Juan Cole has an update on Sistani’s situation. Apparently a trader asked the cleric whether he is allowed to sell food to the occupying forces and was told:
Selling foodstuffs to the Occupying Powers is not permitted.
The Huffington Post has caught on.
Why I agree with Cole and Yglesias
I think Yglesias has it exactly wrong. It isn’t the threat of troops staying in Iraq that is feeding turmoil, but the threat of troops leaving. Sistani may be posturing because he senses an Obama victory in the US election, and a hasty withdrawal. That will leave a power vacuum, and an open door opportunity for Iran to fill that vacuum.
Does Yglesias want a stable Iraq or does he just want the US to wash its hands of the situation?
There are a few interesting points here. Firstly where we disagree: I think it is highly unlikely that Sistani is posturing in anticipation of an Obama administration because (a) he is very conservative and unlikely to encourage people to start attacking the US in anticipation of the US leaving and (b) Cole is as knowledgeable as anyone about the situation and is saying that something quite different is going on. I think Sistani really, really doesn’t want to get into a fight with the US but after years of avoiding it is being forced by events and everything I have read about about him points to this.
I agree that the anticipation of a US withdrawal could be generating a power vacuum, because that is the underlying reality. People see how the Americans feel about the Iraq war and the popularity of President Bush and conclude that there is no way that any president can avoid getting out of Iraq in the long run. If Iraqis think Obama is going to be the president then it is because of this, because he opposes the war and is aligned with the American electorate.
That said, it will not be easy for any president to extricate the US from Iraq–in this we appear to agree. Obama has been careful to explain that it is his intention to get out of Iraq as soon as possible (note, not to promise to be out of Iraq) as it might be practical to withdraw without making the situation worse: some pundits seem to expect that US troops will be still in Iraq at the end of a first term of an Obama presidency. One reason is that the Saudis and Iraqi Sunnis will not tolerate the Iranians gaining sole control of the situation and will fight a proxy war with Iran in Iraq, taking Iraq back onto to a civil war. Any incoming president will have to solve this problem.
It all comes back to striking a deal with the Iranians. This seems to be the preferred option of everyone in the region except the Israelis and (so far) the US (check out this the December Gulf Cooperation Council meeting). The Iranians already run Iraq–this is just the way it is, and they probably would rather see the US in Iraq as it will continue to get blamed and be held responsible for everything that goes wrong; they probably also fear the instability of a precipitous withdrawal; the Iranians and Americans appear to be in some ways mutually dependent where Iraq is concerned.
The US and Iran both back the same groups, the groups closest to Iran, because they remain dependent upon the US and Iran to maintain their position in Iraqi politics. The other groups are more nationalistic and would insist on cutting down on foreign influence–something unacceptable to both the US and Iran: both insist on a say in the proceedings. Yglesias has acknowledged this, that the US and Iran’s interests are broadly aligned with the US in Iraq and that an agreement with Iran will be an important part of achieving a sustainable situation in Iraq.
The reason I don’t think it is a good idea for us to be in Iraq is an essentially conservative argument advanced by Ritter: we don’t understand what we are doing and just end up getting manipulated by the locals (including the Iranians) who understand the situation better and will always manipulate the situation whatever we do: much better to recognise these realities and adopt a realistic policy.