Fault lines left over from the creation of the Appalachian Mountains can still lead to earthquakes locally, and many faults remain undetected. According to the USGS, few, if any, earthquakes in New England can be linked to named faults.
While earthquakes in New England are generally much weaker compared to those on defined fault lines, their reach is still impressive. Sunday’s 3.6 was felt in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Hampshire.
USGS Community Internet Intensity Map
While M 3.6 earthquakes rarely cause damage, some minor cracks were reported on social media from the shaking.
According to the USGS, moderately damaging earthquakes strike somewhere in the region every few decades, and smaller earthquakes are felt roughly twice a year.
The top US military officer, General Mark Milley, has provided the first official US confirmation of a Chinese hypersonic weapons test that military experts say appears to show Beijing’s pursuit of an Earth-orbiting system designed to evade American nuclear missile defences.
Hypersonics move at speeds of more than five times the speed of sound, or about 6,200 kph
Sources say the test involved a weapon that first orbited the earth, something called ‘fractional orbital bombardment’
China has denied the claims, saying what it tested was a space vehicle
The Pentagon has been at pains to avoid direct confirmation of the Chinese test this summer, first reported by the Financial Times, even as President Joe Biden and other officials have expressed general concerns about Chinese hypersonic weapons development.
But General Milley explicitly confirmed a test and said that it was “very close” to a Sputnik moment – referring to Russia’s 1957 launch of the first man-made satellite, which put Moscow ahead in the Cold War-era space race.
“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” Mr Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg television, in an interview aired on Wednesday.
Nuclear arms experts said China’s weapons test appeared to be designed to evade US defences in two ways.
First, hypersonics move at speeds of more than five times the speed of sound, or about 6,200 kph, making them harder to detect and intercept.
Second, sources tell Reuters that the United States believes China’s test involved a weapon that first orbited the Earth.
It said it had carried out a routine test in July, but added: “It was not a missile, it was a space vehicle.”
US defences are not capable of combating a large-scale attack from China or Russia, which could overwhelm the system.
But the open US pursuit of more and more advanced missile defences has led Moscow and Beijing to examine ways to defeat them, experts said, including hypersonics and, apparently, fractional orbital bombardment.
The United States and Russia have both tested hypersonic weapons.
The successful launch on Wednesday was in line with “India’s policy to have credible minimum deterrence that underpins the commitment to no first use”, said a government statement.
The Agni-5 missile splashed down in the Bay of Bengal with “a very high degree of accuracy”, said the statement issued on Wednesday night.
Beijing’s powerful missile arsenal has driven New Delhi to improve its weapons systems in recent years, with the Agni-5 believed to be able to strike nearly all of China.
India is already able to strike anywhere inside neighbouring Pakistan, its archrival against whom it has fought three wars since gaining independence from British colonialists in 1947.
India has been developing its medium- and long-range missile systems with and without nuclear warheads since the 1990s amid increasing strategic competition with China in a major boost to the country’s defence capabilities.
Tension between them flared last year over a long-disputed section of their border in the mountainous Ladakh area.
India is also increasingly suspicious of Beijing’s efforts to heighten its influence in the Indian Ocean.
Talks between Indian and Chinese army commanders to disengage troops from key areas along their border ended in a deadlock earlier this month, failing to ease a 17-month standoff that has sometimes led to deadly clashes.
A sophisticated electronic sensor buried in hardened metal shells at the tip of a growing number of America’s ballistic missiles reflects a significant achievement in weapons engineering that experts say could help pave the way for reductions in the size of the country’s nuclear arsenal but also might create new security perils.
The new components — which determine and set the best height for a nuclear blast — are now being paired with other engineering enhancements that collectively increase what military planners refer to as the individual nuclear warheads’ “hard target kill capability.” This gives them an improved ability to destroy Russian and Chinese nuclear-tipped missiles and command posts in hardened silos or mountain sanctuaries, or to obliterate hardened military command and storage bunkers in North Korea, also considered a potential U.S. nuclear target.
The increased destructiveness of the new warheads means that in some cases fewer weapons could be needed to ensure that all the objectives in the nation’s nuclear targeting plans are fully met, opening a path to future shrinkage of the overall arsenal, current and former U.S. officials said in a series of interviews, in which some spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive technology.
