Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Defusing al-Sadr

As the Sadr uprising rekindles in Najaf and Baghdad (and to a lesser extent in Basra), I was wondering why we hadn't heard from the other Shi'ite cities where the militias rose up in April. Hate to sound like a broken record, but the major media here failed to answer my question. I found what I was looking for, however, courtesy of the Iraqi journalists-in-training at IWPR.

The answers are slightly confused, and not entirely comforting. The good news is, the rest of the Shi'ite region is peaceful.

In Karbala, "the Sadrists showed their outrage with a peaceful demonstration in al-Haramain square, located between the two holy shrines."

The quotes in the story give me the impression that the people who don't like Sadr think the Iraqi police stood up to his thugs, and the other religious leaders stared him down; while the people who do follow him think the police showed their respect for the power of his militia.

The police, "going on their rounds and politely asking visitors to respect a midnight curfew," said the easy touch they used in the spring helped them defuse the problem this time.

In Nasiriyah, the militia rose up, but "police held their ground," and after only a day of trying to fight the Mahdi Army quit and went home.

Again, there's conflicting versions of what happened, "[b]ut whatever its cause, the short duration of the violence suggests that the Sadrists' ability to wrest control from Nasiriya’s police has diminished since their last uprising."

The one thing both the police and the Sadrists agree on is that the Italian troops who have oversight of that district "have agreed not to re-enter the town."

If this reporting is essentially correct, left to themselves the Iraqi police, with some mix of carrot and stick, are capable of defusing a conflict. It's not necessarily a sign of weakness on the part of the police that some of the militia supporters think they got their way. The job of a police force is to keep order not to kick ass. Order has been kept, so far as we know.

But the mere sight of Coalition troops seems to drive the Mahdis into a mad frenzy, and the Westerners' absence from these two places seems to have been a key to their remaining relatively quiet. Many Iraqi insurgents seem to draw a line between attacking "infidels" like us and attacking fellow Iraqis. If this equation can work in our favor, use it.

I'd prefer the U.S. to crush the Mahdis everywhere. But I also want to see Iraq grow into a functioning civil society, and this news might be a step in that direction.

Still, the outcome for the entire Shi'ite region depends on the outcome of the showdown now underway in Najaf. And if Iran keeps flooding the region with men and arms, there won't be enough carrots and sticks to keep the peace.