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Iraq: From SOFA to resistance

In the final part of this series, professor Michael Schwartz stresses how Iraqi popular resistance was crucial from the beginning in blocking the Bush administration agenda, and how the Sadrist movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr may decide to fight the occupation beyond the signing of the security pact .

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Iraq: From SOFA to resistance

PEPE ESCOBAR, SENIOR ANALYST, TRNN: Would we say that in the big picture this SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] would function as a sort of smoke screen, and the Pentagon and big oil will keep, you know, working for the long-term benefits and, you know, what they have invested already in Iraq?

MICHAEL SCHWARTZ, PROF. OF SOCIOLOGY, STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY: I think that’s the way the American leadership has to be viewing it at this time. They have to view it as, "Okay, we have to give this on paper, but what we’re going to work towards is the same things that we’ve been pushing towards. And one of the symptoms of that, I think, is the Democratic leadership in the Senate has just enunciated the idea that they will start confiscating Iraqi oil revenues unless the Iraqis (A) pass the oil law, (B) start doing something reasonable with their revenues, which is also code for starting to make real production-sharing agreements with oil companies. Yeah, right. So I think they’re talking about trying to use any lever they can at this point to push ahead with the overall plan. But, you know, as I’ve said several times in this, their record has been very poor at winning these confrontations, and I think we can expect them to have great difficulty in implementing these plans, the Obama administration or whoever. Right? And clearly, you know, the Obama administration is setting itself up to continue these. I mean, another point on this is that the talk of Gates continuing as the secretary of defense is talked about as a kind of temporary thing, maybe a nine-month to one-year term as the secretary of defense, which would clearly be a time horizon for really settling the whole set of issues in Iraq, right, that they are looking at it as "Let’s see if we can really stabilize Iraq in a year." That would seem to be a very difficult proposition, I would think.

ESCOBAR: How would you place in terms of popular resistance in Iraq? Maybe you can say there are two vectors, special vectors of resistance, these past five years. One would be the umbrella of Sunni guerrilla groups, the Sunni armed resistance, and the other ones would be the Sadrists. How would you place Muqtada al-Sadr vis-à-vis the SOFA? He has already issued proclamations saying that the Sadrists are completely against the SOFA, and they will fight against it, they will call demonstrations, and they will try to swing Parliament into voting against the SOFA. And in the bigger picture, as the emergences of a true nationalist, indigenous, popular leader in Iraq in the mode of Sheikh Nasrallah in Hezbollah in Lebanon, for instance.

SCHWARTZ: Well, I think he certainly aspires to that role, and he has worked very hard to place the Sadrist movement in precisely the same relationship to the Iraqi government and to the American presence as Hezbollah has placed itself in Lebanon, and that, I think, for the most part he’s been successful. I mean, he’s been successful in the sense that insofar as the Shia communities in Baghdad and in the southern provinces are organized, they’re organized by the Sadrists, and with the one exception of Basra, where there’s also a very powerful Fadillah force, who are on many issues allies with the Sadrists, because they too are also nationalist, and that insofar as they’ve been able to mount any kind of serious armed resistance to the American presence in this Shia community, it has been the Sadrists who’ve been able to do it, so that I think they’ve been a resounding success from the point of view of that ambition. Now, at the same time, I think the various confrontations that they’ve had with the United States have not necessarily gone as well as they might have hoped. Certainly the two battles of Najaf were very chastening experiences for the Sadrists and led them, probably wisely, to look much more carefully at how to conduct a guerrilla war, and to become far more committed to a guerrilla war, rather than what now we’d call a mobile war, in which you actually fight real battles, sustained battles. The battle of Najaf was a military catastrophe for them, and it was also a catastrophe from the point of view of losing the support of the people in Najaf. So they have since then been very, very careful not to allow themselves to get into a position where they were fighting a real battle against the US military or any of the proxy militaries when they were powerful enough to really confront him. So I think what this has done—and I think that this is really the tricky part of the Sadr situation now—is that it’s led them into a much closer alliance with or dependence upon the Iranians. And right now Muqtada himself has been in Iran for over a year and looks to remain there for quite some time, and they have become much more allied with the Iranians than they were originally and much more dependent upon them. And I think one of the symptoms of that showed up in the battle of Basra, where clearly the Iranians intervened and convinced the Sadrists to back off of the confrontation with the Iraqi military in [inaudible]. So I think that what’s become a kind of wild card here is the degree to which the Iranians can influence the Sadrists at various moments in determining how they’re going to go about their nationalist resistance to the American presence. Now, given the current SOFA and this agreement, it seems pretty clear that initially what the Sadrists’ strategy was is to use their strength in the Parliament combined with mass mobilizations to try to defeat the SOFA. Now we’re going to find out very soon whether they can succeed within the Parliament. I mean, this has got to be pushed by the end of this year, and probably will come to a head next week or the week after, in which a vote will either be taken or not taken. And if the vote is taken, it’ll either be defeated or supported by the Parliament. Once that happens, if they win in Parliament, I think Muqtada will hope that that will mean that he’ll get the full support of all the kind of civil society in Iraq to resist the SOFA, and hope that that will carry enough weight to carry the next round of crisis for the United States occupation, you know, not that it necessarily will drive them off, but they’ll have to do something dramatic. If they lose that vote, then it’s going to be a very important moment for the Sadrists, whether they’re going to go back to armed resistance. And, you know, he said that he will, but he said that he will in the past also and has backed off of those decisions. And so I think we really have to be kind of watching and waiting and trying to understand what resources they have at the moment, what kind of resistance might be viable for them, and whether they’re going to be willing to trigger the kind of violence that the United States surely will use if they go for armed resistance.

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