A cloud of steam rises above the crowd in the 120-degree heat. As their leader approaches the podium, the thousands who have assembled meet him with pledges of their fealty.
“We are all Badr Brigade!” they shout, a reference to the paramilitary organization of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), which held this rally on July 19, in honor of Ayatollah Bakr al-Hakim, the party’s founding leader, who was assassinated here four years ago. His nephew, Amar al-Hakim, now holds the position.
I was one of the millions who attended al-Hakim’s funeral four years ago, some of whom walked the 100 miles from Baghdad to Najaf to show their sorrow. It was largely a peaceful affair.
But now, as Iraq devolves further into civil war inside civil war inside occupation, the commemoration of al-Hakim’s death, which prompted mourning from Shiites across the country, has taken on a largely political feel. The Badr Brigade is at war with Sunni guerillas and other Shiite militias, and largely considered by its opponents to be the tool of corrupt, exiled elites who have allied themselves with the occupation in order to carve up Iraq.
The country’s disintegration is obvious in Najaf, one of the seven of the nine southern provinces in which SIIC controls the municipal government. Here, things are run as a police state: I accepted an invitation by SIIC to travel to Najaf from Baghdad because it was the only way to safely negotiate the dangerous road between the two cities.
Despite the assurances of SIIC officials that Najaf was safe, we were given strict orders not to leave our hotel – at which Iraqi military and police loyal to the party had been posted – unless we were with them. When I left the tour for a pre-arranged meeting with the spokesman from Tayyera Sadrieen, another Shiite political party led by Moqtada al-Sadr, it nearly provoked an armed confrontation.
During the interview, Tayyera Sadrieen’s spokesman, Saleh al-Obaidi, laid out why supporters of his party and its paramilitary, the Jeish al-Mehdi (JAM), had clashed with Badr loyalists across the country and, increasingly, in southern Iraq’s poorest provinces of Misan and Muthanna, which are inaccessible to western journalists. In August, two of SIIC’s governors there were assassinated by the JAM.
“The Sadrieen in general focus on the people. The southern governorates are suffering more than Baghdad maybe, concerning the services and the economic situation,” al-Obaidi says. “There were no tensions for 15 or 16 months [after the invasion], but, at the same time, there were no services and no help from the governors of these provinces, so the people started to demonstrate and look and ask for something better. Unfortunately, the reaction from many governors was severe – they used guns and campaigns of detention against the people.”
Fighting escalated at the end of August in Karbala, when JAM fighters attempted to take over a Badr-controlled Shiite shrine during a religious festival. After clashes that left more than 50 dead, Sadr ordered his militia to “suspend” operations for six months, though it is unclear to what extent Sadr controls the men fighting under his name, and the announcement mirrored one Sadr made two years ago.
In Basra, the only place in Iraq that is actually exporting oil and therefore producing revenue, a three-way battle is taking place between SIIC, the JAM and Fadhila, a Sadrist offshoot with support in the city. The British military withdrew its troops at the end of August, leaving only about 5,000 troops stationed at the airport. Corruption and a deadly power struggle have left Basra in a state of decline. Fadhila and SIIC, the two most powerful parties in Basra’s provincial council, continue to fight over the governor’s seat, which has brought governance to a halt, while the JAM and gangs that increasingly fought British troops have taken over the streets.
At the center of the struggle is the approximately $170 million yearly reconstruction budget allocated to the province, as well as control of the port and its oil exports. Fadhila’s governor, Mohamed Al-Waili, claims sole oversight over such projects, and his detractors charge he’s embezzled most of the money. Al-Waili claimed “80 to 90 percent” of the planned reconstruction projects in the last year had been completed, but declined to show journalists any of them.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the surge has not worked the way the United States anticipated, or perhaps intended. (The stated purpose was to create space for political reconciliation, but among other intentions, according to the Guardian, was sending a message to the Iranian government.) The greatest effect has been to keep Shiite militias from openly carrying weapons on the streets, slowing some of the efforts to cleanse neighborhoods of Sunnis.
“If it weren’t for the surge, there would be no Sunnis left in Baghdad,” says one Iraqi journalist who works for an American paper. Nonetheless, the surge has not stopped militia activity in many neighborhoods, and the JAM continues to expand.
All over Baghdad and the surrounding areas, Sunni guerillas and tribal militias, some of whom participated in sectarian cleansing over the past three years that forced millions of Iraqis, mostly Shiites, from their homes, have now decided to work with the U.S. military, largely in fear of the Iraqi army – which is full of Badr and JAM loyalists – and the increasingly well-armed Shiite militias.
North of Baghdad, in Falahat, Sunni tribal leaders have decided to work with the United States against al Qaeda. The tribal militiamen admitted they were as afraid of Sunni extremists as they were of the Shiite militias that have grown in number as millions of Shiites have been driven from their homes. The militiamen said they feared the Shiite families that had been removed would return seeking revenge.
In the north, America’s Kurdish allies are growing increasingly impatient with the U.S. military and government. The Sunni guerillas and tribes now working with the United States have driven Kurds from their homes, and the majority of the Kurdish population has fled Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city.
But the real prize is oil-rich Kirkuk. The Iraqi government has dragged its feet on a referendum on whether Kirkuk should join the Kurdish regional government. The referendum, originally mandated by the end of this year, appears unlikely to occur, and the Kurds have grown impatient with the U.S. military’s failure to secure the city.
“We cannot wait,” says Noschirwan Mustafa, a founding member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party of Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s current president. “If they leave Kirkuk to us, we can control it.”
“Control” almost certainly means ethnic cleansing. Various scenarios could play out, but most observers fear Turkey would intervene out of fear of an independent Kurdish statelet and on behalf of the small, ethnic Turkish minority that resides around Kirkuk.
The Kurds are likely to take Kirkuk, the moment the U.S. allows it, although Mustafa believes the United States would betray its Kurdish allies, as it did in the mid-’70s, to avoid angering the Turks.
“The Kurds demand to have control of their own territory,” Mustafa says.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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