Violence in Southern Iraq & Shia Politics: Interview with Benedict Robin-D’Cruz – Part 1

Benedict Robin-D’Cruz

Away from the limelight, violence continues to rage in southern Iraq in the form of tribal clashes, pro-government militia infighting and criminal violence. This violence often affects unarmed bystanders and makes life in Basra, which is already challenging due to government neglect, lack of services and rife unemployment, even more precarious. Although most residents of southern Iraq are Shia, Iraq’s current political elite, which claims to represent the Shia community, has failed to address the needs of the south. What is the likelihood of reform under the current political order? And is Muqtada al-Sadr a potential force for reform in Iraq? To answer these questions, EPIC recently spoke to Benedict Robin D’Cruz, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh who specializes in Iraq and Shia politics and runs the website “Iraq After Occupation.”

This is the first half of the interview. The second part can be read here.

EPIC: For years, much of the news reports on violence in Iraq have focused either on attacks in and around Baghdad or fighting across western and northern Iraq, yet you have been tracking and reporting on incidents in Iraq’s southern provinces. When did you begin tracking security incidences in the south of the country, and what led you to begin such a project?

Benedict Robin-D’Cruz: I began tracking events in Iraq’s southern provinces in August 2017, at which time I was in Iraq doing field work for my PhD. The inspiration to start the project was actually a 2017 paper Michael Knights wrote for the CTC in which he sets out an analytical framework for monitoring and predicting the shape and strength of Iraq’s Sunni insurgencies. I wanted to see if I could bring the same sort of granular approach to bear on security dynamics in the south.

Clearly, Islamic State doesn’t have the same presence in the south as it does elsewhere in Iraq (there hasn’t been a mass casualty attack by IS in the south since the Fadak checkpoint attack in September 2017). However, other forms of violence, particularly tribal fighting, militia-related violence, and general criminality, were reaching alarming levels, particularly in Basra. This was not receiving much attention from analysts or the media as, understandably, all attention at the time was on the war against Islamic State and the fallout from the Kurdish independence referendum (Sept. 2017).

Given my academic interest in protests and contentious politics, I was also curious to explore the interactive dynamics between civil unrest and categories of activity more typically considered within a security-focused lens. The extraordinary outbreaks of protest mobilization in the south that occurred in July and September 2018 drew much attention from international media, but the alarming deterioration in both security and political stability that presaged these events had been visible for many months prior.

Posters commemorating fallen fighters in Baghdad’s Karradah District (Photo: EPIC, March 2018)

It is not uncommon [in Basra] for tribal clashes to degenerate into armed street battles in which innocent bystanders are killed and injured. The fact that local media and politicians rarely name the tribes responsible illustrates the power these groups wield.

What can you tell us about the nature of these security incidences in southern Iraq, who are the assailants and victims involved, to what extent have you observed any trends over the past year, and what else have you learned through tracking security developments in southern Iraq?

It’s a complex picture encompassing criminal violence, tribal intimidation and extortion tactics, tribal feuding, militia-related violence linked to criminal enterprises and politically motivated violence.

The worst violence is typically the result of tribal feuding. It is not uncommon for tribal clashes to degenerate into armed street battles in which innocent bystanders are killed and injured. The fact that local media and politicians rarely name the tribes responsible illustrates the power these groups wield.

Tribal violence often has an economic component, for example, competition over oil smuggling, or non-lethal violence used to extort concessions from oil companies. But it can also erupt for quite mundane reasons. For example, in December tribal fighting broke out in al-Hartha, north of Basra, between members of the al-Karamsha and al-Subaih tribes. This was caused by a fight between young boys at a football game. Several shops were burnt down in the resulting fires.

Militias tend to be more disciplined and targeted in their use of violence. For example, on 18 December 2018, a large group of heavily armed men raided South Oil Refinery offices in Basra attempting to influence a contract decision. Nobody was killed, and the security forces didn’t respond, even though the gunmen were in the building for some three hours. The militia involved in this case is thought to be the Sadrist Saraya al-Salam.

This sort of activity clearly has an economic motive, but militias also engage in political violence. In September 2018, one of the Shi’i militias fired mortars at the U.S. consulate located in Basra International Airport in response to protesters burning down the Iranian consulate. There has also been a campaign of intimidation and assassination of activists in which the militias are implicated.

In terms of trajectories, between September 2017 and February 2018 there was a marked deterioration in the security situation in the south. Serious violent incidents more than doubled, tribal fighting was on the rise. In February, responding to the security crisis, there was a major deployment of military forces to Basra to try and get a grip on the situation, and this did dampen down the number of violent incidents.

However, the improvements were short-lived. By March, levels of violence were on the up again, and by June-July there were record levels of violence, with tribal fighting incidents more than double their lowest point in February-March. In other words, the military deployment in February had barely any impact on security conditions over the medium to long term. A security-based response is simply not going to be sufficient.

This was the picture heading into this past year’s unprecedented levels of civil unrest witnessed in July and September. Unprecedented in two respects: first, in the widespread targeting of offices belonging to the Shi’i Islamist parties and militias; and second, simply in the scale and number of protests (I recorded well over 100 protest incidents in each month). It is often said that Iraq has a systemic, cyclical protest culture that rears its head in the summer months when temperatures are high. However, in my view, it would be a mistake to see what happened in July and September as part of the ordinary pattern of cyclical protests and simply business as usual.

Election campaign poster for Iraq’s Prime Minister at the time, Haider al-Abadi (Photo: EPIC, Baghdad, March 2018)

Shifting to politics, the Iraqi political elite has been struggling to form a government for months. What do you think are the main factors that slowed down this process? How much can be attributed to domestic politics versus the interference of foreign governments?

