By Clive Bradley
In Fallujah, an agreement has been reached between US representatives, the Interim Governing Council, and local civic authorities in which the US shortens the curfew, and allows proper access to the hospital, in return for insurgents handing over heavy weapons. Whether the local leaders who have brokered this agreement can hold the "mujahedin" to it remains to be seen. Part of the agreement is the re-establishment of the Iraqi police force, which collapsed at the beginning of the fighting - but this seems a tall order.
In Najaf, al-Sadr called a ceasefire for the Prophet's birthday, and negotiations with religious and other leaders have proceeded. Al-Sadr is extremely "mercurial", as one official puts it: one minute he offers to disband the Army of the Mahdi if a sufficiently senior cleric requests it, the next - at his Friday sermon in Kufa, for instance - he is full-throatedly denouncing the US, calling on Marines to surrender, promising never to disband his militia, and threatening a "zero hour" should US forces enter the holy city of Najaf.
The US, for its part, seems committed to mutually exclusive objectives. On the one hand they want to see the military defeat of the various resistance forces, the disarming of the Army of the Mahdi (that is, by force) and the arrest of al-Sadr (for involvement in the murder of another Shi'a cleric a year ago). On the other hand they want to negotiate a peaceful settlement. The latter objective is dictated by a more realistic assessment of the situation.
A military assault on Najaf, should it still come to that, will be a bloody and disastrous affair. Al-Sadr's forces are for sure very numerous. Although informed guesses only recently put his militia somewhere between five and ten thousand, it will have grown in the past weeks, and armed resistance to an attempt to seize him could be very widespread. Moreover, Najaf is one of the holiest Shi'a cities - home of its most senior clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Across Iraq, a battle in Najaf is likely to be treated, successfully, as a signal for war by the insurgent groups, especially the Islamists. The US would win, but at - quite likely - enormous cost.
The American-British occupation is unable to bring meaningful democracy to Iraq. Far from pacifying the insurgents, they have inflamed them, alienated wide sections of Iraqi society which beforehand were prepared to tolerate them, and threatened to plunge the country into civil war. Although most Iraqis are not directly involved in fighting, and presumably regard the deterioration in the situation with alarm, no organised public opinion supports the US. Even the IGC - appointed by the Americans - has been critical of US tactics.
The "resistance", Sunni or Shi'a, is not, however, a progressive and democratic alternative to the American military. Although the past few weeks have undoubtedly seen these movements attract more widespread support, they remain reactionary, and fundamentally marginal to Iraqi society as a whole.
The Army of the Mahdi is notorious for its religious courts and summary justice, forcible imposition of Islamic dress, closure of shops selling alcohol (a number of Christians were murdered over Christmas for this crime, it is believed by the Army of the Mahdi), and, for example, demolition of a town inhabited mainly by gypsies and prostitutes (a sort of red light district). According to the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI), it is also heavily involved in the drug trade from Iran. (http://www.wpiraq.org/english/). Its main support is drawn from unemployed Shi'a youth, attracted by its apparent radicalism, but also by money - members of the Army are paid. In many ways, al-Sadr's movement bears comparison with classical European fascism. Al-Sadr himself is an unstable demagogue, whose authority derives mainly from that of his father, who was murdered by Saddam Hussein five years ago (and his father's uncle, killed nearly twenty years before that). It seems plausible that al-Sadr in fact believes himself to be the "Mahdi" - the Shi'a messiah.
Ayatollah Sistani, who summoned forth huge demonstrations demanding direct elections in January this year, has stayed in the background during this confrontation, calling for calm but not condemning al-Sadr. The most obvious explanation is that he fears being outflanked by a more radical movement. But al-Sadr's violent confrontations can serve Sistani's overall goal, which is to ensure that the Shi'a, who are a majority of the population, take their rightful place in power. For almost a year, the US took Sistani and the Shi'a for granted. Now they have learned how big a mistake this was.
