Saturday, October 20, 2007

Revisiting the Resistance

There has been a welcome efflorescence of talking about the Iraqi resistance in lefty-liberal circles over the past few weeks. We have Michael Schwartz's article summarizing developments in the resistance, we have Pepe Escobar providing the reporting which Schwartz bases himself off of, and we have Robert Dreyfuss talking about the actions of the occupiers over the last few months galvanizing a new Iraqi nationalism. This is a breath of fresh air, especially when you compare it with things like Katha Pollit's drivel.

Dreyfuss, Escobar, and Schwartz all emphasize the significance of a Sunni-Shi'a parliamentary bloc (with the blessing of Ayatollah al-Sistani) challenging al-Maliki on an anti-occupation basis. The coming together of such groups is certainly to welcomed, and the fact that they've explicitly taken a stand against takfiri violence is especially important. It's also important that the coalition includes a large number of Sunni tribal leaders. The US has consistently tried to spread the idea that such leaders are the new base of US support in the occupation, something I argued against nearly a month ago. In other words, it's clear Schwartz and co. are right that there are some major new developments in the Iraqi resistance.

At the same time, I think there is reason to be sober about the long term stability of these developments. Nearly all of the forces involved have a strong history of vacillation between collaboration and resistance. al-Sader, for example, while often taking a militant stance, has recently been involved in talks with the US military. Sadr's lieutenants argue that the purpose of the ceasefire is to identify takfiris in Jaish al-Mahdi and drive them out. This could be the case, as Sadr's aide explicitly declares that "Anyone who collaborates with the Americans will be considered a traitor." However, as Dreyfuss points out, this could simply be Sadr positioning himself closer to the US and essentially convince them that he can keep order if they leave. Hardly the die-hard anti-occupation persona he sometimes adopts.

The so-called "New Ba'ath" front appears to be maneuvering in a similar fashion. Its leader, Izzat al-Douri, while recognized as a leader of the resistance, has also indicated that he would be willing to negotiate a ceasefire if the US agrees to a timetable. Again, like al-Sadr, the idea seems to be negotiating with the US to be in a better position to rule Iraq once the occupiers leave. There's also, of course, the long history of Ba'athist collaboration with the US.

The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC, formerly SCIRI) has an even worse history of collaboration. Juan Cole's description of SIIC's class background is essential for understanding its actions:

“SCIRI represents the great merchants, landowners and clerics of the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, who have dollar signs in their eyes at the prospect of the billions of dollars that the Iranian pilgrimage trade will bring in. The Sadrists represent the little people, who wonder where their next meal is coming from and who suffer from lack of fuel, electricity and services. SCIRI represents the Shiites who can afford their own generators.”
SCIRI was one of the first groups to ally itself with the United States after the invasion. As upper-class Shi'a, they had the most to gain from Saddam's overthrow (namely, a partnership with US capital.) In return, the US gave SCIRI control over the Ministry of the Interior. In this capacity, SCIRI's armed wing, the Badr Brigade, functioned as an extension of the US military. When the resistance was primarily Sunni, it was to the Badr Brigades that the CIA turned to break up emerging nationalist consciousness and enflame sectarian tensions. SCIRI, now SIIC, has gradually moved in a more anti-occupation direction since then, but this sordid past won't be easily escaped. Indeed, Escobar points out that the presence of the Badr Brigades at the united resistance talks casts an ominous shadow on promising developments. Escobar also mentions that the head of SIIC, Ammar al-Hakim, is in fact a supporter of "soft-partition," which puts him alongside that raging anti-occupation activist Joe Biden.

None of this should be taken to mean that there aren't exciting things happening in the politics of the Iraqi resistance right now. The fact that these different groups are starting to work together is extremely exciting. To me, it represents the leaderships of the different groups, whose position of power had previously often been based on sectarian grounds, finally coming around to the views of ordinary Iraqis, who have consistently opposed attacks on Iraqi civilians by elements of the resistance. This (belated) convergence of views is to be welcomed.

I also think, however, it's important to keep in mind the vacillation of the middle class leaders of the resistance. The stability of these leaders in resisting US buyoffs is going to be dependent upon the militancy of the resistance's rank and file (in addition to the ever-present stupidity of the occupiers).

*Update* As I said, the stupidity of the occupiers seems boundless. In the midst of a cease-fire with Sadr, they go and shoot up Sadr City, the base of his support. The excuse was going after the "Special Units," supposedly elite forces trained by Iran. This little incident will probably put more pressure on Sadr to take a harder stance.