Production of the first of many high-yield nuclear warheads containing the gear, developed over the past decade at a cost of billions of dollars, was completed in July for installation on missiles aboard Navy submarines, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced. It follows the development and installation of similar fuzes — designed by the same nuclear laboratory — on hundreds of smaller-yield submarine warheads in a program completed in January 2019. After the Air Force installs some of the same technology aboard new land-based missiles slated for deployment by the end of the decade, it will be deployed on more than 1,300 warheads in the U.S. arsenal.
The Defense Department has publicly described the components as a routine engineering improvement that provides no substantial new military capabilities. Air Force budget documents provided to Congress describe it as a “form, fit, and functionally equivalent replacement” for existing nuclear warhead fuzes. But those familiar with highly sensitive nuclear planning say it will make the warheads significantly more damaging than previous such weapons.
“It’s an astounding piece of technology,” said mechanical engineer Paul J. Hommert, who directed the government-owned Sandia National Laboratories during the initial years of the technology’s development by a team of several hundred people on its New Mexico campus. He said that while existing U.S. weapons are highly accurate, the sensors the lab created are even better at computing the best moment for a blast to be ignited to produce the highest pressures on targets. They accomplish this even while the warheads approach at speeds that other experts have said exceed 15,682 miles per hour.
“There is more flexibility [in its use] and more robustness,” he said. “And that has to lead to sustained confidence and the possibility of additional damage capability.” Hommert said he agreed with others that there are a lot of deeply buried installations, like command posts, that “these will give you a better chance of holding at risk.” He called it an “underappreciated” enhancement.
Georgetown University professor Keir Lieber, and Dartmouth University associate professor Daryl Press, a consultant to the Defense Department, have estimated that the fuzes have roughly doubled the destructive power of the U.S. submarine fleet alone.
This shift in weapons capabilities has both military and political consequences, current and former officials and experts said. On one hand, the leaders of target countries, knowing that U.S. nuclear strikes are more certain to be effective in destroying their weapons, might be more deterred from taking provocative actions that could draw a U.S. nuclear attack, some said.
Others worry, however, that those leaders — knowing that many of their protected, land-based weapons and associated command posts could not escape destruction — might be more prone to order their use early in a crisis or conflict, simply to ensure they are not destroyed when incoming warheads arrive, promoting a hair-trigger launch policy that could escalate into a general cataclysm.
Physicist James Acton, who co-directs the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and has written extensively about the need to avert unnecessary conflicts, said that efforts to modernize the nuclear arsenal should be more focused on ensuring the weapons’ safety, security, and reliability, and less on goosing their accuracy.
“If China or Russia believe in a conflict or a crisis that we are going to attack or destroy their nuclear forces and command posts, that gives them an incentive to use nuclear weapons first, or to threaten their use. They have strong incentives to take steps that would further escalate the crisis and create new dangers,” Acton said.
Distributing impressive accuracy improvements throughout the U.S. arsenal “will raise concerns in Russia and China about targeting their leadership.” He said “I would like to see the United States being more restrained in this,” because the additional escalation risks “outweigh a relatively modest increase in utility” against such targets as deeply-buried command posts.
Already, the U.S. can hold at risk many but possibly not all of the key Russian and Chinese targets. “There’s an element that exists today” of heightened fear of preemptive attack as a result, said John R. Harvey, a physicist who was the principal deputy to the Defense Department’s top nuclear weapons authority from 2009 to 2013 and the director of policy planning at the National Nuclear Security Administration for eight years before that.
But Harvey acknowledged that it’s hard to know whether the deployment of additional capabilities to target key enemy warheads will put “the adversary in a posture that would generate a rapid response, which could conceivably be the result of misinterpretation” — a launch of weapons based on the erroneous sensing of an attack or false anxiety about an imminent attack.
DETONATING AT THE OPTIMAL SECOND
The warhead fuze and its accompanying sensors and computers are embedded in a stubby capsule about two feet high and a foot wide, compact enough for Hommert to carry a model with him to a congressional hearing in 2014. There he said they would be installed on three new types of warheads atop land and sea-based missiles as well as, in part, a warhead to be carried by U.S. F-16 and F-35 warplanes deployed in Europe.
