Talisman Gate

Monday, May 12, 2008

Iran's Shifting Strategy

Iran’s Shifting Strategy

By NIBRAS KAZIMI May 12, 2008

The healing in Iraq and the deterioration in Lebanon are not unrelated. In fact, Iraq will serve as both cause and effect to Lebanon’s misfortunes. Iran, eclipsed in Sadr City, had decided to allow its sectarian acolytes to put on a show of strength in Beirut. And the jihadists of Al Qaeda’s ilk, soon to be eclipsed in Mosul, will migrate to Beirut to meet Iran’s challenge.

Five years ago, there was a hope that held Iraq as a would-be beacon for democracy throughout the Middle East, but that vision had too many determined enemies both inside and outside Iraq. Yet as the situation there darkened through the actions of these regressive forces, the spontaneous outpouring of liberty demonstrated by the Lebanese people seemed to validate the notion that democracy and liberty would take in the region, and that the hope for what Iraq may portend was not misplaced. But the Cedar Revolution, as the March 2005 events of Beirut are remembered, also had too many internal and external enemies determined to spoil the elation.

Two countries that were dead-set against Iraq succeeding were Syria and Iran. These are also the two countries most responsible for fomenting political paralysis and chaos in Lebanon.

In Iraq, the Iranians and the Syrians began a joint-partnership aimed at harnessing the disruptive energies of the Mahdi Army as a weapon by which to retaliate against America should either of them get attacked, as well as acting as a force keeping Iraq in a state of permanent disorder.

Syria’s influence on the Sadrist movement from which the Mahdi Army springs is often overlooked: Damascus was a refuge for many prominent Sadrists during the latter years of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, and the Syrian Baathists brokered the initial rapprochement between the Sadrist old guard and Iran. Many of these Sadrist apparatchiks were openly hostile to the Iranians and Iran’s preferred acolytes in Iraq such as the Hakim family, long-standing rivals of the Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, the man who founded the Sadrist movement. Actually, many of them continue secretly to believe that Saddam’s regime had nothing to do with their leader’s murder in early 1999 and lay the blame solely on the Hakims and Iran.

However, after the first major confrontation between the Sadrists and American troops in the spring of 2004, the Iranians saw potential in Sadr’s thugs at around the same time as they were becoming increasingly disappointed with the Badr Corps, the Iranian-trained militia under the leadership of the Hakim family. The Hakims had become too invested in, and integrated within, the Iraqi state — their revenues from contracts and trade earned inside Iraq exceeded the overall budget of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which had funded them previously — and could not be counted on to act as Iran’s agents of disorder. Whereas the Hakim turned independent as they didn’t need Iran anymore, the Sadrists were desperate for arms and training, and Iran was more than willing to accommodate them with the Syrians acting as go-betweens.

It was in this vein that the first batch of Iranian-administered training was supposed to take place in Damascus during November 2004. It was geared towards turning ten of the top Mahdi Army field commanders into the security chiefs of a parallel intelligence agency working on behalf of the Iranians. The seminar did not take place on time, and it is unclear whether it ever subsequently took place in Damascus.

But other training, on security matters and terrorism, did take place in a camp near Tehran, according to captured Mahdi Army commanders in Iraq, and it was administered by instructors from Lebanese Hezbollah. It should also be noted that the political channel through which the Syrian leadership maintains its relationship with Hezbollah — primarily through General Muhammad Nassif, ostensibly the Syrian prime minister’s deputy on security matters — is the very same channel through which the Syrians communicate with the Sadrists.

Thus, the Iranians and the Syrians were hoping to turn the rag-tag elements of the Mahdi Army into an Iraqi version of Hezbollah, with both a political wing represented by Mr. Sadr and a military wing that they called the majamee’ alkhasa, or “Special Groups,” a name chosen in Tehran and not a technical term invented by American commanders as so many Iraq-watchers seem to think.

And boy, was that a mistake: the Mahdi Army as a whole and the Special Groups in particular have collapsed after seven weeks of fighting against a confident and capable Iraqi Army that was bolstered by American air cover and logistical support. On Thursday, the Sadrists effectively offered their surrender to Prime Minister Maliki, who had earlier put them on notice that he would smash into their redoubts, especially Baghdad’s slum of Sadr City, if they continued to act as saboteurs. Mr. Maliki was prepared to go all the away, including displacing hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sadr City and arresting Sadrist parliamentarians.

