The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend

If the Asia Times’ Pepe Escobar is right, the Iraq insurgency may be about to take a giant leap forward. According to AT, spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has given his blessing to a new coalition of Sunni-Shia coming together around a single common goal: to get the US out of Iraq. It’s a fairly powerful coalition as these things go in Iraq, and al-Sistani’s imprimatur kicks it up a very heavy notch.

[A] true Iraqi national pact is in the making – coordinated by VicePresident Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, and blessed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani himself. The key points of this pact are, no more sectarianism (thus undermining US strategy of divide and rule); no foreign interference (thus no following of US, Iran, or Saudi agendas); no support for al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers; and the right to armed resistance against the occupation.

Last Friday Grand Ayatollah Sistani finally confronted the occupation in no uncertain terms. Via Abdul Mahdi al-Karbala’i, his representative in the holy city of Karbala, Sistani called for the Iraqi parliament to rein in Blackwater et al, and most of all the “occupation forces”. He has never spoken out in such blunt language before.

For his part Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), one of the two key, US-supported Shi’ite parties in government, is back in Baghdad after four months of chemotherapy in Tehran. But it’s his son, the affable Ammar al-Hakim – who was the acting SIIC leader while his father was away – who’s been stealing the limelight, promising that the party will do everything in its power to prevent those US super-bases being set up in Iraq. Up to now SIIC’s official position has been to support the US military presence.

(emphasis added)

Al-Sistani has until now stayed away from any overt support for insurgents, and, indeed, for the first couple of years of the US occupation he condemned the violence and lent his name to peace-keeping efforts. Apparently, he has finally given up on hopes that the American presence would be a unifying force in a positive sense and faced the reality that its only unifying factor is as a common enemy. 

I’ve been expecting this ever since the invasion. If there’s one thing Arab tribes learned long ago, it’s the efficacy of temporary alliances between sworn enemies in order to dispel an invader or overcome an enemy common to them. Unlike Juan Cole or Eric Martin, I am not nor have I become an expert in Mid-East history and politics, but even I know enough about both to have been waiting for this to happen and wondering what the hell was taking so long.

The US military presence alone can’t explain the delay. At a guess it would seem to me from the reporting coming out of Iraq in the foreign press (as well as the aforementioned knowledgeable bloggers – the US press has been little or no help) that the religious tensions long suppressed by Hussein and released suddenly and without preparation by the US invasion and occupation were too strong to be overcome, even in the face of a clear and present danger presented by an occupier. Al-Sistani himself, wishing to avoid as much bloodshed and resentment between the major sects as possible, has likely played a role in putting off the alliance by refusing for so long to sanction “armed resistance” to the US presence.

Escobar claims that Sistani’s change of mind comes most likely from two sources: the permanent US bases being built all over the country to protect Iraq’s oil fields, and the treatment of Iraq as a client state by the US. Others have been frightened or angered by the “federalism” movement in the US led by Joe Biden and Tom Brownback.

At this critical juncture, it’s as if the overwhelming majority of Sunnis and Shi’ites are uttering a collective cry of “we’re mad as hell, and we won’t take it anymore”. The US Senate “suggests” that the solution is to break up the country. Blackwater and assorted mercenaries kill Iraqi civilians with impunity. Iraqi oil is being privatized via shady deals – like Hunt Oil with the Kurdistan regional government; Ray Hunt is a close pal of George W Bush.

Political deals in the Green Zone are just a detail in the big picture. On the surface the new configuration spells that the US-supported Shi’ite/Kurdish coalition in power is now challenged by an Iraqi nationalist bloc. This new bloc groups the Sadrists, the (Shi’ite) Fadhila party, all Sunni parties, the partisans of former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, and the partisans of former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. This bloc might even summon enough votes to dethrone the current, wobbly Maliki government.


Ammar al-Hakim may now be against permanent US bases and in favor of Sunni-Shi’ite union. But although he now says he is against federalism, he’s actually in favor of “self-governing regions”. That makes him for many Iraqis a partisan of “soft partition” ?- just like US congressmen. He qualifies the central government in Baghdad as “tyrannical”.