Hommert and other advocates for the new technology emphasized that by deploying a single new component across the warhead force — a rare exception to the longstanding insistence of the Navy and the Air Force on using unique warhead designs — the government would save around $170 million. But in practice, the decision to field a common device backfired, when a $5 capacitor in the fuzing system that stores and generates electrical current tested poorly and had to be abruptly replaced by a more expensive device in hundreds of the modules. The resulting production delays set the entire effort back about a year and led to a roughly $750 million hike in its budget.
Widespread installation of the fuzing system nonetheless has aroused little controversy on Capitol Hill, partly because both Democratic and Republican administrations have depicted it as a slight modernization of a single component that they say doesn’t violate a 2010 promise by President Barack Obama to foreswear the development of new nuclear weapons or their modification to support new military missions.
It’s part of a major, two-decade long effort to modernize major components in five types of existing nuclear warheads at a cost exceeding $40 billion. The government is also simultaneously modernizing virtually all the launchers for these warheads, including key elements in the U.S. missile, bomber, and submarine force, requiring an investment of $634 billion over the next decade and bringing the complete cost of the nuclear arsenal to roughly $1.2 trillion over the next three decades.
Officials say the ambition of the Sandia team was partly to make the fuze of U.S. warheads more resilient in the face of electronic jamming efforts (typically aimed at making a fuze malfunction or detonate too early) and in the midst of high radiation levels caused by other nuclear blasts, including those deliberately set off by Russia at an altitude of about 30 miles over key command centers as part of that country’s brutalist missile defense system.
But another aim was to ensure that warheads arriving from varied angles could more assuredly obliterate their targets even if their prospective landing points were slightly off-center.
Older warheads set to detonate when they hit the ground, using a contact fuze, or those that used a less advanced radar or barometric fuze to ignite it at a pre-set altitude were not as assuredly able to destroy all hardened targets, says Theodore Postol, a professor emeritus of science, technology and national security policy from MIT and former consultant to the chief of naval operations on warhead engineering. Bursts too close to the ground or on it also caused higher radioactive fallout and more collateral damage.
“The new radar has the ability to measure the altitude within a few meters of precision” and “can tell you whether you are on the right trajectory” by sensing terrain features. Taking into consideration winds, gravitational forces, and other sensitive flight characteristics, it senses how far off the warhead might land and compensates by adjusting the burst height to maintain the maximum possible force on the target, he said.
Several experts said that enabling the warheads to determine their location while traveling at blinding speed and in milliseconds calculate the right moment to ignite proved a solvable problem with advanced electronics and a team working for a decade with what Sandia boasts is “some of the best tools, equipment and research facilities in the world.”
Citing the sensitive nature of the technology in the assembly, the lab declined to make a member of its staff available to discuss it; nor would the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, which funded the work. But a Sandia employee overseeing the work, Dolores Sanchez, was quoted in a lab publication in August describing the assembly as “the brains of the warhead. … It looks for the correct code and the correct environmental signals that will unlock the system, and it also ensures that it’s an authorized flight. In short, it makes sure it always works when we want it to and never when we don’t.”
The lab’s news release explained further that it was “more than a decade in the making” and that it required multiple tests of the fuze’s vulnerability to “impact, vibration, drops, extreme temperatures and massive electrical impulses.” Sandia’s design was subsequently turned into hardware by Honeywell, which not only manages the lab but operates the federally-owned nuclear weapons production facility in Kansas City that’s churning out hundreds of the new systems.
One of the aircraft-delivered warheads that incorporates the fuzing system’s new radar and a new, maneuverable tailkit, the B61-12, will be considerably more accurate than its predecessors but have a lower explosive force, producing somewhat less radioactive fallout and destruction outside the vicinity of the target. Both of the submarine-based warheads with the parts of the new fuzing and firing gear, the W76-1 and W88 Alt 370, are also meant to be more destructive, a circumstance that affords the submarines’ commanders more latitude to station their vessels in a broader ocean area and launch their missiles toward their targets along more varied trajectories, officials say.
Hans Kristensen, who monitors such technological efforts for the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit group in Washington, says that the warhead improvements in total look uncomfortably like new designs. He says in some ways this is not surprising: As the U.S. arsenal has shrunk by roughly a third due to arms agreements struck in the past two decades, “the engineers and weaponeers began looking for ways to enhance the capabilities of the weapons that would be left.” And the results, he said, “are so far removed from the Obama era’s limitation that [they are] one step short of a new nuclear weapon.”
