>Al Sadr’s Group has Quit the Government (updated)

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According to The Washington Post, a bloc of Iraqi MP’s led by Muqtada al-Sadr has quit the government in protest to PM Maliki’s meeting with President Bush in Jordan. Al Sadr had threatened as much last week though he later modified his statement to say that his party would “suspend” participation in the government. Not clear if the WaPo is accurate here.

update: AP is reporting that al Sadr’s bloc has in fact only suspended participation in Maliki’s government.
and again…: The WaPo has completely changed the article to reflect the postponement of the summit and now correctly mentions that Sadr’s block has only suspended its participation.

Either way any dissent at this scale can only mean trouble for the stability of Maliki’s government as it relies quite strongly on the support of al Sadr. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, al Sadr is becoming only more powerful due to his increasing popularity among Iraqis across the country. What’s more, his military might has grown considerably, becoming more effective than the government’s own forces. I am surprised this has not gained more attention in the media- I found this fact buried in a WaPo article about Kofi Annan- but apparently in the last year, al Sadr’s army has grown eight-fold to about 50,000 men! The Iraq army currently stands at 134,000, however half are on stationary guard duty, and according to Iraqi officials, of the half that conduct combat operations, only 10 battalions- about 9,500 men- are at all effective. The U.S. will have quite a tough time of dismantling Iraq’s militias with military force alone, with or without the help of the Iraqi army.

>Mahdi Army to the Rescue?

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Apologies to all non-US readers for not mentioning that this blog would not be updated during the Thanksgiving holiday. And I hope those in the US and abroad who did celebrate Thanksgiving, had a good one. Welcome back. On to the entry…

The Washington Post is carrying a story on how in the aftermath of the Thursday bombings –the worst incident of violence since the invasion- it was the Mahdi Army (Muqtada Al Sadr’s militia) that came to the rescue.

“On Thursday afternoon, bombs in six parked cars began detonating at 15-minute intervals in three sections of Sadr City, including the crowded Jamila Market. Mahdi Army militiamen quickly spread out around the vast slum, residents said.

They helped the injured into cars and carted the dead to funeral homes, where the corpses would be cleansed according to Muslim rituals. Some donated blood and helped fire fighters douse flames. Other militiamen, some clutching AK-47 assault rifles or rocket-propelled grenades, searched for the perpetrators of the bombings. They found one more car, filled with explosives, and took the driver into custody.

At Khadisiya Hospital, militiamen assisted doctors and nurses, carrying patients into emergency rooms, Abid said. With hospital supplies thin, Sadr officials sent over syringes, medicines and other equipment donated by merchants. And with only four ambulances in circulation, most of the wounded were being brought in cars.”

As many of the residents of Sadr City noted, that day the Mahdi Army was doing more for them than their government could possibly do. Of note: When PM Maliki came to survey the damage, his motorcade was greeted by a volley of stones and insults.

What the article fails to mention and, in fact implies otherwise, is that the Mahdi Army has been supporting the people of Sadr City for a long time now. I have heard various reports from Iraqis that Al Sadr and his men provide many services to the people of Sadr City including electricity, food, ice and security. What’s more, due to the near impossibility of finding work, the Mahdi Army is the only employment option for the youth of Iraq. (I recommend reading our interview with Cpt. Jon Powers for more on the plight of Iraq’s youth)

The longer the government fails to provide basic services to its people the closer the Iraqi people will grow to the militias. In fact one resident of Sadr City explained that the events of Thursday prove that:

“there is no need to disarm the Mahdi Army. If they were not there yesterday, it would have been a disaster.”

Assuming its not too late, the U.S. needs to address this issue immediately by funding local organizations which can in turn provide basic services and jobs to Iraqis. What’s more the U.S. needs to publicize the fact that it is behind the aid, otherwise Sadr or others will surely take credit for any of the assistance.

The U.S. and its allies have been trying to crush the Mahdi Army in the name of the Iraqi people, but what will happen when the Mahdi Army becomes the voice of the Iraqi people and has their full support? If this trend goes unchecked, the Mahdi Army could well develop into an organization as powerful as Hezbollah in Lebanon- which rose to power with a political and military wing and also provided social services for the country.

Though recent polls suggest that most Iraqis have faith in PM Maliki, it is not at all unbelievable to think that as long as the Mahdi Army acts as a surrogate government to the people of Iraq, Iraqis may just well vote them into government when the time comes. Just look at what happened with Hamas in Palestine.

>Iraqi Artist to Hold Show in Texas

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EPIC speaker Wafaa Bilal will be featured in the Pawn Gallery’s (Dallas, Texas) inaugural show entitled “Interior Landscapes.” The show will run from December 1 to the 31st. Go here for more samples of his amazing work.

