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Michael Ubaldi, August 26, 2004.
I've longed maintained that authoritarian societies, brutally repressed to keep modern communication at a minimum, cannot compete with the cultural power of democracies — in this case, the West. But with Afghanistan and Iraq already offering innumerably greater freedoms than neighboring countries and on their way to further liberalization, totalitarians — failing to disrupt democratization in each country — face an impossible task and inevitable defeat. Be it religious teaching or prosperous livelihoods, their populations will be inexorably drawn away from the misery of life in a police state. Iraqis' embrace of new life is already well along:
Need a skull, a dragon or a naked woman? Descend a flight of steps to a dingy corridor and step into Baghdad's only tattoo parlor. In a city better known for bombs than body art, a self-taught Iraqi tattoo artist is pioneering a new style of designs forbidden under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. Working with a home-made needle and architect's ink, Sarmad Shamael says his Celtic crosses, screaming eagles and death's heads are catching on among a small circle of youths.
Michael Ubaldi, August 26, 2004.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is a man whose respect from the West has been well-earned; his devotion to the apolitical, moderate Shiite Islam and popularity thereof already presents a potent challenge to Iranian fundamentalists. But Sistani's appeal to Muqtada al-Sadr's humanity, almost Gandhi-like in its apparent naivety, has met a predictable response before "negotiations" could even begin:
At least 10 supporters of Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric were shot dead in Najaf Thursday when gunmen opened fire at police who were trying to control the crowd, prompting the police to return fire, witnesses said.
SAVED BY THE BY-LINE: Checking afternoon headlines, I noticed with a start one that read "Sistani Calls on Iraqis to Expel US Troops." Then I realized that this "news" was coming from Granma International, Cuba's state-run press appendage. Maybe next time, Fidel.
CLARITY: Bloomberg Media gives us an idea of what's gone on since Sistani entered Najaf. The "peace deal" brokered by Sistani is a slight variation on every other compromise made between Baghdad authorities and the Khomeinist agent: if the Mahdi gangs disarm and disperse, American troops will leave the job of keeping order to the rightful Iraqis. It certainly won't end the Iranian threat, but could again fit into the "stall" theory. As before, I'd prefer directness and an end to insurgents — but I defer to those with a fuller picture. Muqtada al-Sadr's ranks have been drained again; though al-Sadr is sure to challenge authority again, the political damage done to his counterculture appeal is showing. Every exchange with al-Sadr has strengthened Iraqi solidarity against criminal and terrorist activity, and increased the severity of Allied-Iraqi response — while visibly weakening the upstart's pulpit. Remember, obstacles to putting the so-called "Iraqi face" on things have previously included an unsteady will to fight: the mounting frustration of Iraqi democrats at al-Sadr's perpetuation should neither be underestimated nor assumed detrimental.
Michael Ubaldi, August 24, 2004.
The Allies continue to hammer insurgents in Iraq. While exposed Ba'athist-terrorist operations in Fallujah are greeted with precision-guided bombs, aerial reconnaissance revealed just what al-Sadr's hapless and despised criminal lot think of Imam Ali's "holiness." Baghdad has issued another ultimatum. With fortune, their position has improved to deliver a credible promise of overwhelming, decisive force.
LIFE IN BAGHDAD: All the while, Iraqis enjoy freedom — and peace. Omar, enjoying fine Iraqi cuisine, puzzled over the discrepancy between his experience and the one being broadcast by most journalists:
You sit in a restaurant like this one and see families relaxing with their children playing and having fun late at night and you feel that there’s ‘something’ wrong in the way MSM is dealing with the Iraqi issue. I watch TV and I see hell breaking around me then I go outside and see enough normalcy AND progress to make me believe that the people in the media are not here to report how’s life going but rather they are here reporting pre-prepared stories and to be faced with something that contradicts the picture they have in their minds would be really annoying and will mean more hard work to try to find the truth or something close to it.