Building weapons like the B-61 that are more accurate and destructive while producing lower collateral damage “makes them easier to use, [and] this is completely accepted now” as a reasonable ambition for weapons designers, Kristensen complained. The issue has been hotly debated, however. Don Cook, who helped oversee nuclear weapons production efforts during the Obama administration, wrote in 2016 that “I believe, a lower-yield, more accurate U.S. weapon constitutes a better deterrent specifically because it will be regarded by an adversary as more usable and that the likelihood of weapons use is, therefore, lower, not higher.”
A NEW PATH TO NUCLEAR REDUCTIONS?
Arms reduction agreements between the United States and Russia have typically measured the relative military might of both nations by the numbers of nuclear weapons they held, not how destructive the weapons were. The most recent one, known as New START — a deal that came into force in 2011 and was recently extended until 2026 by President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, limited each nation to 1,550 warheads (the actual numbers are higher because bombers carrying many warheads are counted as carrying one).
Navy Admiral Charles A. Richard (U.S. Navy)
But Navy Admiral Charles A. Richard, who commands the U.S. Strategic Command that stewards the nuclear arsenal, told the House Armed Services Committee last April that “the size of a nation’s weapons stockpile is a crude measure of its overall strategic capabilities. … It is necessary to consider the capability, range, and accuracy of the associated delivery systems.”
Richard’s words were intended to rebut any claims that China’s nuclear arsenal — which has an estimated 350 warheads, or less than a tenth of those deployed and stored by U.S. forces — poses a comparatively small threat to America. “I have no choice but to view China as a significant strategic nuclear threat,” Richards said.
But other experts say the same conclusions can be drawn from the improved capabilities of the U.S. force. Their enhanced nuclear killing power justifies taking a look at the plan to spend a trillion dollars on its modernization, operation and maintenance, or the need to keep so many warheads in the stockpile, they say.
The fuze will be “more reliable, almost certainly,” said Michael Elliott, a former nuclear bomber weapons system officer who was deputy director of strategic stability for the Joint Chiefs of Staff while the New START treaty was negotiated and previously worked on nuclear plans for the U.S. Strategic Command. “When you improve reliability, you improve effectiveness, and that drives up the probability of success,” which could mean that “fewer warheads are needed,” including fewer required in a stockpile reserve that others say presently has 2,000 warheads. But Elliott added that any decision to reduce warheads should also be based on “the projected strategic situation and health of our forces.”
“Our hard-target kill capability was good before, but it’s great now,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a key White House adviser on arms control and nuclear issues when Biden was vice president. He said this enhancement had already helped convince the Pentagon’s military leaders to agree that the nuclear force could be smaller than it was then and is now.
President Obama made this verdict public in June 2013 after a comprehensive classified review, through a statement affirming that even after the New START limitations were fully met, “we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies and partners and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent while safely pursuing up to a one-third reduction in deployed nuclear weapons” beyond what that treaty required.
Wolfsthal, who is now a senior adviser to the Global Zero advocacy group, which seeks the eventual elimination of nuclear arms, said the military’s support for this reduction of a third — or about 500 warheads — from the current arsenal wasn’t conditioned during the Obama administration’s review on a requirement for similar reductions to be taken by Russia, but was decided instead based on an assessment of what the country needed to be able to hold key Russian targets at risk. He and others explained that this was determined in part by a recognition that the American arsenal was becoming more accurate and in part by the fact that the total number of targets that America needed to destroy in Russia had declined.
“Our hard-target kill capability was good before, but it’s great now.”
JON WOLFSTHAL, WHITE HOUSE ADVISER ON ARMS CONTROL AND NUCLEAR ISSUES WHEN JOE BIDEN WAS VICE PRESIDENT
Wolfsthal said that in his view the reason Obama didn’t implement these approved reductions was political, rather than military. Obama and Biden, he said, opposed taking action unilaterally because they hoped to persuade Russia to act similarly, contributing to an overall reduction in global nuclear risks. He said he thought it was “crazy” to be spending so much on new weapons when “we could live with a smaller force.”
So far, the Biden administration has said little about its larger plans for the nuclear arsenal besides affirming in budget plans that it intends no major change in the modernization programs created by Obama and continued or slightly expanded by President Donald Trump. An internal administration review of the nation’s nuclear posture is just getting under way at the Pentagon, and its leadership changed, drawing expressions of concern from arms control advocates.
