Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sadr City and Sunni Baghdad

Can we possibly stay long enough to undo this?
Yet nowhere is Sadr's power more visible than in the sprawling district in eastern Baghdad that bears his family's name. Through legacy, symbolism and money, he has built up his street credentials by helping and protecting Iraq's Shiite majority. His militiamen have made Sadr City into the safest, most homogenous enclave in a capital scarred by war and ruled by a fragile government. It often appears to operate like a separate nation, where Sadr's words carry the weight of law.

The cleric's influence is everywhere. His representatives run the hospitals, the Islamic courts, the police, the municipal offices and the mosques. He pays for funerals and school books. He builds houses and controls inflation. He punishes the corrupt and those whose activities taint Islam or his privileged name.

"He is our marja," said Adil Murad Ali Muhammad, a retired civil servant in a gray jacket, referring to a supreme authority on Shiite religion and law.
There are two important lessons here. First, the chaos that we permitted to unfold in the months after the fall of Baghdad created the conditions in which someone like Sadr could exercise and consolidate his power. The only possible way we can undo his power is if we, and the national government of Iraq, can slowly usurp or co-opt Sadr's power by providing the services and peace that he currently provides. Second, it is possible to bring peace to Baghdad. Unfortunately, it has been done by ruthlessly driving the Sunnis out of Shiite neighborhoods, and it is the type of peace that naturally follows war.

In opposition, we have this portrait of Sunni Baghdad, from the NY Times:
The cityscape of Iraq’s capital tells a stark story of the toll the past four years have taken on Iraq’s once powerful Sunni Arabs.

Theirs is a world of ruined buildings, damaged mosques, streets pitted by mortar shells, uncollected trash and so little electricity that many people have abandoned using refrigerators altogether.

...in Adhamiya, a community with a Sunni majority, any semblance of normal life vanished more than a year ago. Its only hospital, Al Numan, is so short of basic items like gauze and cotton pads that when mortar attacks hit the community last fall, the doctors broadcast appeals for supplies over local mosque loudspeakers.

Here, as in so much of Baghdad, the sectarian divide makes itself felt in its own deadly and destructive ways. Far more than in Shiite areas, sectarian hatred has shredded whatever remained of community life and created a cycle of violence that pits Sunni against Sunni as well as Sunni against Shiite.

Anyone who works with the government, whether Shiite or Sunni, is an enemy in the eyes of the Sunni insurgents, who carry out attack after attack against people they view as collaborators. While that chiefly makes targets of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army and the police, the militants also kill fellow Sunnis from government ministries who come to repair water and electrical lines in Sunni neighborhoods.

One result of such attacks is that government workers of either sect refuse to deliver services to most Sunni areas. For ordinary Sunnis, all this deepens the sense of political impotence and estrangement. American military leaders and Western diplomats are unsure about whether the cycle can be stopped.

...It adds up to a bleak prognosis for Sunnis in Baghdad. Until the violence is under control, there is unlikely to be any progress. But it is hard to persuade Sunnis to take a stand against the violence when they seem to receive so little in return.
The Sunni insurgents have largely impoverished themselves and their own people, and invited retaliation from Shiite death squads determined to drive entire Sunni populations into Sunni areas of central Iraq. Securing Baghdad also requires going into these neighborhoods and driving out the insurgents long enough to stabilize these regions. But the Sunnis most detest us and the national government, which they see as a tool of the Shiites (they are largely right) and it would take years to undo the damage of 3 1/2 years of full-blown insurgency. And the presence of our forces drives the insurgents and their terrorists allies out of Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, into the the outlying suburbs and beyond, from where they continue to launch their attacks in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.

You can imagine why persons such as myself as so incredibly pessimistic about the possibility of the surge "turning things around" in Iraq. Securing Baghdad alone requires so much effort for so many years, and is hinged on so many optimistic beliefs about how the Shiites and the Sunnis will react, that it's difficult to imagine how 20,000 or 30,000 additional troops are supposed to make much of a difference. And the patience of the American people has run out. There is simply no more tolerance for wishful thinking and pipe dreams and promises that things will get better.

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