Politics & Policy

Losing The Shia

Iraqi Shia see a U.S. betrayal, and frankly, they should.

Any semblance of a ceasefire evaporated today as fierce fighting erupted around the Shrine of Imam Ali, Shii Islam’s holiest site. Even if Iraqi forces lead the charge into the Shrine of Imam Ali, Iraqi Shia will blame the U.S. for any damage. Even if a peaceful solution is found, the U.S. will have lost out.

It didn’t have to be this way. Sadr was not initially popular among Iraqi Shia. Many Iraqis consider him responsible for the April 10, 2003 murder of Shia cleric Majid al-Khoei. Many Iraqi Shia ridiculed Sadr’s October 10, 2003 declaration of a parallel government with himself as president. In both Sadr City and in Najaf, local residents resented the abuse and the arrogance of Sadr’s Brown Shirts. When I attended a meeting of Najaf notables in February 2004, their major complaint was the Coalition’s failure to rein in Muqtada’s gangs. As recently as May 2004, vigilantes in Najaf took to assassinating Muqtada’s followers. Sadr’s initial support hemorrhaged when the young cleric failed to deliver on promises. In Iraq, money talks and initially Sadr had little.

But, thanks to Iran, that changed. The evidence is overwhelming. Even the State Department now acknowledges Iran’s financial support for Sadr’s Mahdi army. The only figures who today deny Iranian material support for Sadr are academics and pundits who have neither been to Iraq since its liberation nor bothered to conduct field research. Simple translation of Arabic articles provides as much informed comment as al-Jazeera.

Sadr launched his uprising in April 2004. His resort to violence had much to do with his failure to build a constituency through legitimate political activity. Former Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer can be faulted with many mistakes, but unwillingness to take on Sadr was not among them. Indeed, had the National Security Council listened to Bremer’s advice, Coalition forces would have arrested Sadr long before he could organize his well-planned, well-coordinated April uprising.


With little demonstrable public support, al-Sadr’s April uprising fizzled out. But, four months later, resistance remains fierce. What’s changed has less to do with Sadr than with blowback from ill-advised and poorly thought-out strategy. In October 2003, the White House launched a major reorganization of its Iraq-policy team. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice became titular head of the Iraq Stabilization Group, but her deputy (and former mentor) Robert Blackwill, who is well known for his slash-and-burn management style, became chief for political transition. His influence on Iraq policy was quickly felt in both Baghdad and in Washington.

There was surprise in both Baghdad and Washington when, on November 11, 2003, Bremer missed a planned meeting with the Polish prime minister to return to Washington. The reason for the hasty departure became apparent within days, when Bremer announced a date for the return of Iraq’s sovereignty. The impetus for the transfer did not come from Baghdad but from the National Security Council, which had, ironically, overruled in February 2003 Pentagon plans for an immediate transfer of sovereignty upon liberation.

The transfer of sovereignty was long overdue. But other policies implemented in the wake of Blackwill’s accession have severely eroded Iraqi trust in the United States. Demography is important: Arab Shia are the majority in Iraq. Kurds account for nearly a quarter of the population. Ten percent of the Kurdish population, and perhaps half the Turkmen population, are Shia as well. Only 15 to 20 percent of the population is Arab Sunni. Whereas President Bush repeatedly promised that the U.S. sought democracy in Iraq, the British government, U.S. State Department, and the National Security Council project the opposite to an Iraqi audience.

Iraqis were not blind to high-level discussions of a “Sunni strategy.” They interpreted the Sunni strategy to mean that Washington would not live up to its rhetoric of democracy, and instead return the Sunni minority to what many former Baathists–and the Saudi and Jordanian governments–felt was the Sunni community’s birthright. They saw British officials divert money from reconstruction in Kirkuk to projects in Hawija, a violent Arab Sunni town about an hour’s drive away. The State Department’s Iraq coordinator made little secret of his desire to implement a far-reaching Sunni strategy. Iraqis interpreted Bremer’s decision to televise his April 23 speech announcing a rollback of de-Baathification as proof that Washington was pandering to Iraq’s Sunni population. “He insists the policy wasn’t changed, but why else would he televise the announcement?” an Iraqi asked me the following day. The reversal may have had less to do with Bremer’s personal beliefs than with orders from Washington. Regardless, the decision to reverse de-Baathification in effect traded the goodwill of Iraq’s 14 million Shia and six million Kurds for the sake of, at most, 40,000 high-level Baathists. Realism isn’t always so realistic. Sometimes values matter. Perhaps Paul Wolfowitz wasn’t wrong after all.


Actions speak louder than words, though. On March 31, Sunni terrorists ambushed four U.S. contractors in Fallujah and mutilated their bodies. Bremer swore revenge, and U.S. Marines besieged the city. But senior Iraqi Sunni politicians such as State Department favorite Adnan Pachachi complained. “The whole thing smacks of an act of vengeance,” he told The Independent on April 12. Pachachi elaborated in comments to the United Arab Emirates-based al-Arabiya television: “It was not right to punish all the people of Fallujah, and we consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal.” Perhaps uncomfortable with images of death and destruction, U.S. policy abruptly shifted course.