Leonor Tomero, a comparatively independent-minded veteran of nuclear oversight on Capitol Hill who Biden had appointed early this year as the deputy policy chief for nuclear matters, was relieved of responsibility for the review and it was handed off to another defense official working in an acting capacity.
While the administration described the resulting personnel change as a simple interoffice reorganization, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in a Sept. 24 letter to Biden that he was “concerned that the sudden departure of a top appointee, charged with presenting you options on the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise, will result in a draft Nuclear Posture Review that reflects the Cold War era’s overreliance on nuclear weapons.”
Any prospect of changing paths indeed feels alarming to some. Richard, the Strategic Command commander, told reporters in January that the upcoming review should include “validation that we like the strategy that we have. … And then to be satisfied that the [nuclear weapons] capabilities that we have are able to accomplish that.”
But Andrew Weber, the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs from 2009 to 2014 and chair of the Nuclear Weapons Council that approved development of the fuzes, said that in his view their deployment reduces the need to keep developing some smaller nuclear weapons slated for deployment in the next decade.
New air- and sea-launched cruise missiles in particular, he said, are not necessary, and will undermine deterrence because they are stealthy, surprise-attack weapons that will make opponents nervous enough to adopt hair-trigger launch policies. Since they can be deployed with both conventional and nuclear warheads and it’s impossible for opponents to tell the difference, their use could cause unintentional escalation from a conventional to a nuclear war.Those two programs are estimatedto cost more than $35 billion. It’s time, Weber said, to stop “replacing everything mindlessly.”
General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Washington’s second-most-senior military officer, called the rapid rise of the Chinese military “stunning.”
“The pace they’re moving and the trajectory that they’re on will surpass Russia and the United States if we don’t do something to change it,” he told the Defense Writers Group on Thursday, responding to a question from VOA.
“We have to do something,” he added.
The warning from Hyten, who is set to retire next month, comes a day after the top U.S. military officer publicly confirmed that China tested a hypersonic weapon system in July, sending a glider around the world at five times the speed of sound.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday the Chinese test was “very concerning.”
“I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that,” Milley added, referring to Russia’s launch of the world’s first artificial satellite in the 1950s. The feat sparked the space race that dominated the next several decades.
Like Milley, Hyten refused to share details of the Chinese hypersonic test, saying the information remained classified.
But he did acknowledge that simply by conducting such a test, China was sending a message.
“All the hypersonic weapons they’re building, all of the nuclear weapons they’re building, are not meant for their own population,” Hyten said of China. “It is meant for the United States of America, and we have to assume that, and we have to plan for that.”
Hyten expressed confidence that for now, America’s own hypersonic program is more advanced, though he raised concerns that even that could be changing.
“In the last five years, maybe longer, the United States has done nine hypersonic tests,” Hyten told reporters. “The Chinese have done hundreds.”
“Single digits versus hundreds is not a good place,” he said.
Hyten also repeated concerns he first voiced as commander of U.S. Strategic Command, that the U.S. capability to defend against hypersonic weapons, from China and Russia, needs work.
“The most important thing about defending yourself against hypersonics is not the weapon. It is not building your own hypersonics. It’s building a sensor that can see hypersonics,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have the sensors.”
Hyten said one way to boost visibility would be for the U.S. to work with allies to create an integrated network of ground-based and space-based systems to track the high-speed weapons.
But building such a capability will take time, and Hyten warned its development could get bogged down by the Pentagon’s growing bureaucracy, which he said continues to slow critical programs, despite recent efforts to boost efficiency.
“We’ve finally reached the point in technology in lasers that it has reached the maturity that it can actually be lethal on incoming missile threats,” Hyten said. “We need to invest in that.”
Despite concerns about China’s rapidly progressing military prowess, Hyten said that for the moment, Russia remains the biggest existential threat to the U.S.
“Russia is still the most imminent threat, simply because they have 1,500 deployed nuclear weapons, plus or minus, and China’s got roughly 20% of that,” the general said in response to a question from VOA. “So, you have to worry about Russia in the near term.”
“They already have operational hypersonic capabilities with nuclear weapons on it,” Hyten said of Russia. “And they continue to experiment with hypersonics, but not nearly at the pace of China, not anywhere close to the pace of China.”
