Losing the South
First published in Prospect Magazine, 1 November, 2005.
Is southern Iraq only hell with flies? September’s image of a British soldier bathed in flames as he tumbled from his tank seemed to symbolise a state of anarchy, spawned by the coalition and dominated by Iranian-funded terrorist militias. The reality is less bleak, but still unsettling. Southern Iraq is under coalition occupation but not coalition control; an elected government that is not quite a democracy uses a secular constitution to impose Islamist codes; Iraqi nationalists funded by Iran employ illegal groups to enforce the law. I spent ten months in Iraq last year as the coalition deputy governor of two provinces—Maysan and Dhi Qar—without understanding what this meant. I began to grasp it only on my return in March this year when I called on Abu Akil, one of the main new political leaders in the south and head of the Iraqi branch of the Da’wa party. It took some time to find Abu Akil’s office in Basra; my bodyguard team was reluctant to follow a guide in case we were driven into a trap, and they were not happy when we stopped in a side street blocked by large concrete bollards and a number of armed men. Iraqis were not supposed to carry automatic weapons but the coalition largely avoided confronting the political parties. I guessed the building had been, like so many party headquarters, illegally requisitioned from Saddam’s Ba’athists. In a narrow hall, more armed men stepped aside to let us walk up the stairs. There were cigarette butts all over the concrete steps. We walked over three irregular squares of fitted carpet in our socks and sat on plastic chairs. A man brought us hot tea. He called me “A-Khoi,” a distant term, while he called my interpreter “Molai,” or “Comrade in Islam.” I was a little taken aback by this distinction.
The tea was in a glass with pink flowers on the rim, served on a small porcelain plate with a European pastoral scene of a man in knee britches holding hands with a woman in a long dress. There was a party newspaper on the table with articles encouraging women to wear the veil. When, in a flurry of gunmen and aides, Abu Akil finally entered the room, I found to my surprise that he was dressed not in clerical robes but wore a grey suit and a cream shirt, and large gold-rimmed glasses. He sat modestly on the white plastic chair beside me and smiled as he stroked his short beard. I knew that he had spent 20 years in Iran, wanted a state based on Shari’a law and was close to conservative Iranian mullahs. I also knew that his party had taken a number of the provincial council and deputy governor positions in the south. “It is necessary,” he said, “to consider the government of the Islamic jurists from a scientific, not a political, point of view. As Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr said in the founding document of Da’wa, Demokratia masdar kua lel ferd we el mujtema—democracy is the basis of the power of the individual and the community.” His long elegant fingers moved through the air as he sketched out theories of government. I felt I was in a university seminar. But I was also confused. I knew that Abu Akil wanted a theocracy, but he was presenting himself as a democrat. “So is God and Shari’a law the ultimate authority in the state, or is it the people?” I asked, assuming he would say the former. He paused, and said very slowly, “The two are the same… Power derives from the law which is based on Shari’a, which comes from the Koran and God. But it also derives from the constitution which is created by the legislature elected by the people.” As he went on spinning distinctions between power, authority, law and policy, I felt more and more lost. He referred to works by three different ayatollahs, drew distinctions between Islamic theory and policy, and concluded that the clerics should direct the religious, moral and social actions of the people but not their politics. Whatever that meant. “Abu Akil,” I said. “I understand the differences in leadership and in the history of your groups, but what differentiates you today from the other parties?” He smiled broadly. “Of course, Seyyed Rory, the parties are different because they look to different clerics for guidance: different mujtahid [clerics qualified to interpret the Koran].” “Do these clerics have different opinions?” I asked. “Different interpretations but not different opinions,” he replied cheerfully. “We are all Shia. We perform emulation towards the grand ayatollahs, who, because they are all Muslim, agree.”