For their part the Sunni Arab sheikhs in Anbar are totally against what would be a Western Iraq provincial government – possibly encompassing three, majority-Sunni provinces, Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh.

If on one Shi’ite side we have Ammar al-Hakim from SIIC, on the other side – literally – we have Muqtada al-Sadr. The same day Ammar al-Hakim was courting the tribal sheikhs, pan-Islamic Muqtada was saying he was against any soft partition or provincial governments. That’s exactly what the sheikhs like to hear.

All of this makes perfect sense in the context of the Arab history of tribal alliances forged against a common enemy despite serious internal quarreling (see TE Lawrence for details), and it’s eventual power shouldn’t be underestimated. If Muktada al-Sadr and Ali al-Sistani can be on the same side, however uneasily, then the whole political/social/sectarian map is about to be re-drawn.

And not in our favor. Things are about to get a lot worse for US troops.

5 Responses to “The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend”

  1. Believe it or not, this is a generally good sign if you actually care about Iraqi people and whether or not it is ever a peaceful country that doesn’t sponsor terrorism- at least we will have succeeded in uniting the lower 2/3 of the country’s geography, even if it is a unity borne out of desire to kick us out. It’s just not good news if you are hoping to achieve peace AND claim American “victory” (whatever that means these days).

    If Sistani’s statements come to fruition, it will be the fulfilling of a number of predictions made months ago (even years ago now) by a variety of commentators (perhaps the most prominent being Andrew Sullivan). The biggest concern if this happens should be about protecting the Kurds, who have managed to stay out of the fray in the rest of Iraq (for reasons obvious to anyone with any knowledge of the last 15 years of American policy in the Middle East). The Kurds, of course, are amongst the only people in the region (along with the Israelis and Turks, who we’ve decided to alienate completely- thanks Dems and Pubs!) who actually have experienced life in a freely functioning society.

  2. mick says:

    Point taken but I can’t help thinking this is bad news for the troops. It’s going to be much more deadly facing a cohesive armed resistance than a fractured force fighting amongst itself as well as fighting an occupying army.

  3. Of course, you’re right about that to a large extent. The one fortunate thing is that, in the meantime, AQI and, importantly, also al Sadr have managed to piss off most of their surrounding populations to the point where AQI for certain and (I think- could be wrong) the Mehdi Army are now being viewed as something of Public Enemy No. 1. So before this grand coalition mobilizes againt US troops, it will focus on getting rid of AQI and the Mehdi Army. In Anbar, this meant increased cooperation (in the short term, I emphasize) with US troops. Essentially, if we start pulling out soon- and actually pull out permanently, there is hope for a peaceful Iraq. But if we stick around too long, I sense your concerns will prove completely justified.

    On another note regarding the federalism angle- it is officially being rejected, but I read an article a few weeks ago in which some legislators, speaking anonymously, admitted that while they are morally opposed to partition, in their hearts they know that partition is the only workable solution. Can’t remember where I read it (might have been a Michael Totten piece).

    Either way, one of our biggest faults in the invasion was our failure to recognize that Iraq the nation was and is a result of historically recent arbitrary line drawing- in other words, Iraq is not and never has been a true nation so much as it has been a forced collection of parts of three nations.

  4. xranger says:

    Another view is that Sistani hedged his bets all along and, with the surge working, sees no victory for the Shiia. By blessing an alliance with the Sunnis, and against Al Quaeda, he is trying to remain relevant.

    Probably 10 months or so ago I blogged here and elsewhere that the sheicks were merely a bunch of Al Capones, with their own fiefdoms. As soon as they realized that they must strive to keep Iraq as a nation state, to block a political vaccuum that would occur if the US pulled out too early, that is the only way for them to keep their power. And, ultimately, reap the value of the untold oil riches to be found in Iraq.

    That is, if the violence ended, and neighboring countries could not swoop in and fill the vaccuum.

  5. lester says:

    as someone may have noticed I usually link to and participate, though not lately, at If you are intersted in that perspective I would definately reccomend checking out the general politics forum, though the actual iraq forum is a little dicey

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