In their national election earlier this month, Iraqis took the unprecedented step of rejecting an Iran-backed coalition of armed Shiite militias while showing a clear preference for Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric who promotes a nationalist agenda. Fatah or Conquest Alliance, an umbrella organization of various militias or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs) that was led by Pro-Iran Hadi al-Amiri, fell from 48 parliamentary seats in 2018 to merely 15 seats this year. Sadr’s Sairoon coalition, meanwhile, emerged as the biggest winner, upping its tally from 54 seats to 73 seats. Sadr is now a kingmaker in the formation of Iraq’s next parliament.
The success of a purportedly secular Shiite grouping over a sectarian and armed one is telling. The PMUs began as an anti-Islamic State force but are since accused of becoming local gangsters who run extortion rackets and carry out extrajudicial killings. Sadr, by contrast, consolidated support on the backs of promises to usher in political reforms that weaken sectarian elites, build a secular society, and end Iranian interference while banishing U.S. troops from the country.
His anti-U.S. credentials are not in doubt; Sadr earned notoriety in the years after the U.S. invasion for unleashing sectarian militias under his control against U.S. troops. Yet it’s the U.S. government that perhaps should be most pleased by Sadr’s new status as a national leader. Many questions remain about how much of Sadr’s agenda he can achieve. But what seems indisputable is Sadr has emerged as Iraq’s only political leader with enough popularity to push through the sort of changes the country needs, including dismantling sectarian quotas for political offices known as the Muhasasa system and containing Iran-backed militias. And in that context, Sadr’s rise suits U.S. interests.
Sadr will first have to negotiate a majority in Iraq’s 329-member parliament. Sources close to Sadr said, in addition to his own coalition’s 73 seats, he can count on the support of 10 independent candidates who joined calls for political reform in nationwide protests in recent years. Nevertheless, negotiations over the government’s formation will take months, and it isn’t yet clear what the final constellation will look like—not least because the depth of Sadr’s own commitment to political reform is difficult to assess.
“The Sadrists turned on the protests in early 2020 and are also responsible for part of the violence perpetrated against activists,” said Lahib Higel, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group focused on politics, governance, security, and conflict in Iraq. She added it is very unlikely that Sadr can form a government that would exclude the Fatah Alliance or Iran’s militias altogether. “It would invite conflict.” The rivalry between the Sadrists and Iran-backed militias is a quarrel over influence, but when it has suited them in the past, they have buried tensions and cooperated. “In 2018, Sadr came to an agreement with Hadi al-Amiri on government formation,” Higel added.
Dhia al-Asadi, a former top official in Sadr’s political movement and someone believed to be close to the cleric, said Sadr can form a winning coalition by excluding all Iran-backed factions—including the Fatah Alliance of armed militias led by Amiri and the unarmed grouping of Iran-backed political parties led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which scored the third highest number of seats (37 seats) in recent polls.
“Those who think like Maliki oppose Sadr, so they can’t be allies,” Asadi said. “It is possible that Sadrists align with the Sunni bloc, which has 38 seats, with the Kurds and independents and maybe other smaller breakaway Shiite parties.” However, such an arrangement will also come at a cost, Asadi explained. “Sunnis and Kurds feel that the Muhasasa system empowers them and gives them representation, so it will be hard to get rid of the system immediately. Mr. Sadr intends on bringing slow reforms. For instance, he says give all communities representation but have them choose the most talented people for positions in institutions. But even there, the issue is that most parties want to appoint the most loyal men to keep control.”
Analysts said despite being part of several governments in the past, Sadrists have been ineffective at pushing for reforms and instead accused of violence and corruption themselves. Sadr, they said, is not a seasoned policymaker but just a populist claiming the mantle of civil society.
Elie Abouaoun, director of Middle East and North Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace, said Sadr has failed to prove himself. “Even before 2018, al-Sadr was part of both the legislative and the executive bodies, respectively, through members of parliament and ministers he himself nominated,” Abouaoun said. “Despite this relatively solid presence in both branches of the government, his movement cannot claim ownership of serious reform initiatives. Most of what he did was in the realm of criticism, objections, … etc.”
