Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Just Cuz You Feel It, Doesn't Mean It's There

As far back as mid-October (and again here and here), I waded into the reeds of Iraqi political intrigue with speculation regarding a potential subterranean accord between Maliki (and by extension Dawa), SCIRI and the US in an effort to rein in, or contain, the burgeoning power and influence of Moqtada al-Sadr - as buttressed by his formidable Mahdi Army militia.

There seemed to be subtle movements in this direction, high level meetings between Maliki and SCIRI, pressure from American interests and provocative Iraqi political decisions that foretold of such a flanking maneuver. Sadr could also prove an effective sacrificial lamb to throw in the pot in an effort to garner some level of Sunni cooperation in stabilizing Iraq.

One of the stumbling blocks for Maliki to act in such a confrontational manner, though, remained Sadr's integral presence in the UIA coaltion that appointed Maliki to his post (with Sadr himself playing a prominent, if not kingmaker, role in the process). Blake cites an article that offers a theory on how Maliki might shore up the political support needed to take on the most controversial Shiite figure in Iraq today:

Specifically, the United States wants Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to work to drive a wedge between the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has been behind many of the Shiite reprisal attacks in Iraq, a senior administration official said. That would require getting the predominantly Sunni Arab nations to work to get moderate Sunni Iraqis to support Mr. Maliki, a Shiite. That would theoretically give Mr. Maliki the political strength necessary to take on Mr. Sadr’s Shiite militias.

It's an interesting gambit, but as with most Bush administration flirtations with solutions that reside beyond stubborn adherence to wishful thinking, this probably amounts to too little too late. It would have been a stretch even if given a go earlier, to be fair. But now, consider some of the logistics. From an article in today's Washington Post:

In a reflection of the growing new dimension of civil strife, a senior U.S. intelligence official said yesterday that the militia of radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr has grown eightfold over the past year and now fields 40,000 to 60,000 men. That makes it more effective than the Iraqi government's army, the official indicated.

The Iraqi army has about 134,000 men, but about half are doing only stationary guard duty, the official said. Of the half that conduct operations, only about 10 battalions are effective -- well under 10,000 men.

Sadr is so powerful that if provincial elections were held now, he would sweep most of the south and also take Baghdad, said the intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position.

Theoretically, US forces could provide the counterweight to the Mahdi Army's strength in numbers, but an offensive against Sadr's militia would result in substantial US casualties at a time when the American public's appetite for such is at its nadir. Further, as Blake mentioned and Spencer and Matt flesh out in more detail, rank and file Shiites are drawn to Sadr due to his ability to provide security and vital social services. This could create a ripple effect of support for Sadr that extends beyond his closest cadres. Said Matt:

Why wouldn't you support Sadr? He has a fairly effective armed force at his disposal that's willing to protect Shiites who show their loyalty. Wouldn't you want to work with such a force? Maliki would be insane to side with Iraq's American occupiers, its Sunni population, and foreign al-Qaeda types in fighting the Mahdi Army, the Shiites' own self-protection service.

Iraqis of either stripe are right now caught between a guy with a gun trying to kill them and another guy with another gun trying to kill that first guy. Choosing sides isn't going to be difficult.

And Spencer:

Future generations of military leaders, who are going to have to consider the aftermath of occupying foreign countries, should remember how Sadr became the strongest Shiite political figure there is: he immediately began providing for the most desperate Shiite slum in Baghdad, struck an ardently anti-occupation pose that blended religious fervor with the rhetoric of national unity, and formed an army that did what the occupier couldn't in terms of providing security. If you lived in Sadr City, and you heard the government talking about disarming the Mahdi Army, you would read this as the collaborators' attempt to leave you vulnerable so the Americans can crush you.

To reiterate, I am most certainly not saying this anti-Sadr coalition will be able to come to a meaningful pact (the constituent parties are a motley assortment of competing interests), or that, even if there is an agreement reached, they will be capable of neutralizing Sadr and his considerable grassroots support, but Maliki may indeed be "insane" enough - or desperate enough - to try. The Americans seem intent on making him walk that plank with veiled threats of coups and strongman solutions prodding him along.

Sadr recently launched a countermeasure by threatening to pull out of the UIA coalition government if Maliki were to meet Bush in Amman next week (perhaps sensing the substance and purpose of that meeting). This, cleverly, casts Sadr as the true enemy of the occupation at a time of increasing Shiite disenchantment with coalition forces, while portraying Maliki as the lackey of the Americans if Maliki doesn't yield [ed note: see Swopa's post below on why this may not be so "clever"].

We will likely know more about Maliki's intentions vis-a-vis al-Sadr, and whether or not Maliki thinks he has enough Sunni political support to shore up his coalition government, if and when Maliki meets with Bush over Sadr's threat. And how Sadr will choose to respond.

[UPDATE: Noticed, as I was finishing this post, that Swopa has more. His usual aromatic blend of snark and insight:

...it's hard to keep track of how many people would have to be convinced that they're successfully double-crossing everybody else in order for this scheme to work. The now-exiled Baathist kingpins of the resistance and SCIRI (through its Badr Corps) have been doing their best to murder one another since at least the 1980s, and now they're supposed to form the backbone of a new governing partnership, with the blessing and friendly support of the United States? Uhhh, right.

Even better, this plan requires al-Maliki to put his fate into the hands of not only the Baathists but his longstanding political rivals in SCIRI, who manuevered aggressively several months ago to land one of their own leaders in Maliki's job but failed -- an attempt that could well be revisited quite soon if Maliki is hoodwinked persuaded into distancing himself from al-Sadr's faction. (Given that Mookie isn't exactly the most savory of allies either, though, this strand of the plot has a tiny foundation of logic to it.)

It isn't the most promising alliance ever conceived of for sure. But, then, this is the Bush administration we're talking about and they've never felt bound by such plebian constraints as "reality" and "empiricism." That being said, stranger things have happened.]

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