What is the Sadr movement?
Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army has enforced dress codes, closed shops selling alcohol, prevented the showing of western films, terrorised prostitutes, murdered gay people. In March 2004, complaining of “moral violations”, it invaded the gypsy township of Qawliyya and levelled it with bulldozers. In the slow civil war in Baghdad since February 2006, the Mahdi Army has been the main group forcing Sunnis out of one previously-mixed district after another.
Sadr’s movement has the basic characteristics of clerical fascism. It has also maintained a more populist and Iraqi-nationalist rhetoric than the main “government” Shia Islamists, the Da’wa Party and the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution.
Despite its programme for rule by (Shia) clergy, it talks of Sunni-Shia unity. It has opposed the new oil law.
Its main base is among young men in Sadr City, a huge Shia district of Baghdad. Unlike the more southern-based Shia Islamists, it has opposed regionalism in Iraq (i.e. more or most oil revenues going to the oilfield regions of the Shia south and the Kurdish north). It tends to be hostile to Kurdish demands.
It has a real popular base, partly because of its ability to deliver civil administration in Sadr City.
What does the Sadr movement want?
It presents itself as an Iraqi nationalist movement, demanding that Iraq be freed from American occupation, and says it is willing to unite with Sunnis to achieve that.
Its actions suggest that its operational perspective is to help build up a Shia-dominated government under American protection, but to keep its distance from the Americans while doing so.
In April 2004, when Sadr had less support than he has now, the US chose to pick a fight with him, closing down a Sadrist paper and declaring it wanted to arrest Sadr. After two months’ fighting there was a truce. Sadr emerged much stronger.
The Sadrists joined the United Iraqi Alliance of SCIRI and Da’wa for the December 2005 elections; helped win the prime ministership for Maliki against other candidates; and had six ministers.
Under US pressure, Maliki said last month that he would sack five of his Sadrist ministers. The Sadrist ministers resigned first, on 16 April.
One Sadrist leader said: “We are handing Mr Maliki a yellow card. He made a bad foul. But for us the game is not over”. The Sadrists had already withdrawn from parliament in December and January and then returned. This time they will stay in parliament.
The Sadrists’ stated reason for resigning is that Maliki had refuse to fix a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq. “We are against the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq”, cautioned a Sadrist leader, “because right now the country just can’t afford it. But we are 100% for a realistic and objective timetable for withdrawal”.
Will the US pull out?
Not in the near future. The current supposedly anti-war stance of the Democrats in the US congress amounts to giving Bush $100 billion now to pursue his “surge” in return for a promise to withdraw partially in the conveniently unforeseeable future of August 2008.
Though the US troops cannot offer the country any sort of positive orderly administration, they have the firepower to go anywhere and defeat any militia that chooses to fight them. They thus provide a sort of skeleton structure for Iraq as a political unit.
Without that, the Iraqi government would collapse. Each militia would seize as much as it could for its own “mini-Taliban” rule. The militias’ allies in neighbouring countries, like Iran, would help them, maybe invading. Turkey is already threatening to invade Kurdish northern Iraq.
For the peoples of Iraq it would be devastating. For the US — for different reasons — the collapse of oil-rich Iraq, in the heart of the oil-rich Middle East, would be horrifying.
On the other hand, even the most “hawkish” Republican candidate for the presidency, John McCain, admits that “if the Bush administration’s plan had not produced visible signs of progress by the time a McCain presidency began, he might be forced... to end American involvement in Iraq.” (New York Times, 15 April).
The US occupation is no bulwark against the worst outcomes. It may eventually make the “worst” outcomes even worse, by the way it exacerbates social collapse, sectarian embitterment, and militarisation.
Will the Maliki government fall?
The Sadrists will not want it to fall. The most-canvassed alternative is a return to power of Iyad Allawi, who was the US-appointed leader of the “Transitional Government” in 2004-5.
Allawi is a thug, a former Ba’thist and a former close co-worker of the CIA. He is trying to put together an anti-Maliki majority in the Iraqi parliament in order to create (he says) a non-sectarian government. He has got some Sunni groups. A Shia-Islamist group strong in Basra, Fadhila, left the main Shia alliance last month to join Allawi. If he can get the Kurds to break with Maliki, he might just do it.
Allawi’s programme is: two years of martial law, and Arab troops brought into Iraq. Effectively, he wants a military dictatorship headed by himself.
A recent opinion poll in Iraq showed only 22% wanting “an Islamic state”, while 34% wanted “dictatorship” and 43% “democracy”.
It is not clear whether the US backs Allawi’s bid. It is even less clear whether such an Allawi government could possibly survive. The army and the police through which he would want to rule are heavily permeated by the Shia-Islamist parties — SCIRI, Da’wa, Sadrists — whom he would try to sideline.
Maybe the jostling between Maliki, Sadr, Allawi and the US will lead to a total political collapse, the impossibility of any government, and a vast surge of Shia discontent. If the leader-behind-the-scenes of the main Shia-Islamist parties, Ayatollah Sistani, is pushed into demanding that the Americans quit, then their position will become impossible.
Why is Iraqi politics so sectarian?
It is not because the people of Iraq are all crazed by religion. It is because Iraqi society has been pulverised by one blow after another for 40-odd years now.
Division between Sunni and Shia in Iraq goes back a long way. For centuries the area has had a Shia majority but has been ruled by Sunnis — under the Ottoman Empire, under the British-created monarchy, and under the Ba’thists. In the early 20th century Shia and Sunni seldom mixed.
After World War Two intermarriage became quite common. Many Shia moved to Baghdad. Secularism advanced. Probably in 2003 there was a clear majority of Iraqis who wanted to avoid Sunni-Shia division.
But such things are not decided by majority vote, least of all amidst social chaos, the collapse of civil administration, and a political desert created by decades of terrorist dictatorship under Saddam. Sunni-sectarian armed groups, often led by former Ba’thist officers, became active very early: in August 2003 they carried out a car bombing in Najaf killing 120 people and the main leader of SCIRI.
The Shia-Islamist groups advanced by more gradual means, but also arms in hand, to claim their majority rights. The population polarised, and in conditions of escalating social disintegration, continues to polarise.
Isn’t partition the answer, as suggested in Peter Galbraith’s new book?
No, if only because of Baghdad. The city has over seven million of Iraq’s 27 million people. In any hypothetical partition into a Shia south, Sunni centre, and Kurdish north, Baghdad constitutes the majority of the centre’s population.
Yet Baghdad is not a Sunni city. It may have a Shia majority, and in any case is the biggest Shia city in Iraq. There is no way that the Shia would hand it over to a Sunni statelet.
For the Sunni Arabs, even a “central” statelet including Baghdad would be something to fight against to the death. It would be oil-less, land-locked, helpless. A “central” statelet without Baghdad would be even worse.
Moreover, Iraqi Arab nationalism is deep-rooted among both Sunni and Shia. Many people are simultaneously both ardent Iraqi nationalists and ardent Sunni or Shia sectarians.
What should socialists propose?
It would be a hopeless and self-defeating endeavour for socialists to try to calculate which is the slightly-less-bad path of deterioration and endorse that.
To extract from our necessary hostility to the US/UK occupation a spurious “immediate answer” — “troops out now” — would be demagogic. Yes, we want the troops out, but not at the price of a triumphant rampage by the sectarian militias.
Our programme is for the Iraqi labour movement, with support from the international labour movement, to take the lead in the fight for democracy, secularism, and self-determination for the peoples of Iraq, against both the US/UK forces and the sectarian militias.
The odds stacked against that perspective are huge, and becoming larger. But to give up on it would be to give up on the Iraqi working class and the people of Iraq.