The Iranian government has been involved in negotiations in Najaf. For a while it seemed possible al-Sadr would go into exile in Iran; but although Muqtada is ideologically a Khomeini-ite, he is not friendly with the regime in Tehran (and denounces Sistani for being a Persian). The Iranian cultural attaché in Baghdad was assassinated last week, probably by a group critical of Tehran's willingness to be involved in negotiations with the US. Iran has substantial forces involved in Iraq, already, including SCIRI, a party which was based in Iran before the war and has a large militia trained by Iranian revolutionary guards. (To add further complexity, Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagon's favourite, is rumoured to get money from Iran).
Sunni and Shi'a have been united in opposition to the US, with Sunni fighters arriving in "Sadr City" in Baghdad to assist their "brothers", and Shi'a trying to repay the effort in Fallujah. Al-Sadr's picture is displayed in Sunni mosques. There have even been joint religious events by Sunni and Shi'a clerics.
But none of this changes the fundamentally sectarian nature of these Islamist movements. There are a large number of Sunni Islamist groups in the "resistance"; and there are several Shi'a Islamist parties. But there is no organised movement which crosses the divide. And whatever their common ground now, they would be violent competitors for power in the future.
In the north, this blurs into a still more explosive communal divide. Al-Sadr has held demonstrations in Kirkuk, where he seems to have built some support among the Turkoman population. Ethnic conflicts between Turkomans, Kurds and Arabs have been brewing on and off over the past year. A poem circulating in northern cities describes the Kurds as "worse than pigs, thieves and tramps"; and Kurdish leaders have been denounced in chants at Friday prayers at mosques.
The war a year ago was fought by disregarding the United Nations. Now the UN is back at the centre of things. Sistani was prepared to talk to UN representatives, but not to Bremer, the American civilian administrator. And the transition plan proposed by Lakhmar Brahimi seems to have been endorsed, if tentatively, by all parties involved. Brahimi's plan is something of a compromise between earlier proposals. It will see the formal disbanding of the IGC and the CPA at the end of June; a president and Vice-presidents appointed by the UN; a "national conference" involving a "large number of interlocutors"; and then proper elections in January next year.
Linked to the increased role for the UN is Bush's nominee as American Ambassador to the new Iraqi government - John Negroponte, currently US ambassador to the UN. If he is agreed by the Senate, Negroponte will run the largest diplomatic staff in the world, from the former palace of Saddam in Baghdad. He was US ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s who organised support for the 'contra' death squads in Nicaragua and elsewhere in central America.
However smoothly the "transition" goes to an Iraqi government, it will not mean the end of the occupation: 120,000 US troops are to remain, and large military bases have been constructed. A British military official in Basra said this week that he didn't see how they would be able to leave within ten years.
In any case, the smoothness of that transition is itself in the balance. If negotiations stall and fail, and there is a further round of bloodletting, the likelihood is that the US will be drawn further into the "quagmire" of their nightmares. It will of course be a worse nightmare for the people of Iraq.
All that occupation offers is the brutal "democracy" of helicopter gunships and cluster bombs. But the defeat of the US military by al-Sadr or the Sunni "resistance" would not be democratic, either. The emerging workers' movement - the most positive development, from a socialist point of view, in the Arab east in generations (if not ever) - would be crushed in its infancy by the Army of the Mahdi, or the civil war which would erupt between the contending reactionary forces. Protecting that young, vulnerable movement with our solidarity is an urgent task.
According to the WCPI, in Nasiriyah, when al-Sadr's forces demanded use of factories as a base for their activities against US and Italian troops, "aluminum and sanitary supplies factory workers... refused to evacuate their work places despite many threats made to their lives... They insisted on remaining inside their factories in order to defend them." The WCPI adds: "This brave and firm position of workers in Nasiriyah is a practice that workers would endeavour to generalize in all areas facing military confrontation between the US troops and the armed militias." This indicates the attitudes of workers towards the combatants, and does indeed suggest a way forward. For sure, working class people in Iraq need to defend themselves against both the occupying forces and the various insurgents.
Our job is to do everything we can to help them.