Badr vs. Sadr
September 22, 2005
Robert Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. His book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, will be published by Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books in the fall.
Just when it didn’t seem like Iraq could get any worse—it gets worse.
This time, it’s the simmering battle between two Shiite paramilitary armies: the forces of the Badr Brigade, the 20,000-strong force controlled by the Iranian-supported Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the Mahdi Army, the thousands-strong force that worships the fanatical Muqtada Al Sadr. The battle, which might flare into a Shiite-Shiite civil war in advance of the October 15 referendum on Iraq’s divisive, rigged constitution, could put the final nail in the coffin of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy.
It shouldn’t be a news flash that neither one of these Shiite forces is led by “good guys.” It’s a mafia-style war between two descendants of Iraq’s leading ayatollah-led families, the Sadrs and the Hakims, who don’t exactly express affection for each other. Beginning in the 1950s, with the overthrow of the king of Iraq in 1958, the Sadr and Hakim clans mobilized Iraq’s Shiites in a struggle against Iraqi nationalists, the Baath Party, and the communists. It was then that the Sadr-Hakim mafia founded Al Dawa, the militant, terrorist-included theocratic party which still exists, out of which Prime Minister Jaafari emerged. In more recent years, the Sadr faction and the Hakim faction became like Hatfields and McCoys, feuding—with guns.
When Ayatollah Khomeini, who long snuggled up to the Sadrs, Hakims, et al . during his 14-year exile in Iraq, took over Iran, the discord got worse. The Hakims fled to Iran, happily accepting Khomeini’s help in building SCIRI and its Badr Brigade. The Badr forces traitorously fought for Iran against Iraq, and its battle-hardened units—armed and financed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—were brought into Iraq in 2003 with U.S. assistance. Ever since, with the support of the Anglo-American occupation, Badr has emerged as the thuggish enforcer of pro-government discipline among the Shiites and the benighted followers of the crotchety, agoraphobic Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. It is a vicious force that is fast imposing an Iran-style theocracy on the parts of southern Iraq it controls. During the haggling over the constitution, Abdel-Aziz Hakim, SCIRI’s leader and former Badr commander, announced his intention to establish a Kurdistan-style independent fief in south Iraq. SCIRI, Badr and the Hakims are making a naked play for primacy.
While the Hakims fled to Iran in the ‘80s, Sadr mostly stayed put. Sadr—who is called, puzzlingly, a “Shiite nationalist” in the current issue of The Nation—is a fascist warlord and, if anything, even more fanatically religious than SCIRI. And Sadr isn’t afraid of violence. When a leading member of the Hakim mafia was returned to Iraq by British intelligence right after the war, Sadr’s forces killed him. At least twice since 2003, Sadr’s Mahdi Army launched pitched battles against the U.S. occupation forces, declaring ceasefires at convenient moments while also making common cause with Ahmed Chalabi, the principles-free darling of Richard Perle and Co. Sadr’s militia, strong in Basra—which is also half controlled by SCIRI—has reportedly been involved in attacks against women who appear in Western dress, and both Mahdi and SCIRI forces have been engaging in a power struggle in Basra that includes many thousands of outright assassinations (including two New York Times journalists) and bombings of movie theaters, liquor stores and barber shops.
Sadr is unhappy at the idea of regional federalism in Iraq, since his power is in Baghdad’s eastern Shiite neighborhoods. Since Baghdad is a multi-ethnic city, many of whose citizens are “Sushis” (Sunni-Shiite mixed), it’s impossible to include the capital in a Hakim-style Shiite Republic. So, Sadr opposes both the constitution and its federalism, and he’s hinting that he might support a Sunni-led effort to Vote No on Oct. 15. If he does so, it will kill the constitution, since Baghdad is its own province and would join at least two Sunni-dominated provinces to vote against the constitution. A two-thirds vote against it is needed in at least three provinces.
Sadr’s relationship with Iran is unclear. Starting in 2003, there were reports that Iran’s intelligence service and Revolutionary Guards were funneling at least some help to Sadr, but it seems that most of Iran’s covert energy is going to support the SCIRI-Badr forces. And Iran seems quite content to build up its power and influence among Iraq’s current crop of Shiite rulers. Sadr, meanwhile, appears to be headed in the direction of a tactical alliance with the Sunni-led resistance—which won’t exactly endear him to Iran’s theocracy.
In any case, what it all means is that the relative stability that has been present in Basra and others towns in southern Iraq may be coming to an end. For the first time, there are insurgent attacks reported in Basra. And the British, who had responsibility for Basra, suddenly find themselves sitting atop a powder keg. My guess is that in the general Shiite population there is no great love for SCIRI. On one hand, many Iraqi Shiites are secular and non-religious, and they don’t like SCIRI’s brand of theocracy. On the other hand, many religious Shiites are undoubtedly attracted to Sadr’s flare for anti-U.S. rabble-rousing, which presents a serious threat to SCIRI’s (and Al Dawa’s) ability to hold the allegiance of the Shiites. (In the election in January, the Sadrs and Hakims held their noses and joined together in the Sistani-backed electoral alliance that garnered the most votes at the polls.
Since 2003, the Bush administration’s one hope has been that it can contain the Sunni-led resistance by betting on the Kurdish-Shiite alliance. But if the Shiites shatter, it’s curtains for the Anglo-American occupation. That is the other exit strategy: not the one in which U.S. forces declare victory and withdraw in orderly fashion, but the one in which we get our butts kicked out of Iraq forthwith.