A brief bio: Born in Najaf, Iraq, Wafaa Bilal is a Chicago-based visual artist with both skillful presentation and compelling story. He moved studied Geography at the University of Baghdad but left to avoid the draft in 1990. For forty-two days, Bilal and his family survived relentless bombing by coalition forces, eventually being caught up in the mass uprising that swept the country following Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. Under suspicion of being a dissident, Bilal was blacklisted and joined hundreds of thousands of others fleeing Iraq in 1991. His harrowing journey took him through Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and eventually the U.S. in 1992. Bilal holds a degree in fine art at the University of New Mexico and has created art in paint, photography and video on his story and the stories of many other Iraqis devastated by the policies of war and siege in their country.

>And back to the bad…

>Regardless of whether you believe the number proposed by the recent Lancet Survey, the death- rate of civilian casualties is completely out of control. Yesterday, the United Nations reported that 3,709 Iraqi civilians were killed in October. As the AP notes, this is:

“…the highest monthly toll since the March 2003 U.S. invasion and another sign of the severity of Iraq’s sectarian bloodbath.”

Quick aside: When will the press begin referring to the conflict as the civil war it has become instead of using phrases such as “sectarian bloodbath”?

In other news, the possibility of negotiations with Syria were further reduced with the assasination of Pierre Gemayel, a Lebanese cabinet minister and strong opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Syria has of course denied any involvement in the assassination, but this will regardless complicate US efforts to engage Syria in a dialog over Iraq. You’ll remember that the US originally withdrew its ambassador to Damasus in 2005 when Syria came under suspicion for the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

>Iraq, Iran and Syria- oh my

>Finally some relatively good news out of Iraq: it seems that Syria is willing to help stabilize Iraq. And what’s more, Iran has invited Syria and Iraq to a summit in order to discuss ways to curb violence in Iraq.

As many of you are aware the violence in Iraq has implications beyond the country’s borders; A massive flow of refugees from Iraq would likely destabilize its neighbors, the divisions in Iraq are mirrored in its neighbors allowing for the possibility that these groups will react violently in solidarity with their Iraqi counterparts, and neighboring states may intervene militarily in the civil war turning the conflict into a regional one. I’m told Ken Pollack and Dan Byman are coming out with a longer treatment of the subject but in the meantime read this for more details on how an Iraq conflict could spill over into other countries in the region.

Any successful solution must involve neighboring countries, especially Iran and Syria; however, Syria especially, has been very reluctant to help Iraq and by many accounts has in fact been supporting insurgents in Iraq. A little aside: A couple of months ago I was at Brookings listening to the Deputy PM of Iraq Barham Salih speak when someone asked what Iraq’s relations with its neighbors were like. Dr. Salih was most diplomatic in his response, refusing to say a single negative word about Iraq’s neighbors, Iran included, yet he had this to say about Syria:

“We want to have good neighborly relations, but what their [Syria’s] practices are, are not at all consistent with what they claim to be a concern for Iraq. They are getting a lot of Iraqis killed, and that is not unacceptable…”

So it is quite a relief to hear the Syrian foreign minister promising to cooperate with Iraqi officials to help curb the violence in Iraq though I suppose at the end of the day it could be nothing more than posturing. Furthermore, today The Washington Post is reporting that Iraq will restore diplomatic ties with Syria after breaking them about twenty-five years ago.

Naturally any solution to the Iraq conflict will have to involve a country that has 140,000 of its troops in Iraq. Problem is that Bush has been reluctant to hold any high level meetings with Syria, let alone Iran.

Enter the infamous Iraq Study Group. James Baker, its co-chair, has long been an advocate of engaging “unfriendly” states in dialogue . So it no surprise that Baker et al have met several times with Syrian officials to determine how Syria might best cooperate with the United States when it comes to stabilizing Iraq. This seems to indicate that the ISG will recommend greater cooperation with Syria and Iran in its report to the President. Good, right?

Potentially. It seems that Bush has set up his own little Iraq study group. Critics argue that this offers the administration a way out of implementing any unfavorable recommendations that the Baker IWG may come up with such as say starting negotiations with Iran and Syria.

Addendum

Just saw this story in the London-based daily Asharq al Awsat:

“Kurdish lawmaker Mahmood Othman has criticised politicians in parliament and government for courting intervention from neighbouring countries. He said some politicians urge countries in the region to interfere in Iraqi internal affairs while others ask them to provide assistance. Othman said this is unacceptable because it’s not in the interests of all Iraqis.”

So it appears that not all Iraqis favor assistance from the neighbors. Though its interesting to note that the criticism came from an MP whose region is relatively peaceful and stable at this time, to the point that it is actively pursuing foreign investment.