God knows how anyone can claim philanthropy while heckling Iraqis' and Afghans' baby steps. Back on earth, the façade can go on only so long before public audiences realize that the peace and harmony carefully drafted by the left tolerates the failure of liberal democracies. Dreamlike, if it weren't so vile in its implications. And like all other double-binds, the self-inflicted damage is not likely to be pretty.
Michael Ubaldi, August 23, 2004.
THE STORY: In the event newspaper registration isn't for you, an excerpt from the LA Times story, bearing the headline "Fed-Up Residents of Najaf Turn Against Rebel Cleric":
Haydar Hasan Abdullah wandered the twisting streets of this ancient city on Monday looking for a fight.
Michael Ubaldi, August 23, 2004.
Wretchard of Belmont Club wrote yesterday about the orgiastic revelry of Muqtada al-Sadr's followers, placing the phenomenon somewhere between a long-remembered, serendipitous "happening" and a potentially defining cultural movement. Some of his readers pushed further into analogy, likening the blend of fervor and violence to an Islamist Woodstock.
I caution against assigning more significance than is necessary. Western journalists have been giving terrorists subtly favorable press, particularly these sycophantic "day in the life" pieces, since the fall of the Ba'athists last April. Newsweek, firmly left of center, has published its share; the diligent news reader has been subject to dozens of sympathetic portraits of hoodlums in a few months — nearly as much as, if not more than, the Iraqi innocents they victimize. The lure does well to focus attention on a relatively minor, thoroughly simple-minded and totally destructive by-product of subcontracting Iran's foreign subterfuge out to a buffoon and whatever muscle he can round up with promises of action, cash and T.V. time. Strip away the gloss and we're left with barbaric frenzy, which is certainly nothing new. Giving the activities of the Mahdi gangs a capitalized name — something Wretchard's readers, not really Wretchard, are doing — is the intellectual equivalent of closely watching people stumble through and scuffle outside of the doors of a single New York City dive for hours, trying to find another name for carousing.
This is less a unique production than phlegm in a body's expulsion of a virus.
I contend that the absolute shock of change, near-instantaneous on a cultural time scale, helps to explain the temporary disconnection between men and domestic inhumanity. In fact we can find at least an indirect precedent for the bizarre, if not chilling behavior in William Chapman's bookwritten account of Occupied and postwar Japan. The "Hikari Club" was the loan-sharking scheme begun in 1948 by Akitsugu Yamazaki, a Tokyo University law student turned rake. Caught by authorities in 1950, Yamazaki ended his Life of Riley by committing suicide. "Life is a drama," he wrote in his diary. "I write the scenario, produce and direct the play, and act the hero. I bet my life and I do not take death seriously." Chapman goes on in Inventing Japan:
The "Hikari Club Affair" became one of those rare events that symbolizes an entire era. Those who lived through it remember the decade of 1945-55 as much for its atmosphere of moral decadence as for its deprivation and poverty. Yamazaki's exploitation of friends, his crass relations with women, and his celebration of pure avarice served as a metaphor of the times. ...Yamazaki had been no low-life trickster. He was of good family, and as a student at Tokyo University had been prepared for a career of almost certain success and respectability. In the "Hikari Club" he created a model of greed and unrepentance that has stood time's test as the symbol of a mean and shoddy decade.
And as I said to Wretchard in an e-mail, entropy seems only natural to the post-Saddam explosion of extremism: "I do seem to remember much larger protests in al-Sadr's name last year. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I can't see how many more go-rounds will hold the street's attention when the fun involves such staggering casualties." Cheating death is a thrill for all who follow Muqtada al-Sadr. Running headlong into it, as sure as staying on the tracks will put one in front of the three-thirty freight train, is not for dilettantes, whom it is widely understood make up the bulk of al-Sadr's little "army." That goes further to explain why our forces grind, rather than pile-drive.
This morning, W. Thomas Smith, Jr., gives indications that this is correct and happening before us:
In the end, sacrificing the lives of his Mahdi militiamen will not win Najaf, and al Sadr must also know this. But for a man who has won little respect among Shiite clerics, the battle for Najaf — including the mosque and the cemetery — is a means of garnering an enormous amount of international media attention, and establishing him as something of a cult figure among some Shiites as the man who stood up to America.