“How about economic policy?” I asked desperately. “Islam teaches all of us that there should be a pragmatically regulated free market. All agree on that.” “So would I be right to say that there are no substantial differences between your parties?” “No. There are many differences. We agree in fundamentals, differ in policy.” “Give me an example.” “There are theoretical differences, intellectual differences, conceptual ones…” “Can you give me an example please?” “Well, for example in Britain you have a Labour party and a Conservative party—it is like that.” And that is all I got in a two-hour conversation. Abu akil is a typical leader of one of the three groups that now dominate politics in southern Iraq and were associated with the recent conflict with the coalition. These are Da’wa, SCIRI/Badr and the Sadrists. They have militias which are effectively outside the law and have filled the police and the ministries with allies. Sadrists govern two of the four southern provinces and Badr men the other two. With Da’wa (one branch of which is led by Abu Akil) these Islamic parties have taken almost every seat in the south in both the national and provincial parliaments. Any understanding of the current situation in Iraq depends on a detailed knowledge of these parties. But, as my conversation with Abu Akil indicated, it is difficult to define the differences between them. This is as true for Iraqis as it is for foreigners. The leaders are reluctant to emphasise the differences between their groups, keen to conceal their more extreme views from the more moderate electorate and, most importantly, having led covert insurgency organisations for 20 years, are accustomed to keeping their programmes secret. Like tribes rather than political parties, the clearest differences between them lie more in history and leadership than in policy. All three groups descend from a single party—the Da’wa (Islamic Call) party of the 1960s and 1970s—and their view of political Islam is defined by Da’wa’s founder, a cleric, Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr (sometimes called Sadr I) who was opposed to Iraqi communism and to western “economic and cultural colonialism.” Formed by clerics, developed in the ancient medieval theological seminaries of Najaf and shaped by grand ayatollahs, who as mirja (sources of emulation) had unique authority among the Shia, the party had a fundamentally theological character.
In 1970, the recently victorious Ba’ath party declared Da’wa illegal. For the next 33 years, political Islam in Iraq survived only in exile or in secret cell networks. It moved from public politics to something resembling a revolutionary terrorist organisation. On 8th April 1980, the government announced that it was a capital offence to belong to Da’wa. Tens of thousands were arrested and the party’s founder, Sadr I, was executed the next day. Much of the leadership went into exile in Iran. This was the point at which the Da’wa movement began to fragment into rival factions whose leaders changed allies, national patrons and ideological positions with startling rapidity. The first and perhaps most famous of the Islamic groups is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its Badr brigade. In last January’s election, it took the governorships in the pro-vinces of Dhi Qar and Muthanna as well as half the seats on the provincial council in Basra. The leadership of SCIRI/Badr was in exile in Iran and has the closest relationship with the Iranian state, whereas many of the Da’wa leaders chose Britain for their exile and the Sadrists mostly remained in Iraq. The founding leader of SCIRI, Muhammed Bakr al-Hakim, an Iraqi cleric, campaigned for a theocracy in which the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini would become the supreme leader of a Shia superstate embracing Iran and Iraq. Under his umbrella came the Badr brigade, a paramilitary unit of Iraqi exiles commanded by the Iranian revolutionary guard who had fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq war. Many of the leaders of this group still have family in Iran. They are all religiously conservative and committed to the establishment of an Islamic government. Their leadership has long-term connections with the Iranian revolutionary guard and intelligence services. Thousands of their followers receive salaries from Iran, but they would not consider themselves agents of Iran. Many claim to have been humiliated while in Iran and to be committed Iraqi nationalists. Immediately after the allied invasion, al-Hakim recommended compromise with the coalition, no longer calling for an Iranian theocracy but instead for “a democratic free Iraq that reflects the interests of its people.” He was assassinated and his group is now run by his less charismatic brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is one of the most important figures in the national government in Baghdad. The Sadrists are the second group that dominates southern politics. They tend not to have been in exile, see themselves as nationalists, perceive the coalition as a colonial occupation, and are worried about threats from Iran. Their leader was Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr (a relative of Da’wa’s founder), an inspirational teacher who preached on the evils of western decadence and talked often of the coming of the Shia messiah, the “hidden imam.” His populist conservative message attracted many young clerics in the 1990s. Because “Sadr II” was resolutely nationalist and anti-Iranian and called al-Hakim a traitor and a spy, he was initially supported by Saddam. But by 1998, his criticism of corruption, secularism and decadence seemed increasingly dangerous. Sadr II reached out to the poor with a charity supported by pious Iraqis. Tens of thousands of young men, often from poor homes, began to attend the mosques where his
