of post-war Iraqi political movements, the Sadrist phenomenon?

Even to Etherington, the Sadrist uprising seems to have come as a surprise. He describes a situation in late 2003 in which two currents vied for local domination, the pro-Sistani faction which was numerically dominant, and the Sadrist group, which was smaller but louder. He recounts his own tentative policies in dealing with the Sadrists: sometimes allowing them access to the local television station, sometimes refusing it; inviting them to join a local council but without obtaining their actual participation; refraining from personally meeting their leader (this on account of their anti-state attitude, as seen in their separate militia and legal court structures) but at the same time allowing for contacts between Sadrists and subordinate CPA staff. In the end, it appears, he was as exhausted with the Sadrists as the Americans were: an act of collusion between a local police commander and the Sadrists prompted Etherington to take action against this alliance shortly before open unrest began in April 2004. And in a subsequent private crisis meeting with the top Sadrist representative in Kut the gap between the two sides appeared to be just as unbridgeable as that between the Americans and Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters in Najaf. Etherington found the Sadrist cleric to be “impossibly young” and “implacably opposed” to the foreign forces; thus ended the dialogue. Days later, following the arrest of several Sadrists in Najaf and elsewhere in Iraq, Kut was in armed rebellion and the CPA were forced to temporarily withdraw.

How could this happen? To some extent Etherington explains the revolt as a failure to engage the middle classes – something which in turn left the opportunists to dominate the scene. In his words, “the Jaysh al-Mahdi danced briefly on a largely empty stage.” Etherington then goes on to describe how in a final push before the June 2004 handover, a new provincial governor was “selected” caucus-style, to ensure a more meaningful involvement of that important silent majority. He carefully details the dilemmas involved in choosing between “unrestrained democracy” (which would always be tempered by the fact that the “political parties”, including the Sadrists, mostly had militias at their disposal) and paternalist efforts to circumvent the opportunists, by promoting selected “independent” candidates outside the parties and without tribal affiliations.

The outcome of this sort of process could smack of neo-imperialism, whether intended or not: a local representative of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) was sidelined in the Wasit council, allegedly because the council chairman had indicated that the candidature of this person would be unacceptable to Etherington. An “independent” candidate was selected instead, apparently to the CPA’s satisfaction (they had been wary of the influence of the SCIRI militia). To what extent this effort to engage the “educated middle classes” was truly successful in Kut remains a moot point, though: later, in the January 2005 local elections, a coalition in which SCIRI participated would receive around 75 per cent of the vote in Wasit; whereas the December 2005 parliamentary elections returned a Sadrist candidate prominently placed as number two candidate on the United Iraqi Alliance list in the province. On top of this, from January to December 2005 the absolute number of secularist voters in Wasit was reduced by some 50 per cent. Even if the CPA may have succeeded in ensuring a head start for those elements they believed to represent the true centre in Iraqi politics, it seems clear that other forces prevailed in the subsequent period.

Towards the end of 2006, many of the problems discussed by Etherington assumed renewed importance. Today, rumours from Washington suggest that once more the United States is headed for confrontation with the Sadrists: leaked policy papers from the National Security Council indicate US ambitions about some kind of reconfigured Iraqi coalition government – supposedly a “moderate” one – where the Sadrists would be excluded from office. This in turn would facilitate a move by the Iraqi government (possibly aided by a “surge” of US forces or by what is apparently seen as “good militia” by Washington, the pro-Iranian Badr brigades) to rein in Sadrist paramilitaries, which are now considered one of the greatest threats to security in and around Baghdad.

Even on the surface, such a new coalition would have obvious problems. Although the parliamentary arithmetic might support it, it would be a huge gamble to isolate one of the few blocs inside the Iraqi parliament that can claim to have a degree of support on the Iraqi streets (rumours suggest that the other Sadrist grouping, the Fadila, would also remain outside government). Also, it could cause a dramatic reduction of grassroots Shiite support for the government without any appreciable strengthening of its Sunni level of support (reportedly, only the Iraqi Islamic Party would be involved); in this case a perpetuation of the Sunni insurgency along with increased Sadrist violence might be expected – and this on top of problems already underway in Basra with the Fadila. And above all, this would be just another deal among the cadres of the Green Zone – many of them returnees from exile – without any substantial links to the millions of “ordinary Iraqis” who care less about ideological bickering and the finer points of federalism than about security and services. To a non-US observer it really is difficult to grasp the logic of the policy now being proposed. Still, it has to be remembered that to many Americans, Muqtada al-Sadr means war: whereas the rest of the world tended to view the Sadrist uprising in spring 2004 as yet another facet of general Iraqi discontent about the occupation, US media reported it much in terms of a D-Day operation. There were phone-ins with agitated citizens on the pros and cons of an advance on Najaf, and Muqtada al-Sadr was soon portrayed as a demon and arch enemy of the United States. (Ironically, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is easily the Shiite Islamist with the most long-standing Iraqi nationalist credentials, is frequently described in such publications as the New York Times as “pro-Iranian”.)

