Sadr City: Tripwire to the Iraq Inferno

April 12, 2007 by  


Courtesy Amir Soltani Sheikholeslami, New America Media, News Analysis

Editor’s Note: In an effort to bring the Iraq war to a close, Iranian writer Amir Soltani Sheikholeslami argues that President Bush has set a tripwire for a much larger one.

President Bush’s security plan for Baghdad can trigger a dormant Shia insurgency that will expand the war in Iraq into Iran. Although the plan is barely a few weeks old, there are eerie, desperate echoes of the premature gloating of “mission accomplished” days. Once again, the administration is compensating for its strategic myopia with military blunders.

Forget the Iraq fiasco. Prepare for the Iraq inferno.

The troop surge has swept into Sadr city, a suburb of Baghdad ruled by Muqtada Sadr’s Shia Mahdi army. Recently the chief U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, announced that Muqtada Sadr has fled Iraq. Linking the war in Iraq to tensions with Iran he declared – without offering proof – that “all indications are, in fact, that he is in Iran.” With a Shia population larger than that of Lebanon, the surge threatens to trigger a Shia insurgency in Sadr city. This means that Sadr city is now the eastern front of the war on terror. Any abduction, assault or massacre of American troops there could serve as the trigger for launching the “Iran plan”, pre-emptive or retaliatory military strikes designed to decapitate the Islamic Republic and prevent the rising power of what the U.S. government calls “the Shia crescent.”

Simultaneous concerns make Sadr city a tripwire. The U.S. and Iran are locked in a diplomatic impasse over Iran’s nuclear program, the Arab-Israeli peace process, Iran’s support for Hezbullah and Hamas, and more recently, allegations that Iran is supplying the Iraqi insurgency with sophisticated roadside bombs that kill American troops. As a result, any shift, real or imagined, in regional tectonics can trigger the Sadr city tripwire. With perception shaping facts and fear driving policy, the slightest spark in Sadr city can get magnified into a firestorm that will burn much more than Baghdad.

Although Iranian officials have vehemently denied it, the legal justification for a military strike against Iran will be the allegation that Iranian leaders are providing a terrorist base for Muqtada Sadr and the Mahdi Army. Providing a terrorist base for Bin Laden and al-Qaeda was the argument used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan.

Single-handedly, President Bush has converted Muqtada Sadr into a giant. A political neophyte dismissed by Iraqis as a zatut (an ignoramous), lacking religious standing or academic credentials, condemned for issuing fatwas sanctifying looting in Baghdad and suspected of the murder of Ayatollah Khoei’s son, Muqtada Sadr would not have a tongue or a leg to stand on were it not for his ability to conceal his own crimes under a vast pool of blood. After every military confrontation– even those where the Mahdi’s army incurred heavy losses in Najaf and Karbala in 2004–he has been able to capitalize on the corpse of the dead to boost his power, popularity and prestige. Poor political and military decisions have provided Sadr and the insurgency with the arguments and ammunition—the martyrs–to undermine the legitimacy of the much cooler, albeit Iranian, Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

Frankly, it is not American troops but Ayatollah Sistani, who has kept the peace in Iraq by preventing its descent into a full-scale civil and religious war. He rejected Mr. Bremer’s plan to rule Iraq by fiat with a fatwa drawing on his religious authority to convert the price of Islamic ideals of innocence and justice into constitutional principles investing the state with a fig leaf of political legitimacy. He has stood between the US military and Iraq’s Shia majority by drawing on his immense following to put a lid on Muqtada Sadr’s extremism.

The Ayatollah ejected Sadr and his turbulent army out of Najaf with a local “security plan” that flooded the city with peaceful demonstrations. He risked his religious legitimacy and standing to sanctify a tenuous democracy and peace by facing down aggression and stupidity from all sides. Without his calls for restraint and reconciliation, everyone in Iraq—Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd, American and British–would be drowning under a sea of blood. He is Iraq’s Gandhi, capable of transcending sectarian hatred with his spiritual authority. Yet, despite the presence of a religious figure, a Gandalf who has held not only Iraq, but life itself intact, with nothing more than the authority invested in his religious staff, President Bush appears intent on pushing the Ayatollah, Iraq and the region into a deeper abyss with his plan to have American soldiers leap into a hornet’s nest—Sadr city.

By risking a confrontation with Muqtada Sadr and Iran, the Bush administration is making Sadr city the focal point for a full scale Shia insurgency. He will trigger a civil, regional and ideological war which Ayatollah Sistani and conservative clerics in Najaf have been able to prevent. A massacre in Sadr city would permit Muqtada Sadr and his death squads to undermine the religious authority of Ayatollah Sistani and shatter the political authority of Prime Minister Al-Maliki. As the political and military base of the Mahdi’s army, Sadr city will become the seat of resistance against US military occupation. Baghdad and Basra, and quite possibly Najaf and Karbala would get drawn into an insurgency that would draw Iran and the U.S. closer to war. Without barriers separating extremists from the majority of Iraq’s Shia, the U.S.’s military and political position in Iraq would crumble. Everyone would lose.

A sudden U.S. panic attack in the heart of Baghdad is a poor substitute for a diplomatic and political transition based on a dignified and deliberate withdrawal plan that has local, regional and international support. A setback in Sadr city would present Bush with two choices: a precipitous withdrawal that would draw regional powers into open confrontation in Iraq, or a rapid regional escalation that would do to the U.S. what the invasion of Afghanistan did to the Soviet empire. Either way, Bush is leading America into another dangerous trap—a tripwire that can make faith in the dollar and democracy plummet faster than the ruble and communism.

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