U.S. trouble means more chances for mullahs
By Walid Phares and Robert Rabil
Posted April 29 2004
Decades of brutal rule under the regime of Saddam Hussein have eroded the sense of Iraqi "national" identity shaped in the 20th century. Since the fall of the Baathist regime, ethnic identity has played a much stronger role than ever it did in the history of modern Iraq, if only because every community has been striving to secure its political space and say in the emerging government of Iraq.

At the same time, the absence of a shared collective identity has confronted Iraqis with the national task of recreating one based on strong communal common denominators. Religion and a national myth emerge as powerful instruments for solidarity. Paradoxically, Islam as a political ideology, being the most organized political force in Iraq, may have the appeal of overcoming ethnic sectarianism in the interest of unity.

Significantly, the Iraqis did not themselves liberate their own country. Even during the American takeover of Baghdad, the army dissolved rather than turn against the regime of Hussein. This deprived Iraq of a national-resistance myth upon which a new identity could be constructed. Correspondingly, religious solidarity in the absence of a shared collective identity could easily become the driving force for many anti-Western Iraqis to recreate one based on "fighting the coalition." This explains the appeal of Moqtada Sadr's anti-American movement to radical Iraqi Sunnis and shatters the misconception that Sunnis will not collaborate in Shi'a insurgency and vice versa.

Moqtada Sadr is a millenarian. His beliefs are based solely on the writings and edicts of his father, Ayatollah Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who supported Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of clerical rule (Vilayet el-Faqih). Being the scion of a "respected" Shi'a family whose prominent men (father, brothers and uncle) had been revered as martyrs murdered by the Hussein regime, Moqtada will exploit Shi'a traditions and symbolism to invoke Shi'a martyrdom against the American oppressor.

He is replicating Hezbollah's depiction of Israeli troops in Lebanon (initially welcomed with rice) as the Yazidis, a special reference to the Caliph Yazid who in 680 oppressed and killed Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, at Karbala (in present-day Iraq). It is no coincidence that Sadr declared himself "the beating arm for Hezbollah and Hamas."

By fighting the occupation through an apocalyptic ideological framework, Sadr, if killed, would continue the martyrdom legacy of his family. Otherwise, he will enhance his political standing and impose his Islamist ideas in the interest of creating a fundamentalist Islamic state.

It follows from this logic that Moqtada must not be underestimated. Poking the fire of Shi'a traditions and symbolism, his movement may attract a significant number of supporters, including rival militias such as the Badr brigades
supported and financed by Iran.

It is noteworthy that Badr brigades constitute the military arm of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, is on the Iraqi Governing Council. Still, Iran exercises great influence over the brigades and reports from Iraq indicate that the commanders of Badr are not at one with al-Hakim.

Sadr's movement will undoubtedly have (if not granted already) support from the mullahs in Iran. The more the Americans are in trouble in Iraq, the more are the chances for the mullahs to shape the outcome of the new Iraq while at the same time limit American actions against the Islamic republic.

The U.S. has to take stock of its allies in Iraq. It has to decide whether or not the Iraqi Governing Council is phony and thus whether the transfer of power is plausible. Sitting on the fence at this critical juncture in Iraq is not a luxury. All members need to take a stand.

Some experts have suggested the U.S. could dissolve the council and proclaim emergency rule. Once Iraq is pacified, elections would take place. However, a reshuffling of the interim body, with leaders who can face the radicals, remains a credible and rational option.

The U.S. has to "re-liberate" Iraq. The noble enterprise of freeing Iraq has been undermined by countless mistakes and by the terror axis. The U.S. needs, first and foremost, to pacify Iraq. This will require more soldiers and a will to dismantle and disarm all militias, groups and individuals in Iraq, irrespective of their allegiances.

The U.S. needs to establish military outposts on the Syrian and Iranian borders and to control them. It must make clear to both Iran and Syria that under certain circumstances where Damascus and Tehran are found fomenting dissent, the U.S. will mount surgical strikes deep into their territories.

All of that, according to this analysis, to take place before June 30, or if that date is postponed, until the day a new government can operate without the enormous threats paused by the jihad forces from Falluja to Najaf.
***Walid Phares and Robert Rabil are professors of Middle East studies at Florida Atlantic University