TCS Daily

Fallujah, the Uprising, and Silver Linings in Iraq

By Jay Currie - April 7, 2004 12:00 AM

As reports come in from Iraq about a Shi'ite insurgency lead by Moqtada al-Sadr, a bit of background can help make sense of what's happening. An excellent recent article in the Christian Science Monitor describes issue at the heart of the faction fights in the Shi'ite community:

Iran's Wilayet al-Faqih doctrine (governance of the religious jurist, preached in the Iranian city of Qom) was devised in the mid-1970s by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and served as the ideological underpinning of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran which he led. It grants absolute authority over all matters - religious, social, and political - to a marja who has earned the title of mujtahid, a blend of judge and theologian.

Although the Wilayat al-Faqih system was successfully introduced into Iran's homogenous Shiite society, exporting the doctrine elsewhere has proved difficult.

Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers, including an illegal militia, believe that the right model for Iraq is the Wilayat al-Faqih system. But, as the Monitor points out, what "works" in a nearly homogenous Shi'ite state is less likely to work in a state where 40% of the people are not Shi'ite and many of the Iraqi Shi'ites have moved on from the theocratic model.

It is reasonable to ask whether al-Sadr is a stalking horse for Iran. It is a pretty good bet he has received money and possibly trained men from Iran; but it is an open question as to whether he is actually seeking Iran's interests or if what he sees as Shi'ite interests in Iraq happen to coincide with the goals of the Iranian Ayatollahs.

It probably does not matter because, either way, what al-Sadr sees as the way forward for Iraq is incompatible with what a majority of Iraqis appear to want and what the United State would be prepared to countenance. Al-Sadr wants to establish clerical rule which is not possible in a democratic, secular, state.

However, about the last thing the increasingly embattled Iranian Ayatollahs want is a democratic secular Iraq run with Sunnis, Kurds and Shi'ite working together. The Iranian Ayatollahs are already having enough trouble with their own dissidents' demands for reform. So an Iranian connection cannot be dismissed.

It is quite possible the Iranian Ayatollahs, at least some of them, might welcome a civil war in Iraq in which "the Great Satan" is bogged down killing Shi'ites. (A strategy which would, ironically, be exactly what al Qaeda's strategy document calls for in Iraq.) It would have the added benefit of creating a fresh wave of anti-Americanism in the countryside of Iran where the radical clerics draw their support. And, more ominously, it would make it all the easier for the Iranians to get on with their atomic weapons project.

Strategic Blunders

The writer Steve den Beste recently discussed the errors the insurgents have made in Falluja and, I believe more importantly, the colossal mistake radical Shi'ites have made by rising now.

As a political incident the lynching at Falluja will likely have more impact in the United States than it does in Iraq. In Iraq it gives Coalition forces a legitimate reason to clean up the rats' nest of Falluja.

Al-Sadr's uprising is an even greater blunder and thus a potentially huge political benefit for the Coalition and the putative provisional government of Iraq. As den Beste puts it: al-Sadr and his supporters have risen in open rebellion. And that means we no longer have to put up with them. It means more hard fighting, and more casualties. The next couple of months will see the worst fighting in Iraq since the invasion. Once it's over, the situation overall will be immeasurably better.

Al Sadr's mistake is twofold. First to rise in rebellion when there is an occupying force which can take you out without any serious difficulty. Second, political timing.

If al-Sadr had lain low and waited out the June 30th turnover he and his faction would have had the capacity to run a terror campaign or a full scale civil war against the Iraqi provisional government. A government which, while it will still have access to American troops, will be reluctant to use them against any group of Iraqis. The great balancing act for the putative provisional government will be to prevent the Shi'ites from using their majority to overwhelm the various minorities in Iraq. Sending in the Americans to take out al-Sadr is the last thing a provisional government struggling to establish its legitimacy could afford to do as it would almost certainly further radicalize Shi'ites.

Had al-Sadr simply been patient he might well have continued to push the moderate Shi'ite leadership away from compromise; now his rebellion clears the way for the moderates to call for peace while praying the Americans will rid them of this troublesome priest. And his militia.

Jay Currie is a Vancouver writer whose writing is archived here.


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