young disciples preached. The most senior leader of the Iraqi Shia was (and is) Grand Ayatollah Sistani, a much more learned scholar. But Sistani was born in Iran and did not give public sermons—some said because he did not want people to hear him speak Arabic with a Persian accent. Young men sometimes mocked him in private, calling him the “silent leader” and gave their hearts to the unimpeachably Arab Iraqi nationalist, Sadr II. In 1999, Sadr II was assassinated by Saddam. This martyrdom turned a growing movement into perhaps the most powerful popular religious movement in Iraq. Sadr II’s legacy was continued through his grassroots network of social foundations and the young preachers, led by his chief of staff and surviving son, Muqtada, a cleric in his late twenties. After the invasion, almost anything in a Shia district that had been called “Saddam” was renamed “Sadr” (hence Baghdad’s Sadr City, a poor suburb of 2.5m people). Posters of Sadr II appeared throughout the south. Whereas Saddam was depicted in suits, sheikhly costume or military uniform and holding rosary beads, a Cuban cigar or a hunting rifle, Sadr was depicted in his black robes, preaching. The party of his son Muqtada—the Office of the Martyr Sadr—is emotional in appeal, exploiting Shia themes of martyrdom and messianic beliefs about the coming redeemer. It is anti-coalition—Muqtada led an uprising against the “occupation” for much of last year in which thousands died. It is also popular. In Maysan, a proxy of Muqtada’s party took three times as many votes as the next party, and the head of the Sadr office in a provincial city became governor of Maysan. The group has a militia called the “army of the Mahdi imam” (see Bartle Bull, Prospect, November 2004). The Sadrist groups called Fadhile and Fudhala, led by the former chief of staff of Muqtada’s late father, share the same theological views and Iraqi nationalism as Muqtada but are more moderate in their politics. Their supporters are often urban professionals whereas Muqtada’s are from the urban poor. The governor of Basra is from Fadhile. The third of the three Shia religious parties is still called Da’wa. It was involved in terrorist operations in Kuwait and against Saddam (its Lebanese faction became Hizbullah with Iranian support). But it also established a more moderate branch in London, which rejected Iran and further subdivided. One branch, with the closest links to Iran, became Iraqi Da’wa, whose leader Abu Akil I met in March. Another became the Islamic Da’wa party whose de facto leader is the new Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari. Having descended from the same party, these three groups, though rivals, are now in an uneasy parliamentary coalition under the patronage of Ayatollah Sistani. This coalition (the Sistani list) won the majority of votes in the national elections. In the national parliament they have had to compromise with Sunnis and Kurds. But in the provincial politics of the Shia south they have not, and it is there that they have forged a unique Islamic politics. Although they now hold all of the senior elected positions in the provincial government
and have thousands of followers in the police and the ministries, the groups continue to rely on their militias. They use them to enforce religious practices: firebombing internet cafés, alcohol and music shops, and attacking unveiled women. Many from minority religious groups, such as the Christians, have fled to Baghdad, preferring the terror in the Sunni triangle to threats from the Shia parties. In March, the Sadr militia in Basra attacked a group of engineering students from the local university who were having a picnic. Apparently angry that men and women were sitting together, that some of the Christian women were unveiled and that some of the Christians were carrying alcohol (none of which was illegal), the Sadrists kidnapped some of them and shot dead a female student for wearing jeans. Basra’s new governor, a Fadhile Sadrist from the movement’s more moderate wing, defended the actions of the Sadr Office. Partly because of such incidents, educated middle-class Iraqis are often horrified by their new leaders. Even if they did vote for the “Sistani list” that now governs Iraq, they do not want to be ruled by men who have spent 20 years as Iranian secret agents or who have no education outside a theological seminary. Some are so afraid that they are leaving Iraq. Meanwhile, the new politicians use their militias to enforce their will whenever they are frustrated by the new constitution. If SCIRI or the Sadrists are unable to fire a provincial minister through the formal channels, they send the Badr brigades or the Mahdi army to knock on his door. The Islamist politicians are urban and anti-tribal and do not try to work with or around the sheikhs in order to extend government into the rural areas where perhaps half of southern Iraqis live. And the Sadrist movement in particular is reluctant to co-operate directly with an “infidel, colonial” coalition. The Sadrist governor of Maysan has instructed Iraqi police units to cease joint patrols with the coalition. In Dhi Qar, the Fadhile faction in the council has suggested rejecting all development assistance from the coalition. In Basra, the governor has supported the arrest of coalition soldiers. Furthermore, the militias continue to mount terrorist attacks against the coalition, most recently killing soldiers and embassy guards with shaped explosive charges, designed in Iran. Nevertheless, southern Iraq is in a better condition now than it was last year. For much of 2004, the southern provinces were caught up in a full-blown insurgency. In Maysan, in October 2003, the police chief was assassinated on the steps of a Sadrist mosque and in May 2004, the governor shot dead another police chief (with Iranian connections) in a hospital morgue. In the neighbouring province of Dhi Qar, the police were powerless, officials corrupt, beatings and rape commonplace and services faltering. When I left Iraq in June 2004, a civil war seemed almost inevitable—not between grand factions but between small local groups that were simultaneously mafia, tribes and political parties. Neither the police nor the coalition were in a position to control them. But when I returned to Iraq this year, scores of Iraqis told me that security was much better in the south. This improvement was, of course, relative: my friend Sheikh al-Ibadi praised the security improvements, but did so while breathing heavily because he had just been shot three times in the chest in an assassination attempt. The political militias still kill people and collect “contributions” by threat; diesel smuggling rackets are booming