I would place the emphasis on domestic factors over international pressure here (albeit the two are always interlinked). The biggest change in Iraqi politics in recent years has been a steady deterioration of the internal coherence of the main political blocs, particularly in the Shi’i Islamist camp.

In the past, the various Shi’i factions have been able to act collectively, despite their differences, in the context of government formation. This time, while the likes of ‘Ameri, Maliki, and Sadr were able to find agreement on Adil Abdul Mahdi as a compromise candidate for prime minister, this consensus did not extend to the broader process of government formation.

The attempt to appoint Maliki loyalist Faleh al-Fayadh to the Ministry of Interior has been particularly contentious. Sadrist resistance to this move is driven by the dynamics of an intra-Shi’i Islamist struggle for power, not US pressure to resist an Iran-friendly appointment.

The Kurdish bloc has also lost some of its coherence as the two main parties (the KDP and PUK) failed to agree on a single candidate for President (a post reserved for a Kurdish figure). The KDP wanted Fuad Hussein, but in the end the PUK candidate, Barham Salih, was able to win the support of enough MPs to take the Presidency without KDP support.

All this matters because Abdul Mahdi does not have a strong powerbase of his own in parliament. His ability to pass legislation, or even form his cabinet, depends on the parties finding a consensus amongst themselves. Consequently, Abdil Mahdi is already looking like a weak PM, unable to impose himself on government formation.

Sadr’s alliance with the left is not simply a function of Muqtada’s power politics, it has much deeper social and ideological structures

Muqtada al-Sadr, arguably the most powerful Shia politician in Iraq today, has presented himself as a reformer and aligned himself with Iraqi protesters who have come out in recent summers to demand better services and an end to corruption. Do you believe that Sadr is genuinely committed to reform or is merely using anti-establishment rhetoric to garner support?

The short answer is that I don’t know whether Muqtada is genuine or not vis-à-vis serious reform in Iraq.

The longer answer is that I’m skeptical of the value of framing the question in this way. One of my critiques of existing analyses of the Sadrist movement is the emphasis placed on interrogating Muqtada’s mental states (for some he’s emotional, impulsive, irrational, erratic, for others he’s a manipulative and cynical Machiavellian-type character). Consequently, conventional wisdom tends to see Muqtada as an unpredictable and dangerous factor in Iraqi politics (not a reliable partner for driving forward political reform).

However, I am a sociologist by training, and sociologists are more interested in structures, not psychology, meaning in the broader patterns and regularities in behavior that emerge over time and how these are shaped by deep-lying social structures. From this perspective, Muqtada’s political postures, and Sadrist political behavior more broadly, appear less erratic, irrational, and unpredictable than is often thought. In fact, stepping back from day-to-day events, Sadrist political behavior appears entirely consistent with a structural analysis of Iraqi social space.

The problem with the elite-centric focus on Muqtada’s psychological states and political behavior within a power politics model, is that this tends to obscure the importance of wider elements of the movement and changes taking place outside the domains of elite politics, particularly ideological transformations.

My research has been focused on the dynamics of internal Sadrist ideological struggle that I link to a structural factor of divergence, often seen in Islamist movements, between clerical and lay activist strata. There is an emergent Sadrist organic intellectual stratum (populated by intellectuals, journalists, and political activists) who, being excluded from the religious field, experience socialization within Iraqi cultural fields with a strong secular-leftist inheritance. It is, primarily, these actors who have developed strong social and ideological ties with the Iraqi secular-left, and it is out of this social context that the leftist-Sadrist alliance emerged. At the same time, the emergence of this stratum, and its struggle to direct Sadrist political strategy in a particular direction, has opened up a conflict with the clerical stratum of the movement. It has, to borrow a phrase of Laurence Louër, put clerical hegemony over the movement into question.

None this tells us much about whether Muqtada genuinely believes in reform or in the Sadrists’ partnership with the Iraqi left. However, it does suggest that the alliance with the left is not simply a function of Muqtada’s power politics, it has much deeper social and ideological structures. These aren’t going to suddenly disappear because Muqtada decides to adopt a different political strategy, the structural conditions will remain, as will the deep divisions within the Shi’i Islamist camp that are also a key factor in explaining the Sadrists’ current political postures.

A more useful approach [with regards to reform] would be to revive the moribund civil service law that would prevent political parties from controlling recruitment into ministries, a mechanism they use to turn them into thiefdoms of patronage and incompetence.

Do you expect Sadr, as leader of the largest party in the current Iraqi parliament, to be able to advance significant reforms during this term?

This has a lot less to do with what Muqtada genuinely believes regarding reform, and will be determined by a whole host of factors related to the (dys)functioning of Iraqi politics.

Muqtada has made some constructive moves so far. He allowed the new prime minister free rein in picking four or five ministers that normally the Sadrists would dictate because of their electoral success. Luay al-Khateeb, for example, has been widely welcomed as a strong choice for the electricity portfolio. This is consistent with the Sadrists’ campaign for technocratic ministers and could have some important implications for these sectors. Some might also see Muqtada’s struggle to block political appointments to the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior as constructive moves, keeping Maliki loyalist, Faleh al-Fayadh, out of the Ministry of Interior, for example.

However, it should be recognized that the Sadrists don’t exactly have a detailed reform project in mind. Even the idea of technocratic ministerial appointments is really a distraction from deeper problems in the administrative state. A more useful approach would be to revive the moribund civil service law that would prevent political parties from controlling recruitment into ministries, a mechanism they use to turn them into thiefdoms of patronage and incompetence. This was mentioned by Sa’iroun during the election campaign, and Abdul Mahdi has also put it on the agenda, it’s definitely something to watch.

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