Is there an alternative to the confrontationist position? The evidence from the south of Iraq is not too promising, with another interesting and recent British account, that of Rory Stewart (The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq), clearly demonstrating that a more reconciliatory approach to the Sadrists in Maysan and Dhi Qar ultimately did not pay off. But there are other cases that can be of interest. In Basra, for instance, the Fadila party – which shares much of the Sadrist ideology – has at least periodically demonstrated a more businesslike attitude than could be expected on the basis of the anti-Western rhetoric of their spiritual leader Muhammad al-Yaqubi. Early in 2006, they claimed to have rejected any oil dealings with the British on account of the occupation, but at the same time were happy to publicise their alleged oil contacts with the Russians. And whereas the increasing involvement of Sadrists in government in Baghdad has mostly been portrayed as an appropriation of government property for the sake of party (and militia) interests, there is also a different aspect to this. Last summer, Western media made much of the resignation from government service by a leading Christian Iraqi archaeologist. It was alleged that Iraq’s cultural heritage was coming under threat from Sadrists who now had come in control via the ministry of tourism. On closer inspection, however, it emerged that the main complaint concerned a shift of emphasis from classical Mesopotamian to Islamic archaeology. Surely, in the bigger scheme of things, a temporary decline in Babylonian archaeology in favour of a focus on Islamic medieval artefacts might be a price worth paying for a Sadrist move from armed uprising to participation in government?

Unless the United States pursues a policy that stimulates the Sadrists to take part in government – in a responsible manner – it may soon be facing the same kind of challenge as that described in Etherington’s book: uprisings on two fronts. Any increase of troops levels that comes without some serious attention to political reform would simply mean more of the same; even if US forces should prove capable of handling increased Sadrist militancy they would wake up to unchanged realities on the ground in Iraq once the surge was over. It is conceivable that the United States might be able to engineer a ceasefire within the Iraqi parliament and install an eggshell coalition of nominally pro-US politicians, but this would be an arrangement whose expiry date would coincide with the end of the proposed surge. On the whole, the United States would remain locked in its current predicament: it is being held hostage to Iraqi politicians who are not working in accordance with their professed ideals of Iraqi nationalism; instead they are exploiting the open-ended US military commitment to pursue their own narrow party interests.

The only way a troop surge could possibly succeed would be to firmly align it with the vision that Washington ostensibly supports: Iraqi nationalism. The point of departure would be the realisation that American and Iraqi interests in many ways coincide. Like Iraqi nationalists, the United States is seeking a unified, non-sectarian Iraq – and by now it has understood (mostly) that other declared war aims, such as a “model democracy for the Middle East”, or even a “torch of secularism in the region”, are distinctly unrealistic. The Bush administration should therefore start by admitting, in a very public manner, that grave mistakes in the conduct of the Iraq War have created a situation in which the American presence has had a destructive rather than a unifying effect, and that the current policy is working to the detriment of both Iraqi and American interests. To boost troop levels in the current situation without at the same time addressing fundamental issues of national reconciliation would simply perpetuate and augment the artificial sectarianism that has exploded in Iraqi politics over the past years. (Similarly, to rely exclusively on the Baker–Hamilton recommendation of increased regional diplomacy – in itself a commendable proposal – would probably be difficult given the likely lapse of time before real results with the potential to induce national reconciliation in Iraq would filter through.)

Any credible troop surge, then, would have to be moulded as a one-off project to try to open a new chapter in US–Iraqi relations. If attempted, it should consist of a Herculean effort in which the United States would undertake to make available the very best of its mighty resources, to create the sort of post-1945 European reconstruction climate that it should have aimed at once the fateful decision to go to war was taken back in 2003. This would mean more troops temporarily, but such an increase would make sense only in the context of a definitive timetable for the surge, including substantial and speedy reductions after the surge phase (to levels far below current ones), as well as specific guarantees and limits concerning foreign bases and foreign advisers – two factors which historically have provoked allergic reactions among Iraqis and have made many of their governments worthless in the eyes of the general public. But with this kind of concessions to Iraqi nationalism, Washington would also be in a position to make certain demands on the Iraqi government in return for the “investment”. Any surge should be made conditional on immediate constitutional and legal reform to defuse sectarianism and to get all components of Iraqi society back to the table: in particular there would need to be real concessions on the part of the forces that have so far dominated the constitutional and legislative process (the two biggest Kurdish parties and SCIRI), over issues like de-Baathification, militias and federalism. Importantly, the United States would be able to appeal to popular Iraqi nationalist sentiment on this: whereas politicians in the Green Zone have made federalism and de-Baathification into holy cows, most ordinary Iraqis south of Kurdistan (i.e. those who actually experienced the Baathist regime of the 1990s) do not care a fig for federalism and know well that most of the population at some point had to engage in dealings with the former regime.

Only in this way would the quarrelsome elite politicians of the Iraqi parliament come under some substantial pressure from below. It would become painfully clear that by insisting on their narrow pet projects and various causes célèbres they are effectively hindering national reconciliation, diminishing the prospects for a reduction of foreign troops levels, and preventing all Iraqis from sharing the oil income that theoretically could have made them into one of the wealthiest nations in the region. By pursuing this kind of policy, the United States might be able to turn nationalism into a formidable tailwind for its reconstruction efforts in Iraq. But this would require a serious rethink in Washington: above all, the Bush administration must realise that it needs to prioritise the real components of Iraqi society – like the powerful Sadrist base – instead of seeking hollow truces among elite politicians jostling for positions in the Iraqi government.

See also: A Timetabled, Conditional Surge (comment article).

For more on the Sadrists, see:

Cole, Juan, “The United States and Shiite Religious Factions in Post-Baathist Iraq”, Middle East Journal, vol. 57 no. 4, 2003

Harling, Peter and Hamid Yasin, “La mouvance Sadriste en Iraq: Lutte de classes, millénarisme et fitna”, in Sabrina Mervin (ed.), Les mondes Chiites et l’Iran (forthcoming)

International Crisis Group, Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabiliser?, Middle East Report no. 55, 11 July 2006

Visser, Reidar, “Shi‘i Perspectives on a Federal Iraq: Territory, Community and Ideology in Conceptions of a New Polity”, in Daniel Heradstveit and Helge Hveem (eds.), Oil in the Gulf: Obstacles to Democracy and Development (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004)


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