Iran had lost and the leaders in Tehran needed to save face fast. Iran needed to show that it could create mischief around the region for that has always been one of Tehran’s strategic strengths. That is why they pushed Hezbollah to overreact when given a juicy provocation by the American-backed cabinet of Fouad al-Siniora. The Lebanese government has done and said many provocative things in the past but Hezbollah chose this particular provocation to throw a theatric and violent tantrum.

The situation in Lebanon is immensely complex and there are too many factors to list as to why it had been so messy, yet it was a manageable mess that never seemed to boil over — that is, until Hezbollah decided to rampage through Beirut and humiliate the Siniora government and the March 14 coalition that supports it; showing them up as weak and feckless, and in turn embarrassing America and Saudi Arabia for being unable to do anything to help their allies. This was no coup or deft move aimed at breaking the political stalemate: Iran was simply flexing its muscles in Beirut through Hezbollah because Iran’s other pawns were shown-up as feckless and weak in Sadr City.

That too was a major mistake. The Iranians and the Syrians may have concluded that they have passed the worst of the Sunni-Shia tensions that were roiling the Middle East over the last couple of years. In particular, the ruling Alawites of Syria, a Shia-offshoot minority, were worried about internal fall-out should the majority Sunni Syrians get exposed to headlines blaring sectarians strife in Lebanon next door. However, recent polling from the Middle East seemed to indicate that being virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli was enough to offset the stigma of being a Shia or an Alawite among Sunni audiences, and this may have emboldened the Syrians to go along with Iran’s plan.

But there was no escaping the potent imagery of armed Shia gangsters, under orders from Hezbollah and its affiliates, seemingly emasculating Beirut’s Sunnis and wounding their pride, especially given the rising sectarian temperatures in Lebanon that had never abated. Suddenly, the Sunnis of Lebanon felt exposed and no longer able to trust their established communal leaders, such as the Hariri family, to protect them. That is why they may look elsewhere for muscle, and that’s why jihadist internet forums have lighted up with giddy expectations of taking the jihad against the Shias from the streets of Baghdad to the streets of Beirut.

Mr. Maliki has just ordered the launch of a much-anticipated military campaign to rid Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, of whatever significant vestige of Al Qaeda’s remaining in Iraq. The inevitable jihadist collapse there will push more and more jihadists to re-establish their efforts elsewhere, and nowhere looks more promising than Lebanon.

Mr. Kazimi is a contributing editor to The New York Sun.

Friday, May 09, 2008

What Happened in Basra?

What Happened in Basra?

By NIBRAS KAZIMI May 9, 2008

Ever since the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, launched Operation Cavalry Charge in Basra on March 25, which has been going on there and elsewhere across Iraq, three important conclusions can be drawn: the Iraqi state and the Iraqi army can function on their own; an influential figure in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr, is much weaker than he was deemed to be; and Iran has bet on the wrong horse.

As a result of being unable to rely on Mr. Sadr’s organization, Iran would lose a menacing avenue for retaliation against America should Iran’s illicit nuclear program get attacked.

Basra had a moment of clarity, illuminating the convergence of several positive trends in Iraq. What’s driving these trends is a sense among regular Iraqis that their state has outlasted its challengers, whether they are Sunni insurgents, organized crime cartels, or hostile regional powers. Basra is “Exhibit A” for those who argue that Iraq’s remaining problems are fixable, that the achievements seen so far are irreversible, and that a sense of patriotic cohesion is salvageable and viable.

Consequently, the events in Basra do not sit well with those who have argued otherwise and staked their careers and credibility to the storyline that Iraq is irredeemable, such as the many journalists and pundits who have been covering Iraq over the last five years. This has seemingly induced them to fabricate a negative and false narrative in the hope that their predictions would go unchallenged.

