As Israel and Hezbollah continue to trade deadly blows, the Bush administration may have to brace itself for the possibility that the shock waves from the war in Lebanon could wreck its partnership with Iraq’s Shiites and make Iraq’s fragmentation well-nigh unavoidable.
Anger over Israel’s bombing of Lebanon has reached Iraq, whose population is roughly two-thirds Shiite. Muqtada Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric who heads the Al Mahdi militia, was first to rail against the Israeli bombardment and Washington’s fulsome support of it. He continues to do so. On Friday, thousands (estimates range from 14,000 to 100,000) of pro-Sadr Shiites flooded Baghdad’s streets, chanting slogans of solidarity with Hezbollah and denouncing Israel and the United States.
Sadr is driven by more than religious solidarity with Hezbollah. He also seeks to outflank moderate Shiite leaders, particularly Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, perhaps even Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and he knows that the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon could boost his already substantial political stock.
Maliki and Sistani are well aware of this, of course, and they are not about to let that happen. They view Sadr as a dangerous demagogue and, unlike him, favor a continued American military presence in Iraq. But Sadr’s rabble-rousing gambit has left them no choice but to follow his script.
Not surprisingly, then, Maliki was quick to condemn Israeli attacks in the wake of Sadr’s statements. Other senior Shiite clerics and Iraq’s main Shiite parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, weighed in, expressing solidarity with Lebanon and lambasting Israel.
After some delay, Sistani, by far the most influential Shiite leader, also pilloried Israel’s "flagrant aggression" and "outrageous oppression" and, while not specifically naming the United States, accused the world of "turning a blind eye" to Lebanese suffering.
After Israel’s July 30 attack on a residential building in Qana, which killed at least 28 people (half of whom were said to be children), Sistani issued a fatwa condemning the "dastardly crime" by the "Israeli enemy." He called for an immediate cease-fire and warned that Muslims "will not excuse parties that put obstacles in the way of this." (What he left unsaid, but that was nevertheless clear to all who read the fatwa, was that it is the United States that opposed the cease-fire for several weeks in hopes of giving Israel time to destroy Hezbollah’s bastions in southern Lebanon.) What remains unclear is whether a competitive process will begin, with Shiite leaders each ratcheting up anti-Israeli statements. That could produce a breach with the United States -- one that could have lasting consequences. Shiite leaders cannot continue condemning Israel’s war in Lebanon without coming out against the United States. That’s because, in Arab eyes, American arms supplies and political backing are what enable Israel to persist with its military campaign.
An open rift between the Shiites and the United States is hardly inevitable. But it’s certainly possible if the war in Lebanon drags on and if Iran starts stirring the pot, which it can, given its substantial sway with Iraqi Shiite parties.
With Gen. John P. Abizaid testifying before the Senate last week that Iraq’s sectarian violence is getting worse, the United States can ill afford to forfeit Shiite support. It is one thing for the United States to have Sadr as an enemy; it’s altogether different to lose the support of moderate Shiite leaders such as Maliki and Sistani, without whom the U.S. will be unable to hold Iraq together. U.S. forces may still remain in Iraq, but their nation-building assignment, already near-impossible, will have become truly impossible.
What’s worse, an unraveling of the U.S.-Shiite partnership would inevitably affect the calculus of Iraq’s Kurds, possibly prompting them to declare independence. Turkey might well intervene, turning an Iraqi civil war into a regional war that would make Washington’s problems, hard as it is to imagine, much worse. Bush administration rhetoric notwithstanding, the U.S. would be forced to fold its tent and go home.
The good news is that there’s still time to avoid this scenario by implementing a cease-fire in Lebanon. That would end the carnage and prevent Hezbollah from attaining heroic status among Iraqi Shiites.