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16 October 2007


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It was my impression that the tribal power in Basra was broken by the Islamist political parties and militias. So said this ICG report from June:

"Tribal chiefs who opposed or challenged the Islamist movements’ enhanced control were not spared; many were summarily killed. The end result has been an effective, Islamist-led purge that eradicated Basra’s liberal political culture." (page four, article is here:

W. Patrick Lang


The "word" I get is that the ICG report is wrong. pl

Mad Dogs

From the reports like this one from Yahoo News and others like those of the ten Captains, I'm guessing that the US forces on the ground are finding there's just too many sides in this fight.

Kinda hard to define the right tactics much less the right strategy when the battle space resembles Abbott and Costello's "Who's on 1st?"

Cold War Zoomie

"Not listening to Shia tribal sheikhs? If this true,..."

Of course, the sheikhs may be defining "listening" as "Americans doing what we want them to do for us, now."

I thought we were supposed to be spreading the Anbar Model throughout the country, so maybe these sheikhs are just trying to get a little more leverage. We may be listening but cannot deliver.


Some people in Iraq are talking to each other, and it may be enough to get a new national pact:

And they all agree on a few critical issues: "As far as all the key Sunni and Shi'ite factions in Iraq are concerned, they all agree on the basics. Iraq won't be occupied. Iraq won't hold permanent US military bases. Iraq won't give up its oil wealth. And Iraq won't be a toothless pro-Israel puppet regime."

Yes, Bush is a uniter, not a divider--of the opposition. Is the US strategy of divide and conquer under serious threat?

W. Patrick Lang

"A. About Iran in Iraq: if I understand them correctly, the only thing the Iranians can agree with you upon is Iranian hegemony- political, security, economic - over the whole area between Basra-Faw and Dujayl (an ex-Shi'i town a few miles north of Baghdad). Anbar not included. If this is acceptable to the US, Saudi, Kuwait and Jordan, then you have a reasonably stable deal here.

B. About the southern tribes: from at least the end of the 18th century the Sunni tribes who converted to Shi'ism have been less Shi'i, even less religious than both the Holy Cities and the Iranians. Not all of this relative "secular" tendency has been a positive phenomenon, especially when it came to murder of women and girls to protect family honor or to paying with women as part of diyyeh. Still: the tribal shaykhs have traditionally been competing with the mollahs for influence. Under the British and the monarchy the tribal shaykhs had an advantage. Under the Ba'th the tribal shaykhs again received government support. However, an unintended consequence of Saddam's Hamlah Imaniyyah (Faith Campaign) between 1993 and
2003 was that the mollahs became hugely influential in the south. The British allowed them and the militias they now led to become de-facto rulers of the south. The Americans remained undecided in the southern areas they controlled. This may indeed have been Bremmer's legacy. Where the tribes and the mollahs alike were staunch supporters of Sistani, the damage is not meaningful as yet, but where the mollahs are staunch supporters of Muqtada, or Fadhilah, or even Hakim, and they have their militias, this is a disaster. Basra and Nasiriyya are two examples."
Amatzia Baram

W. Patrick Lang

"Dear Pat,
As I understand Iranian strategic interests, southern Iraq is an essential part of it not as a result of aggression or radicalism but as a result of their deep sense of insecurity. They need a friendly buffer between themselves and the Arab world and they simply cannot afford again a hostile Sunni power (or the US) in Iraq threatening their only oil producing zone (Khuzestan). It reminds me of the British position as defined by Lord Curzon in 1899 that to protect India from Germany and Russia the Brits needed the area from Basra to Baghdad. My conclusion derives from three historical case studies. A. The Shah of Iran always dreamt of annexing southern Iraq up to the ancient Sassanid capital of Ctisphon 70 km south of Baghdad. B. On September 18 1980 Bani Sadr (then president of Iran) and the professional Iranian officers who knew Iraq was about to attack asked Khomeini for permission to withdraw to the Zagros mountains range where they could stop Saddam. In two years, they promised, they would be able to take Khuzestan back and even conquer Baghdad. Khomeini, understanding well the value of that area, told them: "Over your dead bodies". As he explained it, if Iran lost Khuzestan the regime would crumble. C. Khomeini insisted on conquering southern Iraq and not only because of Najaf and Karbala, even as Rafsanjani urged him since mid-1982 to stop the war. If I am right, then in any US-Iran negotiations the Iranians will tell the US what it wants to hear, like the North Vietnamese told Kissinger. And when possible-probably soon, they will do what they must do. My view is that from a US point of view it will be legitimate to leave southern Iraq up to Kut (hopefully not Baghdad) to Iranian sphere of influence if more important interests are secured, but it will not be easy for any American leader. Of course, I hope that I am wrong and that in exchange for normalization of relations and security guarantees the Iranians will feel secure enough and won't feel the need to extend their hegemony west.

Since the 18th century and mainly in the 19th century the clerics of Najaf and Karbala made huge and successful efforts to "Shi'ify" the Sunni tribes that came from the Arabian desert and settled in the lower Euphrates and Tigris. They did this for self-protection: to prevent the tribes from raiding the rich holy cities and to create a sympathetic tribal buffer between the cities and the Wahhabi forays. The Ottoman Sultan Abd al-Hamid II (1876-1909) tried to stop the conversion but failed. His only success was that Samarra in the north (where the Shi'i Askari Shrine is) remained by majority Sunni. A Turkish scholar, Derengil, wrote well about this. By the
way: some tribes split upon arriving to the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia.
One part stayed in the south and became Shi'i. The other continued north and remained Sunni. For example: The Shammar jarba in the Jazeera are Sunni. The Shammar Toqa near Najaf are Shi'i."
Amatzia Baram

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