March 29, 2005

The Harith al-Dhari Dance

Holy criminy am I behind on my news reading. Anyway, via some obscure little website known as the New York Times, I see that Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, has made the Americans an offer they really shouldn't refuse: He'll call off his Sunni attack dogs if the U.S. sets a withdrawal date. Splendid! Even if he has made this offer many times before… splendid! Though before we get too gushy, let's take a closer look.

First thing one does when someone makes an offer like this is scrunch the eyes and ask, "Uh, what does this fellow really want?" Here, it seems, al-Dhari might have a couple motives for extending the olive branch:
  1. He, like many Muslims in Iraq, is genuinely offended by the U.S. presence there, and fears that we'll never leave. He wants a date and a promise. That's a pretty reasonable concern given that the U.S. is, you know, building a slew of permanent bases around the country. So this is the most charitable interpretation.
  2. Al-Dhari wants to make himself the undisputed political leader of the Sunnis. As the Times notes, during Saddam Hussein's era, the Sunnis never coalesced into a single communal identity the way the Shiites and Kurds did. By positioning himself as "The man who forced the U.S. out," al-Dhari could gain a good deal of political power and unite his Arab co-religionists once and for all, "Return of the King"-style.
  3. Al-Dhari wants more leverage if "his" Sunni peers ever do decide to take part in the negotiations over the future of Iraq. That is, if the U.S. were to plan a withdrawal and AMS and other rural/religious Sunnis were then to take part in writing the Iraqi constitution, al-Dhari could always threaten to kick the insurgency back into high gear if he didn't get his demands. Sort of like the Kurds can always threaten to take their 100,000 pesh fighters and secede from Iraq if they don't get their demands. But with the U.S. leaving, such threats from al-Dhari would carry a lot more force.
  4. This is the first step in a slippery slope towards faster U.S. withdrawal. That is, say the U.S. strikes a deal with al-Dhari and declares that we'll withdraw in two years (say). Now imagine the insurgency doesn't actually let up over the next (say) three months. Al-Dhari can say that he's working in good faith to stem the insurgents, but the U.S. will just have to speed up the withdrawal if they want to see any progress...
None of these possibilities, though, are good reasons for the U.S. not to take al-Dhari up on his offer. Even if the Association of Muslim Scholars only represents or speaks for a fraction of the insurgency—and I think they do—it seems obvious that their participation in the new government will help turn a wide swath of Sunni sympathizers against the insurgents. Setting a withdrawal date could spark that change of heart.

On the other hand, I also wonder what al-Dhari's "offer" would really entail. One of the radical Sunni clerics in Baghdad interpreted it this way: "We do not insist that the Americans withdraw at once, as long as they stay in their bases and cease to marginalize our political life." Stay in their bases? That would be unacceptable to the U.S. Without the ability to go out and patrol around, the occupation forces would have no way of breaking up insurgent sanctuaries, which means the insurgents would grow considerably stronger. (Though the foreign jihadists probably couldn't build Afghanistan-style training camps; not so long as the U.S. Air Force can bomb anything that moves.)

Nor, for that matter, would the coalition forces have any way of slowing the ongoing crime wave, or deterring the hundreds of small militias, gangs, and tribal forces rampaging the streets. (Right now, it's these amateur thugs, and not the organized insurgency, that are doing the bulk of the damage in Iraq and undermining the legitimacy of the new government.) Iraq would very quickly start to look like Afghanistan, under the rule of gun—moreso than it is now. Look at how the British are "keeping order" down in Basra for a good example of this.

If there's any way of juggling all of these concerns, the U.S. should of course try to pursue the withdrawal option. But it doesn't look easy. Keep in mind, too, that according to some Iraqi experts on the Sunnis, like Rashid al-Khuyun, many of the al-Anbar tribesmen want nothing to do with a new unified Iraqi government. They despised Saddam Hussein (well, those aside from Saddam's own Al-bu Nasir tribe and its immediate allies) and it's likely that they will despise any Shi'ite-Kurdish government. Now, many observers expect that as soon as the "moderate" Sunnis like Harith al-Dhari come on board and join the government, then the only people left to fight against will be ex-Baathists and foreign jihadis. But that might not be true. The problem is no one really knows which Sunnis want what.
-- Brad Plumer 10:23 PM || ||