The Centre is Holding

The centre in Iraq has always been the Shiite majority and its decisive role has been both under estimated and under reported. The Kurds did exactly what the Bush administration hoped all of Iraq would do – get on with peaceful self government and economic activity. The Sunnis chose insurgency and the resulting violence has filled the media and our awareness to an extent that has obscured the complex – and I believe ultimately decisive – political struggle going on within Iraq’s Shiite majority. The Shiites have had a mixed, even ambivalent, reaction to the war which should come as no surprise after their abandonment in 1991 to Saddam’s slaughter after they were encouraged to revolt. It has remained unclear to what extent the Iraq Shia are Arab nationalists and therefore Arabs and Iraqis first and unwilling to be dominated by Persian Iran. Despite sparse information it has been clear all along that there has been a moderate Shiite centre focused on the leadership of Grand Ayatollah Sistani that has held its ground against the radical Sadr. An overview of the situation in Iraq that gives Shiite political development its proper place in the overall picture is vanishingly rare. Reuel Marc Gerecht‘s Why the Worst Is Probably Over in Iraq is the first piece I have read that gives an idea of where Iraq’s majority may go if the Sunni insurgency is permanently defeated. It is about 6 pages long I strongly recommend reading the whole thing as an antidote to the the usual coverage we receive. Although more conservative than O’Hanaon and Polack of the Brookings institution he, like them, is primarily interested in dispassionately analyzing the situation rather than seeing it through the lens of a particular ideology. His description of the difficulties the Shia center have been through spares no one:

The Iraqi clerical establishment–which is the mainstay supporting peaceful political relations among the Shia, the democratic government in Baghdad, and the American troop presence in the country–has held under enormous pressure from within and without. The year 2006 was awful for the Iraqi Shia: the demolition of the shrine at Samarra; a ferocious onslaught of Sunni suicide bombers that seemed to be collapsing Shiite civilian life in the capital; the merciless Battle of Baghdad, which threatened to empower the most radical among the Shia; a noticeable Iranian push to gain influence amid the turmoil; the utter failure of Abizaid and Casey to deploy a counterinsurgency strategy against the Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda; the accompanying widespread, destabilizing fear that the Americans were withdrawing; and the growth of Shiite-on-Shiite violence in the south of the country as the British position completely collapsed in Basra–all combined to threaten the cohesion of the Shiite community.

Nor is his assessment simplistic or overly optimistic:

But the community did not crack. Although it is very difficult to gauge the grassroots health of Iraq’s clerical Shiite establishment and the mosques and religious schools allied with Najaf throughout the country (Western reporting on this has never been good, and the awful violence of 2005-2007 essentially shut down the occasional reporting on Najaf and its networks), the hawza under Sistani seems to be regaining strength. According to Iraqis affiliated with Sistani, religious students–the talaba–are returning to Najaf in greater numbers, and revenue flows within Iraq and from the larger Shiite world are increasing again and stabilizing.

The Shia centre has been the ground on which the figure of Iraqi violence has monopolized our attention. It only briefly flickered across our TV screens when the voters displayed their purple fingers and broad grins. To the extent it has been a TV war in the West, the Shia centre has seemed only a passing phantom of little importance. On the ground, once the tyrant who was holding Iraq’s Shiites in bondage was removed the outcome of the war has primarily depended on its majority. Gerecht, who has extensively studied Iran and the role of the Clergy in Shiite politics, gives us this striking conclusion so different from the usual fare:

In Iraq, the Shiite clergy, a more conservative institution than its Iranian counterpart, has thrown itself solidly behind the democratic experiment, and it has worked hard to ensure that the Shiite community does not collapse into self-destructive internecine conflict.And unless the Sunnis do something extremely stupid—like declare war on the Shia—it now seems unlikely that this consensus could be broken by any armed Shiite force. (If the Shia are forced to begin the conquest of western Iraq, then one could imagine a Shiite general arising who would not owe his political strength to the Shiite center backed by the hawza.)Although this progress might be reversed if the Americans again repeat the mistakes of premature “Iraqification” and rapidly drew down their forces, the surge has likely made lasting success the more probable scenario. It is by no means clear that the Bush administration understands the dynamic working here—it is the collapse of Sunni hubris, not the triumph of Sunni-Shiite “reconciliation,” that is the key to long-term success. But it appears now that Iraqis grasp this reality, and, in the end, that is what matters.


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