It’s the season of political makeovers, what with Hillary Clinton, former Warrior Princess, now turning herself into La Pasionaria of the antiwar movement, and Mitt Romney, her probable opponent in the race for the White House, transforming his previous Rockefeller Republican persona into a "pro-life," anti-gay, "movement" conservative caricature. This passion for reinvention is also all the rage in Iraq, where the head of the Mahdi Army, Moqtada al-Sadr, has announced what the Voice of America refers to as a "plan to create a more positive face for his movement." Yes, I suppose all those sectarian killings really are bad public relations: the torture and summary execution of Sunnis at the hands of Mahdi Army militants is a major cause of the ongoing Iraqi civil war. That war, however, may no longer be the main problem in Iraq today.
The leading party in Iraq’s governing coalition, SCIRI, is also undergoing a makeover, starting with its name: the new moniker is the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC). This is supposed to be symbolic of a metamorphosis that showcases, first of all, the party’s recent move away from its traditional patron, the Iranian government. The name change is also meant to put a new emphasis on the religious authority of the mullahs in Najaf, the Vatican of Iraqi Shi’ism, as opposed to that of the Ayatollah Khamenei, headquartered in Iran.
The simplistic and totally wrong explanation we are given in the "mainstream" media is that Sadr is a pawn of Iran, but this has no basis in fact: the real Iranian pawns are SCIRI and its affiliated militia, the Badr Brigade (renamed the Badr Organization, in a lame attempt to apply a thin coat of cosmetic paint to what is otherwise the biggest death squad in Iraq). The former SCIRI, as indicated in its name, was founded to extend Iran’s Shi’ite revolution to Iraq. The Iranian government funded and armed SCIRI for many years, and the group’s leaders lived in Tehran, where they plotted their return.
That return, however, was marred by the emergence of an Iraq-based Shi’ite movement, the Sadrists, who promptly outflanked SCIRI on the question of the U.S. occupation, demanding that the Americans withdraw and denouncing their Shi’ite rivals as puppets of Washington. It was Sadr who took on the occupiers and fought them to a standstill, while managing not only to remain out of the Americans’ clutches remember how they once vowed to hunt him down? but also attaining the status of a major political figure in postwar Iraq, with his own parliamentary faction and a growing popular base.
What seems to be happening is a complex political balancing act between the Sadrists and SIIC, with the Iranians and the Americans playing off one side against the other. While Sadr has moved closer to the Iranians and SCIRI/SIIC has moved away from Tehran, the underlying ideological dynamics have remained the same, with Sadr vehemently nationalistic and anti-occupation and the relatively moderate pro-government SCIRI/SIIC more amenable to outside interests, such as the Iranians and the Americans. Sadr is against the breakup of Iraq into sectarian-ethnic sectors, while SCIRI/SIIC has endorsed the idea of a Shi’ite confederation of provinces in the southern region of the country a project in sync with Iranian ambitions to dominate the region.
The Americans have clearly chosen to play the SCIRI/SIIC card, and much of the "surge" is directed against the Mahdi Army. Yet this brings out the major contradiction in U.S. policy and the rhetoric of this administration, which routinely denounces the Mahdi Army as an Iranian proxy in Iraq’s rapidly escalating civil war. While it is true that Sadr has made overtures to Tehran and may have been hiding in Iran during his recent sojourn underground, his essential political stance that of the country’s leading nationalist force remains unchanged. Not only is he historically an opponent of Iranian influence in Iraq, he is also one of the few advocates of Shi’ite-Sunni unity, which he sees as the precondition for driving out the American invaders.
This is the background to the Monday meeting of the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq: both Washington and Tehran, for different reasons, have an interest in tamping down the Sadrist influence and bolstering the shaky hegemony of SIIC and the United Iraqi Alliance-led government. For all the rhetorical posturing over the nuclear issue and the bombastic denunciations of alleged Iranian "interference" in Iraq a charge that sounds awfully odd coming from a country that currently has some 160,000 troops occupying the country the Americans are undoubtedly going to ask the Iranians’ help in minimizing the influence of a troublesome antagonist, and Tehran has every reason to cooperate.
What is striking is that none of these factions neither the SCIRI/SIIC crowd, nor the Sadrists represent anything remotely resembling the "democratic" Iraq that was supposed to have been born in the ashes of Ba’athist rule. Remember that pro-American, pro-liberal, Westernizing revolutionary movement that was supposed to sweep the entire region as U.S.-occupied Iraq emerged as a beacon light to Arab democrats? It never happened. What did happen was precisely what the CIA and various antiwar commentators, such as myself predicted: a nationalist reaction that combines religion with hatred of foreign occupiers and embodies a clerical authoritarianism that is the furthest thing from democratic liberalism imaginable.
The new turn in America’s Middle East military and political strategy, described as "the redirection" by Seymour Hersh in his latest article in The New Yorker, is based on the idea of a new threat from the emerging "Shi’ite crescent" a vaguely crescent-like Shi’ite "caliphate" extending from Beirut to Tehran and down into Basra, where the Shi’ites are preparing to set up a semi-autonomous Shia state. We are, in short, playing the Sunni card in an effort to further divide the Middle East and make it more amenable to American and Israeli designs.
Which is why I have to laugh when I hear criticisms from the Democrats and the growing number of antiwar Republicans in Congress who complain that we don’t belong in Iraq any longer because, you know, it’s a civil war. This is largely seen as an unintended consequence of the American invasion but what if it was intended?
It would, after all, make perfect Bizarro "sense." If, instead of trying to build a stable, democratic Iraq, you’re trying to wreak as much destruction as possible and turn Arab against Arab, Muslim against Muslim, and the Kurds against everyone else, then the invasion and occupation of Iraq was the right thing to do. And please don’t tell me that none of these dire consequences blowback, for Rudy Giuliani’s benefit were known or predicted in advance. The recent release of the much-awaited "phase two" [.pdf] of the Senate Intelligence report detailing prewar assessments of what was likely to occur in Iraq if we invaded shows we knew all along what would happen. Yet we went ahead and invaded anyway.
As Ayn Rand once put it, don’t bother to examine a folly ask yourself only what it accomplishes. If we look at the public reasons for the Iraq war, it is clear that none of these have been accomplished, nor are they likely to be achieved in the near or even distant future. Iraqi "democracy" is a bizarre mutation of clerical domination, unimaginable corruption, and rule by death squads, and those "weapons of mass destruction" have returned to the netherworld of the neoconservative imagination from whence they emerged onto the front page of the New York Times.
If, on the other hand, we look at what is actually happening in Iraq, and throughout the region, we can discern the real goals of the invasion, and they are two: a civil war in the Muslim world (check!) and the positioning of U.S. military forces for a confrontation with the next victim of the regime-change game: Iran (check!).
This Memorial Day, then, while you’re contemplating the 3,500 American dead, the tens of thousands of wounded (many of them horribly), not to mention the 650,000 Iraqi victims of U.S. state terrorism, you might wonder if Bush and his neocon advisors lose any sleep at night over what everyone else has deemed their huge "failure" in Iraq. The answer is: certainly not. They sleep deeply, and with a satisfied smile on their faces, because, as far as they’re concerned, their mission has been accomplished.