Here are some more excellent reports on events in Basra, in addition to those I posted yesterday. In the first post, I – IV are links to what seem to me expert opinions. In the second post, #V gives examples of what looks to me like simplistic speculation. In this last post, VI and VII link to valuable background material. The Internet can make us smarter or dumber, depending on how we choose to use it.
The following two articles predate the current troubles, but provide valuable background information on the fragmentation of Iraq, the Mahdi Army and its role in Iraq.
VI. “Debating Devolution in Iraq“, Reidar Visser (10 March 2008) — Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and editor of the Iraq website ww.historiae.org. Excerpt:
April 2008 is the month when the law for implementing federalism — adopted by the Iraqi parliament in October 2006 — comes into effect. For the first time in Iraqi history, areas of the country that desire a special federal status similar to that already enjoyed by Kurdistan may initiate a procedure for transforming themselves from ordinary governorates into “federal regions,” potentially acquiring such privileges as the right to establish local paramilitary forces and the right to negotiate local deals with foreign oil companies.
In order to obtain the rank of federal region, a governorate must hold a referendum in which no less than 50 percent of the electorate votes and a simple majority votes yes. If multiple governorates wish to band together in one federal region, the proposition must pass such a referendum in each province tagged for inclusion. (Only the Baghdad province is prohibited from forming part of a greater federal region.) If one targeted governorate says no, the federal project founders.
VII. “Iraq’s Civil War, the Sadrists and the Surge“, International Crisis Group (7 February 2008) — Excerpt:
The dramatic decline in bloodshed in Iraq – at least until last week’s terrible market bombings in Baghdad – is largely due to Muqtada al-Sadr’s August 2007 unilateral ceasefire. Made under heavy U.S. and Iraqi pressure and as a result of growing discontent from his own Shiite base, Muqtada’s decision to curb his unruly movement was a positive step. But the situation remains highly fragile and potentially reversible.
… The U.S. response – to continue attacking and arresting Sadrist militants, including some who are not militia members; arm a Shiite tribal counterforce in the south to roll back Sadrist territorial gains; and throw its lot in with Muqtada’s nemesis, ISCI – is understandable but short-sighted. The Sadrist movement, its present difficulties aside, remains a deeply entrenched, popular mass movement of young, poor and disenfranchised Shiites. It still controls key areas of the capital, as well as several southern cities; even now, its principal strongholds are virtually unassailable. Despite intensified U.S. military operations and stepped up Iraqi involvement, it is fanciful to expect the Mahdi Army’s defeat. Instead, heightened pressure is likely to trigger both fierce Sadrist resistance in Baghdad and an escalating intra-Shiite civil war in the south.
Muqtada’s motivations aside, his decision opens the possibility of a more genuine and lasting transformation of the Sadrist movement. In the months following his announcement, he sought to rid it of its most unruly members, rebuild a more disciplined and focused militia and restore his own respectability, while promoting core demands – notably, protecting the nation’s sovereignty by opposing the occupation – through legitimate parliamentary means. The challenge is to seize the current opportunity, seek to transform Muqtada’s tactical adjustment into a longer-term strategic shift and encourage the Sadrists’ evolution toward a strictly non-violent political actor.
Please tell us of any sources you have found useful by posting a comment (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
For more information on this topic
- The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace (13 March 2007) — How the fragmentation of Iraq offers an opportunity for peace.
- Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq (21 September 2007) — The insurgency is over, which is good news for Iraq and for us.
- War porn (25 March 2008) – Discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the war-bloggers’ reporting.
- Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War
- Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq
3 thoughts on “More views of the events at Basra (3) — background information”
I would like to draw people’s attention to the following passage from the NYT article, “Alley Fighters”:
Either way, before dismissing the ragtag Mahdi fighters, it would be well to remember that — partly because the alleys of the neighborhoods they control are too narrow for the Iraqi Army’s armored vehicles — Mahdi units like Riadh’s have been fighting Iraq’s federal forces to a standstill in Basra, the country’s southern port city, for nearly a week now.