The Marines, against their better judgment (according to their own situation reports), lifted the siege. They appointed a Baathist general to lead the new Fallujah Brigade. Violence throughout the country skyrocketed. While the U.S. military lifted its siege of Fallujah and empowered elements that, only days before, sought to kill Americans, Blackwill instructed his political transition team to target Ahmad Chalabi, a leading Shia politicians. In late April, the White House discussed a seven-page single-spaced National Security Council options paper entitled “Marginalizing Chalabi.” The paper came out of Blackwill’s Iraq shop. I wrote a number of options papers while in government. Assignment for drafting comes after Cabinet officials or their deputies have made a decision. The purpose of the paper is to outline different options to implement the decision.

The raid on Chalabi’s compound and subsequent espionage allegations appear related to the memorandum’s recommendations. Journalists lapped up and repeated unnamed intelligence sources’ accusations, none of which have turned out to have had a basis in fact. No Pentagon official, for example, has been polygraphed, despite a New York Times story to the contrary. The CIA and State Department can chalk up a point in the bureaucratic war, but the cost of their victory inside Iraq was immense. Regardless of ethnic or sectarian background, Iraqis juxtaposed the rewards of attacking Americans with the perils of alliance. Family matters: Iraqi Shia associate Chalabi with his family’s long-standing support for the Kazimiya Shrine, Iraq’s third holiest. Perception matters: Regardless of whether they liked Chalabi as an individual or agreed with his politics, Iraqi Shia interpreted Blackwill’s decision to humiliate Chalabi as a slap at their entire community.

If the National Security Council wants to put their hope in Ayad Allawi, they will be sorely disappointed. Allawi is a former Baathist. His close association with the Central Intelligence Agency, Britain’s MI6, and Jordanian intelligence have not helped him among a Shia population in which he has little if any constituency. The Kurds also distrust Allawi, who, in 14 months of Coalition rule failed to engage in any serious way with the Sunni community. Najaf ends Allawi’s honeymoon. The CIA may sing his praises to the president, but Langley’s assets seldom make good leaders. They certainly don’t make good democrats.

There is little goodwill left in Iraq. The United States government has managed to squander it. Bush may be sincere about his desire for democracy, but to Iraqis, family matters. Iraqis associate the president with his father, who is notorious among Iraqi Shia for his failure to support their March 1991 uprising. Saddam Hussein subsequently massacred tens of thousands of participants, and their families. Iraq is famous for its majestic date palms which sometimes stretch 50 or 60 feet. But, around Karbala, they are only ten- or 15-feet high because the Iraqi president ordered groves bulldozed in the wake of the uprising. Iraqis see these young trees as a constant reminder not to trust American rhetoric.

The recent siege of Najaf reinforces the Shia belief that the U.S. government is anti-Shia. In recent days, I’ve spoken to a number of Iraqis from Najaf, Samawa, and Diwaniya. They are disgusted. “The U.S. pulled out of Fallujah because they worried about killing Sunnis, but I guess they don’t have that worry about Shia,” one explained. While it is true officials in the interim Iraqi government support the siege on Najaf, Iraqi Shia see this as a further sign of hypocrisy. After all, the same officials begged the Americans to stop the “massacre” in Fallujah. On April 12, 2004, al-Wifaq, the newspaper of Ayad Allawi’s own political party, quoted Allawi citing the siege of Fallujah as one of the reasons for his resignation as head of the Governing Council’s security committee.

While I do not support empowering the Mahdi army, Iraqis do contrast the U.S. willingness to deputize former Baathists in Fallujah with what they view as a relentless assault on the historically disposed Shia in Najaf. Pronouncements such as an August 16 statement from Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Iran-based mentor, that the U.S. wants to restore Baathism simply adds fuel to the fire.

Today, Iraqi Shia flock to Muqtada al-Sadr not because of who he is, but because they feel they have no choice. Scarred by their abandonment in 1991 and prone to conspiracy, Iraqi Shia interpret Blackwill’s policy as an unmitigated disaster for democracy. They juxtapose the U.S. responses to Fallujah and Najaf. They see Washington reward former Baathists and punish the victims of their 35-year dictatorship. Implementing re-Baathification meant not only rehiring high-level Baathists who had informed on their students and colleagues but, as the Los Angeles Times reported on May 14, also firing the non-Baathists who replaced them. The Iraqi Shia see betrayal and, frankly, they should. The crowds rallying to Muqtada al-Sadr represent not endorsement of his ideas, but rather Blackwill’s blowback and the bankruptcy of traditional State Department pro-Sunni bias.

The only winner will be Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran today is among our chief strategic and ideological threats. The Iraqi Shia were not Iran’s natural allies. It is unfortunate that we have chosen to drive Iraq’s Shia into Iran’s suffocating embrace.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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