Friday, February 09, 2007


Muqtada al-Sadr and a date to watch

The Qur’án forbids killing in the month of Muharram [January 21 – February 18]. So they'll do all the killing then. There is no better time for a true believer to die, Paradise is guaranteed. But God is merciful, we are not all going to die. After Muharram, we'll see. —Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in an interview posted January 19

When Bush announced his "surge" I wrote that its principal purpose was to attack the militias of Muqtada al-Sadr. Two weeks later in an article titled "Taking on the Shia Militias" The Economist noted

For most of last year, the Americans have been telling [Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki] that the Shia militias were their main worry and hinting that if Mr Maliki did not rein them in his government and fledgling army might lose American support.

Muqtada's response to the escalation has been a demonstration of "soft" power. The militias have gone to ground (while initiating a draft of every Shia male in Sadr City between the ages of 18 and 45), and Muqtada has made conciliatory moves toward the Americans (rejected, of course).

Meanwhile by January 24 the U.S. had rounded up at least 16 Mahdi Army (Sadrist) commanders and 600 members of the militia. This has produced relatively mild demands by the Sadrists and no apparent effort at retaliation. It is beginning to occur even to the MSM that Sadr is biding his time.

Iraq's new strong man?

There are several points to be made about Muqtada al-Sadr. Some are well publicized but others receive short shrift—

Why is Muqtada so unpopular with the Americans?

If the U.S. were truly looking for an exit from Iraq that would preserve the nation's borders and have a reasonable possibility of reducing bloodshed, you might wonder if Muqtada al-Sadr could be the man to help. But of course those are not the principal American aims, which instead are to install a government that has the power to make and honor contracts with multinational oil companies and to avoid a government friendly to Iran.1

So Muqtada (not al-Qaeda, not the Sunnis, not the Kurds) is the ultimate obstacle to U.S. ambitions. If he's as true to his religious principles as appears, a sell-out or sell-off of Iraqi oil to American interests is not in the cards. This may be equally true of the other Shiite religious leaders (such as Sistani), which means the only way the U.S. can have its oil is by maintaining a secular government.

The anti-Sadr propaganda

U.S. propaganda efforts against Muqtada al-Sadr are relentless. Sadr is universally described in the American media as a "radical," one of the scarier designations in the American lexicon. Here's a piece from NPR done in late December in which Anne Garels attempts to explain to fellow reporter Renée Montagne why Sadr is dubbed a "radical" —

GARELS: .... His organization is working to bridge gaps with the Sunnis. And yet there he is with his militiamen being responsible for much of the sectarian violence in the area around Baghdad.2

MONTAGNE: And that is the reason that he is so commonly referred to as the "radical"?

GARELS: Well, He's a radical in the sense that he pays lip-service to the Shiite establishment in Najaf but works totally on his own.... He appeals to the poor. He has a huge amount of standing with the sort of disenfranchised, with the poor of Sadr City and in fact across the Shiite community down into the South.3

That's radicalism for you!

On Wednesday NPR's Alex Chadwick interviewed John Burns, Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times. Burns hardly makes a pretense at "objectivity." He is a self-acknowledged supporter of the invasion4 and is openly hostile to Sadr. He says, accurately enough—

I think Muqtada Al-Sadr's goal is to drive the United States out of Iraq, to profit from the chaos within Shiite politics and to emerge as something along the lines of what happened in Tehran in 1979—as the dominant figure under religious garb in Iraq. [a Simply Appalling transcription]

Burns goes on to contemplate Muqtada's murder—

.... If you ask American military commanders if they believe Muqtada al-Sadr has to be eliminated as a political force, they will say "Yes, he does," and that they believe that also in time will require the physical elimination of Muqtada al-Sadr as a political presence. Now whether that means they will kill him I don't know.

And then he helpfully provides the justification for it—
There is an indictment outstanding against Muqtada al-Sadr, which has been held in abeyance by all three post-Saddam Iraqi governments (that is to say the American-backed governments) in the murder of Ayatollah al-Khoi, who was murdered within a week of American troops arriving in Iraq in the most brutal fashion. And Muqtada al-Sadr was indicted by late 2003 in that murder.

And some accounts by eyewitnesses say that Muqtada al-Sadr actually drove past the dying al-Khoi (who was a very, very distinguished ayatollah and a member of the so-called Majiah, which is the ruling council of Shiism in Iraq) as he lay dying from multiple stab wounds in the street outside Sadr's stronghold in Najaf.

We are given to understand that Sadr is a terrible, terrible man (which he may be, though there's not much visible sign of it)—so terrible in fact that his murder by U.S. or Iraqi forces would be quite understandable.

But the phrase "some accounts by eyewitnesses" caught my attention. I might not have noticed the propaganda aspect of Burn's narrative if it weren't for the contrast with a tale of another Iraqi leader: the U.S.-appointed interim prime minister who replaced Paul Bremer, Ayad Allawi. Eyewitnesses stated that Allawi shot six handcuffed and blindfolded insurgents in cold blood only days before he took office. But in Allawi's case there were no charges and no investigation.

Allawi, now spending his days in London and Jordan instead of attending to his duties in the Iraqi parliament, is frequently mentioned as a candidate for the role of U.S.-sponsored strongman if and when the Maliki government fails. As Fouad Ajami wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal

Mr. Maliki's predecessor [al-Jaafari]—a man who belongs to the same political party and hails from the same traditional Shia political class—was forced out of office by an American veto and Mr. Maliki could be forgiven his suspicion that the Americans might try this again. It was known that ... he fully understood that American officials would rather have other Shia contenders in his post—our old standby Ayad Allawi, the current vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi, both more worldly men at ease with American ways.

Given the American affection for Allawi, who is not only murderous but hopelessly corrupt, you have to conclude that the greatest fault of Muqtada al-Sadr lies in his lack of "ease with American ways."

Sadr's strategic withdrawal in the face of the "surge" seems an intelligent move, and he even has a Koranic excuse to save face. But the month of Muharram ends on February 18. Will Sadr continue to wait?

Related posts
"Saddam ... killed in secret. Allawi kills in public" (7/30/04)
Taking sides in a civil war (1/14/07)
Estimate of the Day (1/16/07)
Getting it wrong is usually right (1/17/07)
Understatement of the Day (1/21/07)
A war we can't afford to win (1/24/07)
Advice of the Day (1/26/07)
Conclusion of the Day (1/29/07)
Neocons fear the pain of premature withdrawal (1/29/07)



1Sadr's actual relation to the Iranian regime is ambivalent at best. [back]

2There is no consensus on how much control Sadr actually has over all the militias operating out of Sadr City. The Economist even suggests that Sadr welcomes the surge as a way to prune out rogue cadres—

Mr Sadr never seemed happy with the sectarian cleansing carried out by groups acting in his name and has struggled to control his loose-limbed movement.... So far he has failed to respond to the arrests of many Mahdi Army leaders in the past six months, suggesting he may have acquiesced in the Americans’ effort to prune his movement of rogue commanders.

3In today's NY Times, Damien Cave gives a glowing account of the reconstruction going on in Sadr City. He writes

Many residents credit a Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, and its powerful political leader, the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, for keeping the area safe enough to allow rebuilding.

4For instance, Burns wrote in 2003—

Though President Bush made weapons of mass destruction and possible links to al-Qaida his principal arguments for invading Iraq, the war could have been justified on the basis of human rights alone.

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