"Two nights ago on a patrol from midnight to 3 A.M., we actually saw Iraqis sitting out on rugs watching and listening to the Coalition aircraft doing their work in the cemetery," 1st Lt. Jeremy T. Sellars — a platoon commander with Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment — told National Review Online on Saturday. "Despite the obvious level of destruction they were inflicting, I watched Iraqis cheer every time the aircraft fired."
Inflammations in democratic — or democratizing — societies have been shown to falter when a common good can empower the citizenry and government to shame and prosecute the disruption into virtual nonexistence. Iraq's insurgency is of course paramilitary, so a force of arms is fundamental (to say nothing of the separate insurgency in central Iraq). But the cultural aspect of the Mahdi wave still suffers, as I argued in back in April, a tiny radius.
Michael Ubaldi, August 22, 2004.
The Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism, a remarkably progressive non-profit organization dedicated to many of the same principles as those who support the war on terror and assertive democratization, has issued a public statement on the cunning vacillation of Khomeinist upstart Muqtada al-Sadr:
The journey to stabilizing Iraq has been a difficult one and it is being made more difficult by terrorist infiltrations, Iranian sabatoge and ruthless private militias who have no purpose other than to destabilize Iraq.
Michael Ubaldi, August 20, 2004.
Wires are reporting Muqtada al-Sadr's gangs having the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf. Have combined efforts in winnowing out armed street thugs effectively damaged the Mahdi's ability to terrorize? Will the Khomeinist mob simply melt away for another crack at disrupting Iraqi lives? We'll see. More later.
AS IT GOES: According to Reuters, the situation is yet undetermined. One is expected to trust Iraqi military sources over Muqtada's lackeys but if our Marines don't know details on the ground, especially in this episode, neither do we. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Air Force is now in full, if modest operation. Pilots know their orders well:
"Before our mission was very combative to other countries and threatening to other countries," [Iraqi Col. Abed] said. "Now our mission is to serve our country. We want to prove that the coalition is not an invading force, but a force that gave us our independence. And we want to protect that. This is a new mission for us."
Michael Ubaldi, August 20, 2004.
While Iraqis, Americans and their allies expunge Ba'athist and foreign terrorists, criminals and other assorted lunatics from the country with an imperceptible slowness, men and women assemble for political debate and the formulation of state policy. As Zeyad tells it, this group's zeal has quickly overtaken its experience with parliamentarily governed free speech — no surprise, an experience forty-six years in disuse or altogether absent. But zeal it is, removing any doubt for the sincerity of Iraqi democrats:
[Delegate speaking to the conference]: "The 'list' is an act of dictatorship, this is unacceptable. I am going to--" [Someone taps at a microphone to attract attention and starts his own speech reading from 2 or 3 pages in his hand]
Michael Ubaldi, August 19, 2004.
Asked about Muqtada al-Sadr last night on Special Report with Brit Hume, Retired General Robert Scales stressed that the Tehran-backed strongman's Iraqi power base is not in his preferred public home of Najaf but in the Shiite slums of so-called Sadr City in Baghdad. Even though a scant thousand or so of over one million residents are running through the streets with old Saddamite weapons, Scales believed that defeating al-Sadr could be accomplished only by ridding Sadr City of the Mahdi gangs. It appears (hat tip to Craig Brett) that while troops close in on al-Sadr in the south, Iraq and Allies are throwing an offhand punch:
U.S. forces with tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles have overrun Baghdad's Sadr city district, a powerbase for Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Reuters said today, citing unidentified witnesses.
Michael Ubaldi, August 18, 2004.
This is a triumph:
Iraq's National Conference chose members of an interim National Assembly Wednesday night, but a planned vote on the decision was called off at the last minute and conference organizers simply affirmed a list of candidates. Disputes over how to choose the 81 members of the assembly, which is to act as a watchdog over the interim government until January elections, had forced conference organizers to extend the meeting into Wednesday for an unscheduled fourth day.