In some cases, his own nominees were involved in scandalous corruption cases, and in others, they were seen accepting existing malpractices and ignoring what they would decry on the street, Abouaoun added. “In a nutshell, I don’t see why any of the factors that prevented him from imposing a reform agenda in the last 10 years will change now,” he said. “I expect him to continue acting as a populist opposition leader while being part of all the governance structures in Iraq.”
Yet others said despite Sadr’s many contradictions and uninspiring record in pushing for reforms, he nevertheless represents a new political model that should offer inspiration for Iraq and the region. Sadr’s rise reveals that sectarian militia leaders can change their path and use their popularity to create harmony in societies deeply divided along religious lines as well as focus on civic issues that impact peoples’ daily lives. In the battle to change a political system that promotes clientelism and rewards loyalty, gurus like Sadr with a mass following can play a crucial role.
Even for the United States, Sadr presents an opportunity to sustainably stabilize a country it has been mired in for nearly two decades. Sadr suggested he might be willing to accept the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq in an advisory role, thus handing the Biden administration a face-saving way to remove the majority of its troops from the country. “The previous American administration said that they will watch Iran from Iraq,” Asadi said. “If the new administration withdraws its forces from Iraq and changes its policies towards Iraq and Iran, then neither Iran nor its supporters will have any excuse to threaten or attack U.S. interests in the region.”
Muqtada al Sadr is not America’s man, but neither is he Iran’s. His ambition to contain Iran overlaps with the United States’ and its allies in the region. Even Iraqis know Sadr does not have the panacea to the country’s many crises, and neither the politics of patronage nor corruption will disappear overnight. Yet Sadr’s powerful voice adds to the chorus of the desperate and powerless masses who seek to transform their country and share in its oil wealth in the form of jobs, better housing, and sufficient electricity supplies.
Iraq’s parliamentary elections rarely produce surprises. But the elections that were held this month constituted a potential make-or-break moment amidst widespread social unrest, systemic violence against civilians, and an existential economic crisis.
Muqtada al-Sadr’s victory is an example of strategic acumen within a movement that continues its transition from insurgency to government, propelled by a yearning for respite and leadership, and by rampant destitution within Iraqi society. Almost 32%of Iraq’s population could soon be impoverished. But it is precisely this despair that has resulted in the emergence of a protest movement that considers Sadr and his militia to be part of the problem, and complicit in the bloodshed that has engulfed the country, including violence against protesters. In its electoral debut, the bloc representing the protesters, Imtidad, secured 10 seats out of 329, a remarkable feat for a movement that is subjected to systemic assassinations and contested the elections amid unprecedented voter apathy.
There will consequently be tricky waters for President Joe Biden’s administration to navigate. Now is the moment for the administration to double down on its diplomatic efforts to develop and exercise a political strategy for a shifting political landscape, one that requires managing two prevailing contradictions that represent Iraq’s reality for decades to come: the superiority of militias in Baghdad and a protest movement that yearns for democratic rights and good governance.
Implications for Iran
Some observers will see these elections as an opportune moment to combat Iran’s influence. Iran’s proxies within the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) — the umbrella militia organization established to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State — saw their seats reduced to 17, down from the 57 they won in 2018. The organization’s defeat contrasts with the success of their foremost rivals, the Sadrists, who won 74 seats (an increase from the 54 they won in 2018). But Sadr should not be complacent. While Sadr will reign politically supreme for the foreseeable future, he still has political rivals that the PMF and its allies, with Iran’s support, can exploit to manage the fallout from their loss.
These rivals include Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s former prime minister and leader of the Islamic Dawa Party who was responsible for the collapse of the army in 2014 when ISIS took control of Mosul. He has long been at odds with Muqtada and his State of Law coalition won 34 seats in the elections. Hence, even with Sadr’s impressive victory, the current state of play can hardly be described as insurmountable for the PMF and Iran. Iran and its proxies can find ways to cope.
While the Sadrist movement is also complicit in human rights abuses, the movement can draw on its decades of support to the destitute and disenfranchised, a legacy that preceded their transition to an insurgency in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion and established the infrastructure that has been so critical to their ascension. The PMF’s key factions, on the other hand, have yet to make that transition from militias that emerged from the ruins of the invasion to credible social movements or political actors that can provide at least some sections of the society with a stake in the future of their country.