Six weeks ago, Iraqi policemen in Basra were dodging RPG projectiles fired by teenagers. These days, though, they keep themselves busy with house-to-house sweeps in search for weapons caches. Moreover, on a daily basis, they issue hundreds of tickets for traffic and parking violations. Indeed, the situation in Basra has changed dramatically.

The violence in Basra was not sectarian in nature even though Iraq’s southernmost province — first in potential wealth with between 60% and 70% of the country’s oil and second, after Baghdad, in its population size — boasts a significant Sunni minority, as well as Christian, Mandean, and non-mainstream Shia denominations.

Basra’s chaos resulted from a unique mélange of Iranian meddling, proliferation of organized crime, and Britain’s unsteady hand in running military and political matters. The Americans had delegated Basra’s management to their British allies, who ended up ruining things in Iraq’s most promising piece of real estate.

However, it is not surprising that the British would mismanage a place that they had thoroughly studied a little over 90 years ago, the first time they came to occupy Basra as a result of World War I.

Basra was founded by the Arabs who invaded the city 1,400 years ago. They used it as an operating base against the Persian Empire. It became a military base in a land teaming with Jews, Christians, and Manichean peasants, all of various Semitic extractions.

In that intensely fertile land, a land open to the influences and trade of the Indian Ocean, many propagandists roamed and many bastard children were left by a passing sailor. Thus, the pure-bred Arabian tribes that were settled south of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates were instilled with a distinct identity that meant that one’s roots in Basra would set one apart from those who originated in Baghdad or Nejd or Isfahan.

But something of the original mission against Persia seems to have survived among Basra’s original Arab tribes, for today it forms the backbone of the tribal elements that have flocked to Mr. Maliki’s side in his battle against the organized crime cartels — criminality that had found political refuge and patronage within the Sadrist movement.

This divide is historical in origin too: most of these Sadrists descend from destitute families that escaped the poverty and tribal hierarchies of the nearby Amara Province in the 1930s and 1940s. They were looking for menial work and if that was not available, they turned to a life of crime. Some of their kin also flooded into Baghdad, creating the human overflow in the slums that would become Sadr City. A derogatory name was coined for the boorish newcomer: shroogi or “easterner.” In the last five years, being a Sadrist was almost synonymous with shroogi ancestry.

Various troublemakers in modern Iraq have made up their unruly mobs with these dislocated social misfits. The Iranians are no different as they set about establishing a parallel contingency plan in Iraq that would unleash chaos and terror should America contemplate a war against Tehran. That is supposed to be Iran’s strategic deterrence.

Once Mr. Maliki launched Operation Cavalry Charge, the Iranians and the organized crime cartels that they have been patronizing realized that they were no match for a prime minister who is bent on their destruction. He had enough soldiers with armored vehicles to withstand that first volley of Iranian-supplied RPGs that were unleashed when his troops drove down previously no-go alleyways. Mr. al-Maliki also rallied the silent majority of Basra to reclaim their city after they had receded into the safety of their homes. The Iraqi state had endured the worst, and came back to reclaim its turf.

Mr. Maliki can draw upon a war chest of $60 billion from this year’s budget. He has enough bags of money to entice the bulk of the “shroogis” away from life on the margins and into the benevolence of the state. He offered them a newer sense of belonging within the ranks of the government-employed lower middle-classes.

Over the last five weeks, the Iraqi army has smashed through many myths that have been internalized by Iraq-watchers about the weakness of the Iraqi state, the strength of the Sadrists, and the omnipresence of the Iranians.

Last year, many had speculated that Mr. Maliki’s government would collapse as a result of a boycott by the Sadrists. Periodically since then, some have been holding their breath every time a confrontation between Messrs. Sadr and Maliki seemed imminent. Yet no lessons were drawn about who has the upper hand even though Mr. Sadr has been the one to back down at every juncture.

If some worry that the Iranians may unleash a Sadrist deluge against the Green Zone should America conduct a bombing run against Iran’s nuclear facilities this summer, then those worries should be downgraded. It seems now, as the Iraqi state keeps pressing on, that the Sadrists will fold easily.

Mr. Kazimi is a contributing editor of The New York Sun, and discusses Basra on his blog, Talisman Gate, talismangate.blogspot.com