Saturday, December 23, 2006

Shiite Baghdad

In Bosnia, this was known as "ethnic cleansing":

Large portions of Baghdad have become Shiite in recent months, as militias press their fight against Sunni militants deeper into the heart of the capital, displacing thousands of Sunni residents. At least 10 neighborhoods that a year ago were mixed Sunni and Shiite are now almost entirely Shiite, according to residents, American and Iraqi military commanders and local officials.

The Shiite-dominated government publicly condemns violence against Sunnis and says it is trying to stop the militias that carry it out. But the attacks have continued unabated, and Sunnis have grown suspicious.

Plans for a new bridge that would bypass a violent Sunni area in the east, and a proposal for land handouts in towns around Baghdad that would bring Shiites into what are now Sunni strongholds underscored these concerns.

Sunni political control in Baghdad is all but nonexistent: Of the 51 members of the Baghdad Provincial Council, which runs the city’s services, just one is Sunni.

Of course, Sunni insurgents have been driving Shiites out of mixed neighborhoods in other cities for some time now:

“They told us it’s safe here, it’s a Shiite neighborhood,” said Mustafa, one of the sons. “The Mahdi Army is protecting the area,” he said, referring to Mr. Sadr’s militia. Family members declined to give their name for safety reasons.

The family has no sympathy for the Sunnis. They fled Baquba, a relentlessly violent town north of Baghdad, after Sunni militants killed their father, a man in his 70’s; kidnapped a brother; and shot another brother dead.

Around 400 Shiite families have fled from Baquba to Naariya and a nearby neighborhood, Baghdad Jedidah, over the past few months, said Mustafa, citing local officials in Mr. Sadr’s office.

“We are a ship that sank under the ocean,” said his mother, Aziza, 46.

The idea of partitioning Iraq enjoyed some popularity six months or so ago, but has faded by the wayside for a variety of reasons (include the opposition of many Iraqi leaders to the plan.) Unfortunately, Iraq may be partitioned de facto by Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents before this conflict is over. This is what our soldiers are up against in Baghdad.

UPDATE: Part of the Bush administration's recipe for securing Baghdad includes building a coalition of Iraqi parties that would sideline Muqtada al-Sadr and diminish his informal political power (via the Mahdi Army) and his formal political power in parliament. Unfortunately, that job has just gotten a lot harder with the news that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani opposes such an approach.

''There are obstacles in the face of forming this coalition, because al-Sistani does not support it. So we will work to strengthen the (Shiite) alliance,'' said Hassan al-Sunnaid, of the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Ali al-Adib, also a Dawa Party member, said al-Sistani ''does not support such blocs because they will break Shiite unity.''

An official close to al-Sistani, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the cleric ''will not bless nor support any new bloc or front. He only supports the unity of the Shiites.''

I'm no expert on Iraqi politics, but it is very hard for me to imagine any effort to sideline Sadr succeeding without the blessing of the most respected Shiite cleric in the country. It is only possible to weaken Sadr politically by a delicate balancing of political influence and military force, but neither can operate alone. And if we end up sending more troops to Baghdad to battle the militias-in the hope that a military solution alone will work-then we are courting the very type of battle that these men fear.

UPDATE II: Juan Cole on Sistani's rejection of the plan:

A delegation of mainly Da`wa Party members went to the Grand Ayatollah about the plan, floated by friendly rival SCIRI. Sistani rejected the plan on the grounds that it would split the Shiite majority. A coalition of Sunni Arab fundamentalists and Kurds with SCIRI would reduce the Shiites to junior partners in the government and allow the Kurds (also Sunnis) and the Sunni Arabs to dictate policy to them. Shiites are 60 percent of Iraqis, and Sistani is insistent that their majoritarian position be recognized and they receive the consequent power and influence.

Sistani's rejection of the plan, however, essentially continues to empower the Sadrists, who were let into the Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, about a year ago and who thereby gained pivotal power within it, going on to help elect the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. Sistani seems more worried about Shiite-on-Shiite violence and political rivalry than he is about Shiite conflicts with Sunnis.

This is a legitimate concern, as apparently even in the midst of battling the Sunnis, various Shiite factions can still find time to fight each other:

A propos of the dangers of Shiite-on-Shiite violence, fighting has erupted in Samawa between Sadrists and local police (dominated by the Badr Corps). The clashes left at least 6 dead on Saturday. The NYT says that Sadrists are claiming that 12 of their number have been killed in the clashes, along with 6 others, including police.

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