The PMF’s vulnerabilities have been exposed
The PMF is vulnerable. After its Iran-aligned militias turned their guns on Iraqi civilians, factions within the organization that were not aligned with Iran — namely, the groups aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — withdrew last year and now constitute direct rivals. The PMF must also manage the emergence of a protest movement that is becoming a political force committed to shifting the tide of public opinion against the PMF and Iran.
The PMF is contesting the electoral results. Militia heads have issued threats against the officials that oversaw the elections. The factions that comprise the PMF collectively secured more votes than the Sadrists, but they lacked a viable strategy and consequently struggled to secure as many seats. These are desperate times for the PMF: it does not constitute a cohesive political force or social movement, and has been in a state of tumult. Its leading factions are widely disdained because of their atrocities and their defeat in this election is symbolically catastrophic and could set the tone for their future political contestations.
If the PMF views its challenges as existential, the immediate future is dangerous. In practice, that means losing access to the $2.6 billion budget allocated to it as a state-sanctioned auxiliary force, a designation that is detached from reality since the PMF operates outside of the state, and has threatened and attacked the military, U.S. personnel, and Kurdistan.
A reduced budget could be a red line, since it effectively means losing patronage networks and a diminished capacity to mobilize fighters. It imposes extra pressure on Iran’s finances and ability to maintain its militia network in Iraq. Tehran has struggled to prop up this network since the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign and the onset of the pandemic.
Navigating tricky waters
This is an opportune moment. The reverberations of the PMF’s defeat will intensify the organization’s internal disarray and makes it highly unlikely that the organization will ever reclaim popular support. Since the PMF first emerged in 2014, U.S. policymakers have formulated policies around the idea that the PMF enjoys substantial grassroots support and social legitimacy. U.S. sanctions or airstrikes, for example, have been dismissed as viable policies or undertaken in limited fashion on the basis that such measures could embolden the PMF locally and swell its ranks. But such reasoning is no longer plausible.
The U.S. and its European allies must reconsider how they develop strategic relations with Iraq’s political actors. Beyond the PMF, there are others who fan the flames of ethnic and sectarian tensions. The National State Forces Alliance led by Haidar al-Abadi of the Islamic Dawa Party and Ammar al-Hakim of the Hikma Movement, managed only five seats. Abadi’s political irrelevance notwithstanding, al-Hakim still commands a strong support base and has been a voice of moderation in a toxic environment of demagogues and militants. Abadi, on the other hand, far from attempting to calm tensions, attempted to deflect focus away from his poor performance by celebrating his infamous decision to attack the Peshmerga in the wake of the Kurdish independence referendum in 2017 when he was prime minister, which, ironically, was undertaken to improve his prospects of winning the 2018 elections. He came third.
It is here that Washington can put the pieces of a strategy together, focused in equal measure on the protest movement, moderate actors, and Western interests in Iraq. The U.S. should underpin its Iraq policy with the fact that its allies now command a significant chunk of the political landscape, with the Kurdistan Democratic Party securing 32 seats and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan winning 17 seats (for a combined total of 49 seats). The Taqadum party led by parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi won 37 seats. A coalition of moderates — comprised of Kurdistan, Halbousi, al-Hakim and a selection of independents whose interests and values are aligned with those of the West — is the best hope of transforming the PMF’s decline into an opportunity.
The U.S. must work out what it wants. The political elimination of the PMF is not possible, but containing it is, and there will be no better moment for Biden to signal steadfast U.S. commitment and support by convening the coalition of Iraqi moderates. Such support could improve the Iraqis’ ability to work with each other, and enhance their negotiating position to contain the PMF’s attempts to re-assert itself. At the least, Secretary of State Antony Blinken should undertake a visit to Iraq at the earliest opportunity. Iraq’s political transition may take many months, but the contours of the post-election environment are shaped early on.
Empowering a robust Western-aligned coalition will ease the West’s job of engaging the Sadrists, a bloodstained movement with a total disregard for basic human rights but that nevertheless represents Iraq’s reality for the foreseeable future. A strong coalition would improve U.S.-aligned Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s prospects of securing another term and imposes political costs on the PMF if it opts to coerce its rivals.
Critically, it could insulate the protesters from violence by providing them with political cover, without which the militias will have carte blanche. It could empower the protesters to make the crucial transition into a viable political force. Iraq’s political system might be impervious to major restructuring, but the protest movement can still engage with some of Iraq’s most established political actors as they navigate dangerous waters.