From one civil war to the next

Will Iraq become an enduring terrorist threat? I have no idea. What is clear is that there are no obvious good guys, and that the legitimacy of the central government is collapsing, thanks in part to the failure to get the question of provincial powers resolved.

Which leads us to the present struggle. As Anthony Cordesman cautions, is US firepower being deployed to help one gang liquidate another?

How will it affect America? If the fighting sets off a broad, lasting, violent power struggle between Shiite factions, most of the security gains of the last year could be lost and our military role broadened. There is also no guarantee that a victory by Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council will serve the cause of political accommodation or lead to fair elections and the creation of legitimate local and provincial governments. Such an outcome, in fact, might favor a Dawa and Islamic Supreme Council “Iraqracy,” not democracy.

An “Iraqcracy” could, in some sense, be an improvement over the regional status quo. Syria is presently dominated by the minority Alawites. Egypt has been ruled by the same man for a long period of time, and he is grooming his son to be his successor. In Saudi Arabia, the Shia are utterly unrepresented. The Gulf states vary, to be sure, but they tend to have very strong monarchies. So a quasi-democratic Iraqi state led by the majority Shia, itself a divided community, sure sounds … well, different. Not perfect. But different. Doesn’t it? There is the small matter of Shia rebels, severely disadvantaged Sunnis (the most affluent and educated have fled), and, most importantly, a paralyzing crime wave driven by stolen oil and given a thin political gloss. I don’t mean to be all that sunny. But it does seem that a broadly representative government really would be different in significant ways.

On the other hand, it is easy to see a militant minority turning against the “far enemy” in the United States. It wouldn’t be the same scenario, but the upshot could be the same. I’m greatly relieved that we haven’t seen more terrorism in the US. But we can’t expect that to continue forever. That’s true if we stay in Iraq. But it’s easy to see how it could also be true if we leave — we are enmeshed, strategically and morally.

Then there is this report from the Times on the Mahdi Army.

For starters, the Shiite rebels are fighting mainly Iraqi soldiers, rather than Americans. Their leader, Moktada al-Sadr, is not defending against attacks from a redoubt inside the country’s most sacred shrine, but is issuing edicts with a tarnished reputation from an undisclosed location, possibly outside the country. And Iraq’s prime minister, a Shiite whom Americans had all but despaired would ever act against militias of his own sect, is taking them on fiercely.

And this:

The Mahdi Army’s image is considerably changed from 2004, when its members were seen as Shiite Robin Hoods, protecting undefended neighborhoods, helping distribute cooking gas, and standing up to what many Shiites saw as an act of American aggression, when tanks rolled into Sadr City, a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. But during the sectarian violence and terror of the ensuing years, the militia began breaking down into a patchwork of groups, some involved in death squads, others in theft and corruption.

And this:

A former political adviser to the American military in Baghdad, Matthew Sherman, cautioned that the conflict could easily lead to a situation similar to that in Lebanon in 2006, when Hezbollah claimed victory in a war of perceptions against Israel even after a bombing campaign had weakened it militarily. “The Sadrists will likely view their survival as victory,” he said.

Thank goodness for Sabrina Tavernise and Solomon Moore. Seriously man. My crude sense is that the situation has moved from one civil war to another, far more complex civil war — one in which a broadly legitimate Iraqi government will have to take the lead. Key challenges include untangling the mess at the local government level and fighting corruption.

I hate to say this, but: I hear Pervez Musharraf might be looking for a job.