Saturday, August 14, 2004

Zero Sum

Moqtada Al Sadr has issued a modest list of demands in his negotiations with the Iraqi government, simply requiring the expulsion of the Allawi government from Najaf and his recognition as de facto potentate of the region. CNN reports:

An official from al-Sadr's office in Baghdad listed the following conditions to bring about peace:

  • If the multinational forces, Iraqi forces, and Iraqi police leave the city of Najaf and if the Marjayia, the Shiite religious authority, gets full responsibility over the city, al-Sadr's Mehdi militia will pull out from Najaf.
  • The city of Najaf must be protected by fighters from the city itself, under the authority of the Marjayia.
  • The Mehdi Army must be an organization that operates under the Marjayia.
  • All detained supporters of the resistance, imprisoned religious clerics, either Shiite or Sunni, and women must be released.
  • All those who fight the resistance whether they are Sunni or Shiite should not be persecuted and the al-Sadr movement should be able to decide its self whether or it becomes a political movement.
  • The al-Sadr movement should have full rights to be involved in the political structuring of Iraq.

Not only do these demands represent a categorical rejection of allegiance to the central government, it also represents a claim to Shi'ite paramountcy in Iraq. If granted, and Grand Ayatollah Sistani returns from medical treatment in London, it would only be to a city patrolled by Madhi Army thugs, with Sadr on a throne, and the whole odious arrangement not only sanctified by Baghdad but also indirectly confirmed by Washington.

And what does Sadr offer in exchange? A promise to halt his ineffectual resistance, which has thus far resulted in the annihilation of his men, the defilement of the Imam Ali shrine and injuries to himself. This is less a negotiation between two armies in the field than a conversation between a suicide and the police, with the suicide demanding a phone call to the Governor in exchange for not jumping to his death. For that reason Sadr is likely to win at least some of his demands. In the perversely distorted political world of the war on terror, hostage-taking is a trump card; and it includes holding yourself for ransom.

But unlike the classic hostage crisis scenario, where the perpetrator's power position erodes over time, Sadr's strength may actually wax unless there is a rapid resolution. Agence Presse France reports that thousands of Sadr supporters are trying to make their way to Najaf. Should that transpire, Sadr could hold out indefinitely because Allawi could never play the ace of unleashing forces on the Shrine; not with so many human shields in the way. Then Sadr would have won out; not through any skill of his own but by the self-imposed paralysis of his enemies.

Fred Kaplan writing in Slate, with more than a touch of anticipation of Sadr's success asks: "Is there any hope of avoiding catastrophe in Iraq?" No -- not until we want to avoid it; and certainly not until we are determined to win.


I personally think Sadr has adopted the wrong negotiating strategy in this face-off. A Kim Il Sung type strategy of making outrageous demands may work on the Korean Peninsula, where Seoul is held hostage, but it may fail miserably in Iraq. By presenting Allawi with a list of extreme demands in public, Sadr is throwing down the gauntlet before a man, who must at all costs, be seen as the strongest in Iraq. It is hard to see how Allawi could keep his standing among Arab heads of state, in his own country and among the Shi'ites themselves if he groveled before Sadr. By posting his position in the press, Sadr has "anchored" his position; in other words, drawn a line in the sand and dared Allawi to cross it. Moreover, the demands constitute a virtual usurpation of Ayatollah Sistani's position in the Shi'ite clerical hierarchy. As constituted, they make enmity with Sistani the price of amity with Sadr.

Whoever had the bright idea of organizing a descent of Shi'ite sympathizers on Najaf may have failed to reckon with the fact that it lights a fuse and introduces a time element that may work against Sadr. Allawi knows that he must settle accounts before the cleric can turn Najaf into an international media carnival. With the fuse hissing in the background, Allawi is constrained to courses of action that will complete before it reaches the powderkeg. Sadr may not like what those are.