Thursday, December 21, 2006

Cause Ain't No Such Thing as Halfway Mooks

Did Moqtada al-Sadr just blink?

Allow me to explain. The AP is reporting that Shiite representatives from the new cross-sectarian alliance pushed by the Bush administration as an alternative to the current government will be meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr over the coming days.

The purpose of this round of meetings is twofold: First to ensure that Sistani gives his endorsement to the potential new ruling coalition; and Second, to see if Sadr's concerns related to this new coalition can be mollified and his cooperation - and possible return to the political fold - secured.

The Sadr outreach angle is truly interesting to me since it appeared that the entire purpose of the new coalition was to marginalize and isolate Sadr in the first place. But then, things in Iraq are rarely as they seem on the surface. Maybe it had more to do with behavior modification, the old fashioned way.

Officials close to al-Sadr said they believe the firebrand cleric and his followers would turn a friendly ear to the coalition, out of fear of being sidelined in the future.

Fearing such political isolation as well as possible attack by U.S. forces, al-Sadr will secretly order his Mahdi Army militia to abide by a one-month halt in fighting, said a Shiite politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the negotiations. He did not give further details.

Another official close to al-Sadr did not speak about the planned truce directly, but said when asked about it that "the security situation will improve in the coming month."

It is possible that the Bush administration may have succeeded in forcing Sadr to assume a more cooperative posture - at least for now. In fact, if Sadr is willing to continue to play ball, I think the Bush administration would be content to let him have his fiefdom and even most of his militia.

But that would probably necessitate a toning down of the anti-occupation rhetoric - which is simply unacceptable in the Bush team's estimation (it does sort of complicate things). Which brings us back to what could actually be one of the driving forces behind the recent political maneuvering: not disbanding militias per se, but clarifying those forces (even militia-related) that are pro- and anti-occupation. As Spencer said:

The Bush administration -- certainly the Cheneyites -- are enthusiastic about the Hakim gambit because it clarifies matters for them. That is, everyone who's happy to be an occupation proxy is in the government and everyone who isn't is out.

So if Sadr wants to join the party, the more the merrier. There are, however, concerns regarding the extent to which Sadr could effectively enforce a cease fire up and down the ranks of the somewhat diffuse Mahdi Army chain of command. According to the AP story:

Even if al-Sadr commands his militia, the Madhi Army, to halt sectarian attacks for a month, questions remain as to whether violence would decrease. The militia is believed to be increasingly fragmented, with some factions no longer reporting to him, and a call for a truce could further divide it.

This could be interpreted as a feature, not a bug, though. Think about it. Sadr calls a truce, those cadres loyal to him heed his command, and those breakaway factions continue to sow violence. This would only further the effort to weed out the trustworthy, pro-occupation forces from those less disciplined, independent-minded rejectionists - assuming that latter group could be effectively identified and neutralized.

Nevertheless, it would be prudent to ask at this point whether this is the prelude to the infamous 80% solution, or a legitimate, long term effort to build a cross-ethnic/sectarian political movement designed to suppress the civil war? Is the Sunni component of this new coalition a useful fig leaf in the short term, or an actual bona fide partner?

Only time will tell.

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