Commentary Magazine


The Shia Awakening

After returning to the U.S. from my summer trip to Baghdad and Ramadi, I wrote a piece for the New York Daily News that warned against bingeing on optimism in the wake of the surge. I wrote this despite the dramatic turnaround in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The abject defeat of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq in and around Anbar’s capital of Ramadi is stunning, but local. The fight still rages on elsewhere, and in each place it is different. In early 2007, Ramadi was the most violent city in all of Iraq. It was also, counterintuitively, the easiest city to win.

Al Qaeda had seized it and declared it the capital of their so-called “Islamic State in Iraq.” Local tribal leaders and civilians initially welcomed al Qaeda as liberators against the hated American occupiers, but later rejected them after al Qaeda behaved like…al Qaeda, and launched a horrific murder and intimidation campaign against everyone who opposed them. “It was basically a hostile fascist takeover of the city,” Army Captain Jay McGee told me.

Zarqawi’s lieutenants make up a relatively small percentage of the “insurgency” in Iraq, but they are by far the most psychotic and destructive. No one should be surprised that they were expelled from Anbar. They went at the Iraqis with car bombs and kitchen knives. They sawed off the heads of children as well as adults. They murdered entire families just for making eye contact with American soldiers. The Iraqis in Ramadi had little choice but to form an alliance with Americans, in order to purge these killers from their lands.

However, as I wrote in late August, “what worked in Ramadi might not work in Baghdad. [Moqtada al-Sadr's radical Shia] Mahdi Army’s relative moderation, compared with al Qaeda’s brutality, prevents it from being rejected by the entire society.”

I may have been too pessimistic and given Sadr’s militia more credit than it deserves.

The New York Times reported last week that many Shias in Baghdad, including some tribal sheikhs, are now turning against the Mahdi Army and working with the Americans to evict them. Sadr’s base is collapsing from right underneath him, and it’s a direct result of the successful assault on radical Sunnis by General Petraeus’s surge forces and the Mahdi Army itself.

The Mahdi Army picked up substantial local support thanks to its defense of Shias from Sunni insurgents and death squads. Neither the American soldiers nor the Iraqi security forces were able to secure the streets of the neighborhoods, so Sadr’s militia was called on for the job. Many portions of Baghdad have since been purged of Sunni extremists, partly due to the notorious sectarian “cleansing” and population transfers. The Mahdi Army is a victim of its own success, in a way: it has outlived its perceived usefulness and has degenerated into an ideology-free gang of murderous street thugs who do not want to let go of power. A militia need not be as deranged as al Qaeda to wear out its welcome, even in Baghdad.

Sadr’s army has been opposed by a substantial number of Shias all along. The new opposition comes from his base, and includes several sheikhs who supported him not long ago.

It’s hard for Americans to appreciate just how much power sheikhs have in Iraq. What they say goes. I spent a week in the Graya’at neighborhood of Baghdad, where every sheikh had come around to the American side. Earlier this year they insisted that not a single shot shall be fired at American soldiers, and not a single shot has been fired since. When they say it’s time to join Moqtada al-Sadr, or it’s time to join the Americans, nearly every person under their authority does what they say.

In the parts of Iraq where the locals turn against the insurgents en masse, it is only a matter of time before the insurgents are finished. Civilians phone in actionable intelligence on the locations of safe houses, weapons caches, IED’s, and everything else.

The radical Sunnis in Iraq are the most vicious. It is logical, then, that they are being defeated first. Extremist Shias have been tougher because they are more moderate, as well as more numerous. But defeating Sunni insurgents knocks out support from under the radical Shias. If you’re looking for a reason to hope in Iraq, that is it.