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    Middle East
     Apr 23, 2008
Muqtada's biggest battle already won
By Sreeram Chaulia

A new study by the Washington DC-based advocacy organization, Refugees International, reveals that Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militant force, Jaish-al-Mahdi, is the largest social welfare dispenser in Iraq.

It is a tribute to the Mahdi Army's successful adaptation of the model pioneered by Hezbollah in Lebanon. When survival needs of food, water, housing, electricity and protection are in short supply, and the state apparatus is unable or unwilling to come to the rescue of the population, radical non-state actors can exploit the vacuum and step in as provider of last resort.

The quid pro quo here is that the militant outfit's benevolence earns political legitimacy from the poor who bear the brunt of war. In return for rebuilding homes, hospitals, schools and places of

 

worship destroyed by the enemy, the outfit wins fanatical loyalty from its target constituency. Since militant armies rely on guerrilla-style warfare, their core strength lies in mass public approval and participation in their ranks. Popularity is the treasury of a guerrilla movement that sustains it in asymmetrical war against conventionally superior foes. It is arguably as crucial to a militant force as backing from foreign state sponsors.

To be loved by the people on whose behalf an armed struggle is being waged is the dream of revolutionaries. It satisfies their psychological need for confirmation that the armed movement is indeed benefiting those they claim to be emancipating. Self-doubts can be costly for a guerrilla group, opening the door to defections, apostasy or factionalism. The government or foreign invading army against which the struggle is being waged can pounce on any signs of regret or introspection by militants and sow internal splits that can undo an outfit. Steady nurturing of mass popularity is an existential necessity for militant groups to remain cohesive and steadfast to their objectives. Mao Zedong, the classic exponent of people's war, highlighted another important function of cultivating popular support. In his apt metaphor, without the "ocean" of mass sympathy, the "fish" of the revolutionary army would die asphyxiated. However destitute and harassed, slum dwellers or landless laborers can shelter guerrillas on the run, offer local contacts and information, and even join them in battle as an auxiliary force.

In effect, this sets up a symbiotic relationship between militants and their constituents. The former's humanitarian assistance becomes a lifeline for the poor, and the latter's affection becomes the shield for the guerrillas. In insurrection theory, the two-way-street leads to a merger of the party or rebel outfit and its people to the extent that the two become indistinguishable.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, for instance, use the slogan "LTTE is the Tamil people and the Tamil people are the LTTE". A war on the outfit, by extension, gets interpreted as a war on the people it defends.

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the post-Saddam Hussein chaos created the perfect conditions of desperation in which the Jaish-al-Mahdi rose to astounding prominence.

Although Muqtada's father, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, was a venerable grand ayatollah during Saddam's dictatorship, it was not expected that the son would go on to become a kingmaker in Iraqi politics and a thorn in the flesh for the American occupation forces.

His Mahdi Army, which began as a ragtag band of 500 Shi'ite seminary students to enforce vigilante justice in 2003, now boasts of over 10,000 dedicated mujahideen and millions of lay sympathizers won over by charitable activities.

The rise of this new force is, in many ways, the story of all that went horribly wrong with the American neo-conservative roadmap of remaking the Middle East. While Muqtada would bristle at his description as an "American creation", the fact is his outfit turned into a state-within-a-state thanks to the George W Bush administration's actions since 2003. Had there been no American invasion to topple Saddam and subsequent stationing of foreign troops on Iraqi soil, the world would not have witnessed the phenomenon that the Mahdi Army morphed into.

This observation is seconded by the similar trajectories of two other Islamist guerrilla groups in the Middle East - Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Counter-factually, we would not have had these movements if there were no Israeli aggressions on Lebanon or the Palestinian territories. Islamist militancy is essentially reactionary - a spiritual and temporal response to perceived oppression by foreign or homebred enemies. Once the reaction sets in and takes an organized form, it becomes a Janus-faced humanitarian-cum-terrorist machine. On the one hand, the outfit is the very epitome of kindness and Samaritanism to its own people. On the other hand, it strikes fear into the heart of the enemies with alleged Koranic sanction.

The usage of the charity model by Islamists is not limited to the Middle East. When a devastating earthquake shook Pakistan in October 2005, the banned Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) launched its own independent relief efforts, bypassing the corruption and red tape typical of governmental responses to disasters. The visible and efficient services of LeT and its sister religious bodies won instant appreciation among the suffering victims and furthered the sentiment in Pakistan's frontier and Kashmir regions that the government in Islamabad was incapable of succoring its citizens.

The delegitimization of the state, a civic authority mandated to care for its citizens, went in tow with extra legitimization of jihadi ideology among ordinary Pakistanis. As was to be expected in the relief-for-loyalty exchange, LeT operatives took hundreds of orphaned children under its wing for indoctrination in its extensive network of orphanages and madrassas (seminaries). LeT was also found to be offering "employment" to several people who lost their livelihoods in the natural calamity. It was no coincidence that a spate of LeT-ascribed terrorist attacks occurred in India shortly after the earthquake in Pakistan.

While the usage of humanitarian garb to recruit despondent youth for terrorist purposes is not unique to Islamist outfits, the special theological emphasis in Islam on charity (zakaat) is unmatched among world religions. Saudi Arabian charities are particularly notorious for fundraising in the name of social service and channeling enormous sums to wherever there is a jihadi cause to be aided.

The International Islamic Relief Organization, proscribed by the United Nations in 2006, used to be one major outlet of Saudi Arabian zeal for charity that boosted jihad in the Philippines and Indonesia. The al-Rasheed Trust, exposed in 2001, was run by Pakistan's Jaish-i-Muhammad. It was the brainchild of the Inter-Services Intelligence to fudge finances for terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir in the guise of social work.

As long as Jaish-al-Mahdi harnesses its religiously enjoined humanitarian image among downtrodden Shi'ites in Baghdad and southern Iraq, no frontal military assaults by the US and Iraqi armies can succeed in displacing Muqtada from his perch as the country's Robin Hood.

Israel is learning this lesson the hard way against its bete noires, Hezbollah and Hamas. Actions like the present blockade of the Gaza Strip, purportedly aimed at weakening terrorist movements, cause humanitarian crises that drive sufferers closer into the embrace of the movements. Punitive expeditions like the military assault on the Jaish-al-Mahdi will likewise exacerbate the protection deficit in Iraq and vindicate the success of the militant social work model.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse, New York.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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