Today Voice of America, the US government’s media arm, released a brief election preview for Iraq. The summary amounts to a few quotes from US officials, some statistics, and a sunny view of Iraq going forward.
What is informative are the statements of General Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq. Not that Iraq’s elections are important to the region or that America is warning other “agendas” to stay out, but that, according to VOA, “The people of Iraq are clear about what they want the government to address, and it isn't sectarian interests.”
General Odierno cites the prevalence of political polling, “and all the polls are very clear about what's important to the Iraqi people: Number 1 is the economy and jobs. Number 2, is basic services, electricity, water. Ultimately, those are the issues that Iraq's politicians will need to address.”
From this half-truth soup rises a exemplary example of counterinsurgency.
While Odierno’s numbers require a minor adjustment the basic premise of his argument remains unchanged. Number 1 is security in all forms, an umbrella for physical security (from violence and disease), political security. job security, and a general security of lifestyle.
No one can dispute Iraqis crave stability after 40 years of chaos, but covering these fundamental issues are Iraq’s political umbrellas that demonstrate a general law of counterinsurgency: military operations are ineffective without a political umbrella. Iraq’s relative turnaround in 2007 saw military progress only because America began patching the holes in its political umbrella.
Afghanistan’s only hope is the same task.
Yet serious doubts exist over whether sectarian interests are a thing of the past in Iraq. A decrease in sectarian violence hasn’t fully translated into political progress so much as having morphed from military to political conflict.
The system is experiencing turbulence unlikely to let up before the March 7th election. Shiite parties are jostling among their alliances, warning each other to unite instead of seek intra-sectarian alliances. Several Sunni parties are vowing boycott or angry at Shiite Iran and its Iraqi connections, and the Kurds are looking to capitalize wherever they can.
Odierno himself found himself amid a firestorm after triggering sectarian tensions.
Speaking at the Institute for the Study of War last week, Odierno said two people who run the Justice and Accountability Commission, Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Al-Allami, are, "clearly influenced by Iran. We have direct intelligence that tells us that."
One Sunni party, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, immediately announced a boycott of the election. Its leader, Saleh al-Mutlaq, had been banned by the commission.
"The National Dialogue Front has made its final stand," said party spokesman Haidar al-Mullah. "It will boycott the election, but it will stay part of the political process. The call is open for other political parties to take the same stand as our front. The whole issue is not related to [the candidate ban], rather the unsuitable atmosphere of this election."
“There is an obvious Iranian will that made critical and political decisions within the political process in the last few weeks,” he said.
In a recent CNN interview, al-Mutlaq “slammed” Chalabi, a leading Shiite political figure, for banning him said democracy in Iraq is "finished."
al-Mutlaq’s activity was followed by a statement from the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country’s largest Sunni party and a vocal critic of US influence. The IIP redirected the blame back on America for al-Mutlaq’s boycott rather than blame Shiite Iran and its Iraqi collaborators.
"Building an independent and unified Iraq can only be achieved through the participation of all Iraqis in free and fair elections, and allowing true representation for all components of the population, without the exclusion of any party for subjective reasons," the party said in a statement Monday.
This thinking falls in line with Ordeino’s suggestion that Iraqis want to move past sectarian politics, except the note is soured.
“We in the Iraqi Islamic Party are surprised to read statements from the US regarding the negative Iranian interference in internal Iraqi affairs. We ask: Who made Iraqi land an open theatre for regional and international interference? Who is legally and ethically responsible for the violations of Iraq?"
For all the desire to enter a new age of universality Iraq is still caught in the middle of a sectarian hurricane, with the election serving as the eye and post-election Iraq as a looming wall to break through.
The Shiites have their own discord. The latest poll conducted by the National Media Centre, which is linked to al-Maliki, found his State of Law Coalition in the lead with 29.9% of the vote. Ayad Allawi’s newly formed Iraqi National Movement, advertised as secular and non-sectarian, polled 21.8%.
However, the poll fails to mention Muqtada al-Sadr and the umbrella he patiently sits under. Obviously al-Sadr is considered an outlaw by al-Maliki, but he's also a direct Shiite political threat against al-Maliki and Allawi, himself a Shiite who has similarly attempted to suppress al-Sadr.
According to the Washington Post, al-Sadr’s Shiite-oriented Iraqi National Alliance is sending a jolt of anxiety down al-Maliki’s coalition. This umbrella consists of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the Sadrists.
The Washington Post reports, “SIIC officials are quietly acknowledging that the Sadrists are likely to emerge as the biggest winner in the bloc, thus robbing their own party of the chance to secure the prime minister's job,” and that, “Officials at al-Maliki's Shiite-led ‘State of Law’ coalition also have acknowledged the Sadrists will fare well in the vote.”
A senior SIIC official said the party is already trying to prevent the Sadrists from gaining control by securing the support of smaller groups within the umbrella. al-Maliki must be relieved to hear this because whoever finishes as the largest bloc in the newly-expanded 325 seat parliament holds the most influence in selecting the future president and prime minister.
Needless to say, America’s military power could be reduced to insignificance with al-Sadr actively influencing the Iraqi government.
It’s difficult to envision this possibility becoming reality; Shiites as a whole are unlikely to hand the country over to al-Sadr. Yet his reemergence is clearly threatening to poke new holes in America’s political umbrella, currently covering its military withdrawal.
He is a potential tipping point of Iraq’s other political feuds.
The threat he poses to US interests returns the spotlight to the dropped Blackwater case last month. In the coming months America must execute a near flawless political and diplomatic strategy to successfully exit militarily, which is preconditioned on a stabilizing Iraq. al-Sadr appears on his guerrilla game.
Guerrilla warfare has a transitioning life-cycle, from terrorist to insurgent to guerrilla, and finally authorized soldier of the state. Terrorists have little acceptance in a local society, necessary for true guerrilla warfare. An insurgency is the phase of gaining local popularity, and if successful in building a popular political base, transitions into full-fledged guerrilla warfare.
Shiite Hezbollah is the best living example - and al-Sadr sounds like he’s adopting its model.
According to the Washington Post, “he recently has appeared to be positioning himself as a politician, replacing his militia with a grass-roots social welfare network... Much of its rise is tied to its social, health and education services and tireless calls for the withdrawal of the Americans, a stand that resonates with mostly poor Shiites who see the U.S. presence as the root of the country's problems.”
al-Sadr has always combined insurgent, political, and social warfare, but he appears to have realized how much more potent this combination is with the emphasis on non-military operations. He wasn't defeated during America's surge, he's been busy rearranging his movement to politico-religious centric model supported by his militia.
As America must wage counterinsurgency under a political umbrella, al-Sadr wishes to wage his insurgency under a political umbrella.
Sami al-Askari, a close al-Maliki aide, “questioned the Sadrists' ability to forge a post-election alliance with the country's main Kurdish bloc - a necessity in Iraq's fractured political scene since no single bloc is expected to win enough votes to claim an outright majority.”
His observation, accurate as it is, misses the point however. We doubt al-Sadr’s ability to forge a post-election alliance outside the Shiites, but he’s still going to end up with political power to combine with his military backbone and growing religious influence.
al-Sadr isn’t going to become king, but a good showing by the the SIIC, at the least, will put him in the position of kingmaker. That would be more than enough to punch a hole through American’s counterinsurgency umbrella.
While the US media starts to question whether President Obama should continue with his withdrawal as planned, citing the uptick in violence, the only real way Washington can stabilize Iraq is a coherent, sensitive, nuanced, and pragmatic political strategy.
This is what the White House and Pentagon must deliver until the last US troop leaves Iraq. Delaying the withdraw won't matter as much if they can't.