Alleys: they are dangerous only when used by those who grew up in them. That is the basic reason Mr. Sadr and his fighters simply will not go away in this war.
What makes the case so difficult is that it is not just a question of a battle with American troops, here from half a world away carrying out operations that Mr. Sadr and his fighters consider an abhorrent occupation. Some 3,500 troops in the Basra fight are Iraqis from outside the province, and witnesses say it is clear that few if any of the Iraqi security forces in the assault know the neighborhoods the way the Mahdi Army does. Its fighters literally pop in and out of alleys, battling a federal force of nearly 30,000 to what is, so far, a stalemate.
While there are many other perspectives to draw on this, the Basra fight and the Sadr movement are at least in part, slum movements. Sadr’s base of support is the slums; his tactics apparently depend upon expertise in slum terrain.
So it becomes pertinent to analyze this in terms of the growing roles of slums generally as they are spreading worldwide.
A trenchant discussion of the emerging role of slums in Third World megacities is Mike Davis’ Plant of Slums.
Here’s the blurb:
Urban theorist Davis takes a global approach to documenting the astonishing depth of squalid poverty that dominates the lives of the planet’s increasingly urban population, detailing poor urban communities from Cape Town and Caracas to Casablanca and Khartoum. Davis argues health, justice and social issues associated with gargantuan slums (the largest, in Mexico City, has an estimated population of 4 million) get overlooked in world politics: “The demonizing rhetorics of the various international ‘wars’ on terrorism, drugs, and crime are so much semantic apartheid: they construct epistemological walls around gecekondus, favelas, and chawls that disable any honest debate about the daily violence of economic exclusion.” Though Davis focuses on individual communities, he presents statistics showing the skyrocketing population and number of “megaslums” (informally, “stinking mountains of shit” or, formally, “when shanty-towns and squatter communities merge in continuous belts of informal housing and poverty, usually on the urban periphery”) since the 1960s. Layered over the hard numbers are a fascinating grid of specific area studies and sub-topics ranging from how the Olympics has spurred the forceful relocation of thousands (and, sometimes, hundreds of thousands) of the urban poor, to the conversion of formerly second world countries to third world status. Davis paints a bleak picture of the upward trend in urbanization and maintains a stark outlook for slum-dwellers’ futures.
Viewing the Basra conflict through the Davis lens suggests Basra is but the first of many such struggles to come. Davis’ analysis further equips us with an approach that may help us solve the slum phenomenon, which solution we should seek for humanitarian reasons regardless of the military implications.
Fabius Maximus: Thank you for posting this — the sort of analysis that helps us understand not just what is happening now in Iraq, but also global trends going forward.
Do elections matter in Iraqi politics?
Let’s assume that PM Maliki and his Shia supporters in the government have some success. They gain control of Basra and contain the Mehdi militia elsewhere. Could such a success translate into gains in the up-coming elections? If election fraud is not rampant in Iraq, Sadr’s movement could still win big in the elections. In particular the national elections. Remember his party is based on the poorest of the Shia and they/the Sadr party demand clear water, working sewage, electricity, health care and jobs. Basic things which will attract voters in any country. Can that support be crushed with fighting?
I don’t know enough of what motivates the Iraqi voter and what differences there are across the country. But is military success for the Iraqi government equal to electoral success? What then if no Iraqi government can be formed without his party?
Fabius Maximus: I too have wondered about this. If the Mahdi Army is defeated — more likely just chased into hiding — in southern Iraq, why would that mean less votes for al Sadr’s party? Unless, as you imply, control of the streets creates the opportunity for election fraud. As in third world nations everywhere, and many cities of America during long stretches of our history.
“Unless, as you imply, control of the streets creates the opportunity for election fraud.”
That’s part of it. The other is do ISCI & Daawa seek to dismantle Sadr’s social programs and replace them with their own? Creating a patron/client system in their favor.
Part of the popularity of Sadr’s party springs from the help they give to their local communities. No doubt policies copied from Hezbollah & Hamas where one can see the same mix of political movement, militia and welfare organization.
But unless there is a willingness to replace the Sadr programs it could backfire seriously.