"Iraqis…must not jump on the anti-Israel Arab bandwagon"

July 27th, 2006

Iraq's Hezbollah
By DAN SENOR

During his trip to Washington earlier this week, the Iraqi prime minister again failed to condemn Hezbollah and instead focused exclusively on the “destruction that happened to the Lebanese people as a result of the military air and ground attacks.” Following Nouri al-Maliki's initial one-sided and even blunter criticism of Israel 10 days ago, a demoralized friend from Jerusalem emailed me:

“Iraqis need to understand that they must not jump on the anti-Israel Arab bandwagon; not for Israel's sake, but for themselves. The Arab obsession with Israel has been debilitating for the Arab world and has been the primary excuse for tolerating dictatorships and terrorism. Some brave Arabs have said this. Also, why should Iraq line up with Syria and the hardliners when even the Saudis are criticizing Hezbollah?”

He's right. And it wasn't supposed to be this way. We had thought that a post-Saddam Iraqi government would be less susceptible to Arab League pressure; Israel as the old whipping-boy was to find little resonance there. This change of tone was to be a model for the region. Wasn't the road to Arab-Israeli peace supposed to go through Baghdad?

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Mr. Maliki — who is competent, tough and genuinely committed to a democratic Iraq — is not responding to pressure from the Arab League. The pressure is coming instead from some radical Shiites in his own country. Moqtada al-Sadr and his Sadrists, the Sadriyyun, are as powerful and destructive as ever, forcing the prime minister's hand on Israel and other issues.

Mr. Sadr's militia, the Mehdi army, has been responsible for a considerable share of Iraq's sectarian strife, not to mention the deaths of American soldiers in 2003 and 2004. His power is derived from a combination of family lineage, violent intimidation of rival clerics, and agitation on behalf of Iraq's Shiite underclass. His support is largely concentrated in Sadr City (a Baghdad slum, home to some two million Iraqi Shiites), and in a number of other impoverished neighborhoods throughout southern Iraq.

While the Sadriyyun lack the sophistication, weaponry and social welfare services of Hezbollah, both are funded by Tehran; and both organizations represent the same ethnic, religious and socioeconomic demographic within their respective countries. Mr. Sadr's organization is, in fact, about where Hezbollah was 20 years ago. As Fouad Ajami explains in “The Foreigner's Gift,” his important new book, “What the young boys of the Party of God did to Beirut a generation earlier was now replicated in Baghdad. The half-educated and the bewildered and the opportunistic found their way to Sadr's army.”

And much like Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in southern Lebanon, Moqtada al-Sadr has tried to establish a state within a state inside Iraq, albeit far more haphazardly. Mr. Sadr, for example, has set up an extrajudicial Sharia court system to put on trial those Iraqi Shiite “heretics” that do not strictly conform to his interpretation of Sharia law. Some “defendants” found guilty have been punished by death. The Mehdi army has also institutionalized its own checkpoints to fill the security vacuum in certain areas of the country — supplanting what it regards as Iraq's weak national army. It has also infiltrated municipal police forces, particularly in the south.

Messrs. Nasrallah and Sadr both have dual-tracked political strategies: While they seek to establish their own autonomous governing structures, they also influence the national political process by electing allies to the parliament and bargaining for appointments to ministerial posts. While 12 Hezbollah loyalists now sit in Lebanon's parliament (as well as two ministers), over 30 self-identified Sadrists are members of Iraq's 275-seat National Assembly.

The paralysis that Mr. Sadr can impose on the Shiite's national political caucus — the United Iraq Alliance (UIA) — was in full display during the four-month stalemate over the formation of Iraq's new government. The UIA at first renominated Ibrahim al-Jaafari for prime minister partly as a result of Mr. Sadr's support and collaboration with Mr. Jaafari's (and Mr. Malaki's) Dawa Party. Mr. Sadr helped deliver Mr. Jaafari's initial win by using threats of violence against caucus members.

Iraq's new prime minister is not beholden to Mr. Sadr; but Nouri al-Maliki must keep his antenna tuned to how Mr. Sadr might manipulate any move he makes, including coming down on the wrong side of the Hezbollah-Israel conflict.

This is not the first time that the Islamist Shiite political leaders have had to manage the delicate issue of Israel. During the drafting of Iraq's Interim Constitution in February 2004, Iraq's Governing Council wanted to reinstate citizenship for Iraqis who had fled Saddam's regime. There was a tense moment during the debate, however, when some of the Islamist Shiite leaders sought to structure the language to create an exception for Iraqi Jews. As one of them argued: “If we do not provide this exception, Israel's defense minister, who was born in Iraq, could return here and run for prime minister.” And one prominent Shiite leader in Iraq's current government tried to rationalize this position: “It's not that we are anti-Semitic, but in parts of our community, if it gets out that Iraqi Jews — Israelis — could return, there will be uproar.”

The U.S.-led coalition argued that the citizenship issue could not be addressed on a discriminatory basis. This view ultimately prevailed, with the Kurds, secular Shiites and Sunnis convincing the religious Shiites to accept it. But the experience was a precursor to the reaction of the Shiite-led government in the current Hezbollah standoff with Israel.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the vast majority of Iraqis do not share the obsession with Israel that has consumed many in the region. The Iraqi political parties that have run on a Nasserite pan-Arab agenda have performed dismally. Iraqis are preoccupied with the lack of security, jobs and electricity, none of which they connect to the old pan-Arab scapegoat.

When an Iraqi cab driver is waiting in a six-hour line at the gas station — under 112-degree heat — or a family is forced to endure Baghdad's sweltering summer with only seven hours of electricity in a day, they would be hard pressed to believe that the breakdown in basic services is the fault of the “Zionists.” When Iraqis are victimized in a wave of sectarian violence that has claimed sometimes a hundred lives per day, they now have access to enough free information to know that their war is with Sunni insurgents and Shiite militia — stoked by foreign jihadis — and not a result of “the Mossad.” It would be impossible in Iraq today for a democratically elected prime minister to send Iraqi national revenues to fund suicide bombers in Israel — as Saddam had done with regularity — or mobilize the country to fight a reckless war.

So, my Israeli friend should not be overly concerned about the anti-Israel rhetoric coming from Iraq's government. But Iraqis and Americans should be deeply concerned by what this rhetoric is symptomatic of: Moqtada al-Sadr's strength in Iraq today. We must address his potential to wreak havoc and capitalize on a weak state, much as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon.

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