and there were 60 murders in Basra in July alone. But the rackets in carjacking, kidnapping and archaeological theft which dominated the south a year ago have largely been beaten. The highways are safer. Businesses in Basra are not forced to pay protection money to gangsters. There are still attacks on the coalition but the Sadrists stopped their full-scale armed resistance in September 2004 and have since allowed some of their supporters to join the government (see , Prospect, June 2005). The Islamist militias hate each other, but apart from an incident in September they have avoided large-scale battles. Nor have they become full-time gangsters: they have rarely, for example, involved themselves in the huge black market in diesel. Moreover, although many politicians have been killed in Baghdad and elsewhere, I am not aware of a single provincial governor or member of a provincial council in the four southern provinces who has been killed since Saddam’s fall. Despite their intolerance and violent methods, the new politicians are often young technocrats with a confident and articulate programme of anti-corruption and economic development. Their religious beliefs can be an important moderating influence in Shia society. So too are wider mechanisms of social control, confidence and moral concern. Thousands of Shia have been killed by Sunni terrorists in Iraq but the Shia community has generally refused to retaliate. Restraint has been shown not only by Sistani but also by political leaders at a district level. The leaders I met on my last visit had stopped complaining that they were the victims of a Zionist plot and seemed realistic, tolerant and humorous about progress. They had begun to find the capacity to co-operate with each other and lay the foundations for government and security. The new order in southern Iraq is, in short, hard to define. It is an improvement on the political exclusion and sadistic inhumanity of Saddam and has a great deal to teach the Sunni areas about prosperity, security and politics. But it is also reactionary, violent, intolerant towards women and religious minorities and uncooperative with the coalition. The new leaders have dark histories and dubious allies; they enforce a narrow social code and ignore the rural areas. Southern Iraq is a democracy but we should not assume that this or any of the other terms which we deploy frequently about Iraq—insurgency, civil society, civil war, police force or even political party— mean what they do in Britain. There have been elections, but the government is not responsive to or respectful of human rights. In many ways it resembles Iran, but it is not governed by clerics. Its militias are not infiltrators, they are an integral element of the elected parties. The new government is oppressive, but has a popular mandate; it is supported by illegal militias, but it has improved security. This is not the kind of state the coalition had hoped to create. During 14 months of direct rule, until the middle of last year, we tried to prevent it from emerging. We refused to allow Shari’a law to be “the source of legislation” in the constitution. We invested in religious minorities and women’s centres; supported rural areas and tribal groups; funded NGOs and created “representative bodies” that were intended to reflect a vision of Iraq as a tolerant, modern society. We hoped that we had created the opportunity for civil society Bartle Bull
to flourish. This was a dream we shared with many Iraqis. We refused to deal with the Sadr militia and fought a long counter- insurgency campaign against them. Then we left, an election was held and the dream collapsed—the Islamist parties took almost all the seats provincially and nationally. The rural sheikhs, the “liberal” middle classes and the religious minorities mostly vanished from the government. Some observers suggest that people voted for Islamist parties out of ignorance or poverty. But most people in the south share the parties’ vision of a more religious, moral and traditional society, as well as their suspicion of non-Muslims and “western decadence and colonialism.” They are proud of being Iraqis and Shia Muslims. They may dislike the brutality of their new leaders and be suspicious of their connections to Iran, but they prefer them to the coalition. Most people in the south tolerate the coalition only because they believe the presence of the troops in bases may deter civil war. Iraqis are reluctant to trust us or work with us. Because of this lack of co-operation, it has been difficult for the coalition to achieve as much as it had hoped with its billions of dollars in development aid, and it has received almost no credit for its efforts. The Shia are grateful that the coalition toppled Saddam but for little else. Despite thousands of troops and tens of millions invested in essential services, despite a number of impressive reconstruction projects, despite ambitious programmes in police training and in developing “good governance and civil society,” the coalition has had only a minimal political impact in southern Iraq. The British soldier engulfed by flames and his colleagues who were kidnapped were not simply victims of mob violence, or even of an illegal militia. They were confronting the authorities of an independent state. In place of last year’s insurgency, there is now an increasingly confident governing apparatus in the south, which extends from governors and provincial councillors to the militias, police and ministries. The leaders of these groups have a distinctive Islamist ideology and complex history. This new Islamist state is elected, it functions and it is relatively popular. We may not like it, but we can only try to understand it and acknowledge that there is now little we can do to influence it.